By Bob Clark
One of the issues facing anyone who wants to experience classic films in their best condition is the matter of availability. Usually this revolves around the question of what is or isn’t playing on a big screen at any given time, if you live in an area that has enough theaters devoted to repertoire screenings of old films. But availability also cuts into the arena of home viewing, and in the case of classic films it can be very easy to simply take any given movie’s ubiquitous presence in video, DVD and TV broadcasts for granted and miss the chance to experience them in a theatrical venue, even when it becomes an option. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is probably one of the best examples of this syndrome, a movie that’s no less respected and cherished after the decades of play it’s received on television long after it originally bowed from cinemas. In that time it’s accrued almost as much of a legend for itself as it details for “the black bird” throughout its running time– as the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s book, and the only one that matters; as one of the touchstone examples of the film noir movement as recognized in post-war French criticism; as a cult object so feverishly defended that its fans fought off Ted Turner’s colorization efforts and keep it for time immemorial in glorious monochrome.
It’s that last item that perhaps speaks loudest to its reputation, as it revolves around the question of the film not as an object to behold projected on the silver-screen, but on the domestic setting of the television set. Those efforts, and the near constant presence of this film and others like it in broadcast rotation thanks to the advent of the cable network Turner Classic Movies, asserted the primary manner to see classic films as being on the television screen, something that had become almost natural as soon as the newer medium had begun, finding an easy source of cheap content in old films. From an aesthetic stand-point, there wouldn’t seem to be much of a loss at watching an older film on television, as the Academy 35 aspect ratio of 1.33 is an almost perfect fit for pre-HD television sets, and conforms to the contours of 1.78 with minimal masking. The match of aspect-ratios proved enough of an issue in television’s early days that movie-makers were forced to invent wider frames in formats like Cinerama and 70mm, providing an image that couldn’t be matched on the television screen. This idea would be challenged, at least among serious film viewers, by the proliferation of letterboxing, which serves to squeeze the entire frame of a widescreen film image into the smaller frame of a television set with masking black-bars.
Though letterboxing represents a necessary compromise for anyone hoping to get more of an impression of a film in the home setting, the idea that it duplicates the whole, a majority or even a generous sampling of the true power the cinematic image has in its native environment is little more than an illusion, and at least one of the reasons rests in why 1.33 films hold up so well on any kind of television. It isn’t merely a question of whether or not it fits the frame of the monitor exactly, especially since the standardization of the 1.78 HD image. Rather, it’s a more specific issue of whether the film matches the proportional height of the monitor– the whole square image of 1.33 may require masking on the sides for 1.78 (the pillarboxing method) but doesn’t need any masking at the top and bottom, allowing it to fill the whole vertical expanse of the screen. It may obviously be far smaller than the cinematic image, but it doesn’t appear any smaller than the usual television image, and avoids the problem that any letterboxed film faces. Thus, it can present the entire picture information of a film without any loss on the monitor, but without the same sense of scale that one gets in the theater, and of course the very heart of the conflict between the television and theatrical experiences of any given movie comes down to a question of scale. We do call it “the big screen” for a reason, after all.
Sometimes this comes down to a matter of sheer size, and in something like The Maltese Falcon you have a film that takes extreme advantage of the way that the cinematic image balloons reality to gargantuan proportions, something that is irrevocably lost on television. Sometimes you can get a faint whiff of it– in any given time that Sydney Greenstreet’s monstrous criminal Polonius of Caspar Gutman fills the screen, his presence seemingly devouring the picture plane itself– but it’s only at those most extreme moments of exaggeration and distortion that it finds itself preserved for home viewing. Witnessed in the theater, the Gutman-effect is a near constant element of Huston’s mis-en-scene, as he carefully positions his camera to provide framings that dwarf the viewer and turn every character into a towering behemoth. Much has been made of the use of shadows throughout this and many other of the archetypal noirs, but the real innovation on display here is one that is shared by Welles at the time during Citizen Kane‘s most grandioeloquent moments, and that is one of angles. Throughout almost the entire film Huston pivots his camera low and looks up, sometimes by degrees so small and subtle it’s hard or impossible to quite tell on the reduced scale of the television image.
But there are key elements in any given frame that help illustrate the games of perspective being waged that put the viewer in such an intimidating place– whether it’s the underside of a lampshade, the slight tilt of a Fedora’s brim, or the barest glimpse of a ceiling, there are details throughout the film that whisper on television but scream on the silver screen. Those low angles turn all of the various thugs and crooks of the film into daunting figures. Shooting from below, the camera gives the viewer the impression of always having been knocked flat on their back and squinting up at their attacker, something that’s emphasized in moments like Humphrey Bogart’s knock-out punch to Peter Lorre, Huston eyeing them from a position so low you wonder if he borrowed Welles’ trick of digging out a hole to put his camera into. The low angles make excellent use of the vertical space and scale of the cinematic image, and furthermore provide something of a subliminal match to the cinematic experience of watching them in the theater, especially in the simpler, old-fashioned venues from before the wide proliferation of raised stadium-seating common at multiplexes nowadays. Just as the camera looks up, so too does the viewer, a pychological and physiological synchronicity that’s hard to reproduce when watching the film at an even level on television at home.
It’s ultimately this sense of looking up that makes the big-screen experience of The Maltese Falcon, and films in general, such an impressive one, and something that can outlast the faded pleasures of the genre it helped establish an identity for or the stale, sometimes overly talky theatrical narrative it pushes forth, helping it become something more than just a filmed play. It’s that sense of looking up that movies have steadily been losing since the advent of both television and the growing evolution of widescreen filmmaking processes– the increased expanse of horizontal information provided by the 2.35 image and its antecedents has provided an image that can be at least as towering and daunting as 1.33 and in its best cases far exceed it. But the longer-than-it-is-wide ratio also encourages more of an impulse to sit back and take it all in, the screen’s spilling over all of the viewer’s X vertex along with, or instead of, the Y. This has both encouraged the stadium-seating form of multiplex theaters and helped popularize the rise of mainstream use of the IMAX format in blockbuster filmmaking, which returns the viewer into something akin to traditional 1.33 but at a far wider scale and resolution. What the IMAX format lacks, however, is the same sense of looking up as the old model– the image may fill all of the viewer’s focus and peripheral vision, but is pushed far back away in the stadium-model to take it all in with maximum comfort, without the boundary-pushing awe of either 1.33 or 2.35 in the old theatrical tradition.
When used right, it can be just as impressive an experience, but remains a different beast of scale and perspective, regardless. Seen in an old theater, those climactic sights of the Falcon itself become something with a mythic flavor, a titanic idol in a pagan palace of cinematic worship. Seen on television, it’s just a paperweight, and seen on IMAX, it would be an albatross. Far from the stuff that dreams are made of.