Monday, June 16, 2014

The Cigarettes Of 'The Maltese Falcon'

("The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of." All photos under Fair Use.)

Released in 1941 by Warner Bros. pictures, "The Maltese Falcon" has been hailed by audiences and critics alike as an early example of film noir, a great private detective story, the fantastic debut of director John Huston, a cast of world class low-lifes and a break out role for Humphrey Bogart. Countless words have been written about the film, the stars and the production people, yet in all those words, to my knowledge, no one has ever mentioned the cigarettes of "The Maltese Falcon".

Filmed twice before, Huston's version is simply the most faithful to the novel by Dashiell Hammett, often using entire scenes of dialogue lifted directly from the book. By all accounts, the cast had a wonderful time working on the film and the aspect of a "closed set" sort of added to the mystery of what this new director was up to with a B-Grade movie star, an ex-starlet, a known drug addict, a semi-recluse character actor and a 62 year old Broadway actor making his film debut. While there are a multitude of themes, motifs and careful compositions and juxtapositions (camera work by the great Arthur Edeson), one of the most obvious (once you are made aware of it) and fun aspects of the film, never written about, that the actors must have relished in doing, are the cigarettes. Or more accurately, the process of rolling loose tobacco into a paper.

Due to the complexities of moviemaking, rolling cigarettes, especially the perfectly rolled ones appearing in "Falcon", would not only be nearly impossible, but time consuming as well. Time consuming means spending more money, something which studio head Jack Warner tried to avoid at all costs, pun intended. So, someone unknown to us today, whether it was Huston, Bogart, a combination of the two or someone else altogether came up with a running gag of perfectly rolled cigarettes using either on camera slight of hand or editing tricks! It is simply wonderful to behold as the film unwinds. So, join me now in a trip through "The Cigarettes Of The Maltese Falcon" and please note that the film timings mentioned are from the DVD copy of the film.

(Spade [Humphrey Bogart] is confronted by two policemen [Ward Bond, left, and Barton MacLane, right] about the murder of his partner.)

The first such occurrence comes very early in the film starting at the 1 minute and 39 seconds mark during the sequence where Samuel Spade, detective, is told by his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick), that a Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) is in the outer office and wishes to see him. Bogart pours the tobacco into a paper and this first instance of a perfectly rolled cigarette is achieved through subtle editing. 15 minutes and 25 seconds into the film comes cigarette roll #2 and this one is handled by Effie after she grabs the pouch of tobacco from Spade's hands. It's one of two instances using slight of hand right in front of the camera without an edit. Effie pretends to roll a cigarette and when she sets the pouch of tobacco down on the desk with her right hand (foreground), she quickly reaches behind herself and with her left hand deftly picks up the pre-rolled smoke and holds it up to Spade's lips and he pretends to lick it with his tongue.

Cigarette roll #3 appears 22 minutes and 54 seconds in as Spade is about to meet Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and like #1, the perfect cigarette arrives via more subtle editing and movement by Bogart with his back to the camera. The fourth one starts at 41 minutes 43 seconds and takes place in Spade's apartment. He is awaiting a good explanation from Miss Wonderly, now going by the name of Miss O'Shaughnessy. Spade rolls the cigarette and after "finishing" it, drops his right hand behind two books on the table. There he does a slight of hand by dropping the fake cigarette he was holding between his index and middle fingers and raises his hand to his mouth with the perfectly rolled cigarette between his third finger and pinky!

(The underrated Elisha Cook, Jr. as the gunsel, Wilmer.)
After spotting the gunsel who has been tailing him, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), in the lobby of a hotel, at 44 minutes and 43 seconds, cigarette roll #5 happens when Spade takes out his handy tobacco pouch and sits down next to the cool Wilmer. After much fussing with pouring out the tobacco into the paper and a double lick(!), the miraculously perfect cigarette comes about through editing. The sixth, and last, instance of rolling a cigarette comes in Spade's apartment as the nefarious Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut) tells Spade the sequence of previous events starting at the 80 minutes and 29 seconds mark. This perfect cigarette is once again produced through editing.

As can be seen, cigarette smoking in "The Maltese Falcon", and indeed, in any well thought out movie, is not done in a haphazardly manner. Like instances of blocking, picture composition and character development, smoking in the movies is being done for a particular reason in any given particular scene. In this case, it was nice to see some Hollywood favorites having fun and to also noticed they only did it a half-a-dozen times. Sometimes you miss subtlety.

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