Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#3: What Dreams are Made Of: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "Chan is Missing" (1982)

The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, and Chan is Missing, directed by Wayne Wang, are two American detective films from very different decades. They both exploit and overturn aspects of the detective narrative formula, and make very pointed statements about the American Dream.

poster sources: here and here.

The Maltese Falcon and Chan is Missing involve detectives trying to find something that is lost, the titular Maltese falcon statue in the former and the cabdriver Chan in the latter. Both films share a jaded outlook and stark black-and-white cinematography that illustrates the gray, ambiguous worlds their characters inhabit.

Regarded as a film noir classic, The Maltese Falcon starts out with a different case than expected: a woman (Mary Astor) walks into the office of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and hires them to follow a man. What happens afterward leads to a search for the mysterious Maltese falcon, with other suspicious characters - particularly Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) - as well as the police on their tail.

In Chan is Missing, Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi) are not private detectives, but two taxi drivers. They have to search for the fellow taxi driver Chan Hung - and the $4000 they lent him for a business deal. What starts out as a search for a missing person becomes  a set of conversations, confrontations, and realizations about self-doubt and Asian-American identity.

Partnership in both films is incredibly strained, with a clash of personalities and generations in Chan is Missing, and dislike and mistrust between partners in The Maltese Falcon (although the opposing team of Cairo and Gutman make such a great team that Lorre and Greenstreet were paired together in several later films). There are humorous bits of conversation in these films, but the humor leans more towards the dark and bitter. Women are barely present in Chan is Missing, but come across as more sympathetic and human than the deadly (but admittedly kind of awesome) femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon.

The tone and pace in The Maltese Falcon are more brusque and staccato, reportedly (I have not read the book) following its Dashiell Hammett source novel as well as the tone of detective films of the time. Scenes in Chan is Missing are more fluid than blunt, probably due to driving scenes and more walking through locations. It's a more quiet film, with the plot turning more on words and revelations rather than the slaps and gunshots of Falcon. Neither film is too blunt or boring, though, due to the focus on plot and presence of strong characters.

Both films are set in San Francisco, although Chan is Missing occurs more specifically in and around Chinatown. The Maltese Falcon does have several shots on location, but was filmed primarily at the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank. While made in the 1980's, Chan is Missing was not shot in color due to the cheaper cost of black-and-white film. This decision gives the film a distinctive look and a stronger connection to the detective films it parallels - including the Charlie Chan films alluded to by the name of the titular character.

I might recommend seeing Chan is Missing first in the double feature, since The Maltese Falcon is a more dramatic film and might create unfair or other expectations for Chan. However, some viewers might prefer something more realistic after the action-packed melodrama of Maltese. It might also be interesting to compare the more standard film noir/detective film tropes in The Maltese Falcon with their distorted, selective use in Chan is Missing. Whatever order you watch them in, I recommend seeing these films together because of their shared location, jaded nature, and revisions of the detective genre. As stated in the beginning, both films have very sharp statements to make about the fabled American Dream (and any similar desire) of finding success and living happily ever after. The Maltese Falcon comments about the dream itself, while Chan is Missing comments on how immigrants really fit into that dream.

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- an earlier, pre-Code version of The Maltese Falcon was made in 1931.
- Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet later worked together on Casablanca; and Lorre, Bogart, and Conrad Veidt (also in Casablanca) were in 1942's spy comedy All Through the Night. This site offers a great synopsis of the Lorre-Greenstreet film partnership; scroll down the page to the paragraph that begins: "Lorre's work with Sydney Greenstreet during these years became known as the "Little Pete-Big Syd" pairing in films..."
- Peter Lorre also starred in the Charlie Chan copycat Mr. Moto films, although it is said that those films are slightly more respectful of their stereotypical character than the Charlie Chan films were.
- Chan is Missing director Wayne Wang has gone on to make critically-acclaimed independent films as well as very mainstream films such as Maid in Manhattan, starring Jennifer Lopez, and Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifah. His most well-known work is probably the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club.
- Chan is Missing lead actors Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi display great versality and charisma in the film, but have not found any substantial roles on film or TV since, according to their IMDB profiles.

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