Week 2 - Film Noir and The Maltese Falcon

Research and Writing Assignments: Initial topic selection

Bedford Guide: Read Chapters 3 & 4

Movie: The Maltese Falcon, second viewing w/ topic considerations in mind

Literary Reading: The Maltese Falcon, 55-121


One of the challenges of a research writing course which has the close reading and viewing of literary works as its core, is to consider what appropriate topics for examination might be. Close reading and viewing include examinations of the basic aspects of each literary form. For a novel and/or film, you might look at the basics of the literary form, including the nature of the plot; what genre, such as comedy, tragedy, romance or other essential type that this work may be a part of; the nature of the theme, characters, setting and type of dialogue; and other aspects of the writer's intent in creating the work before us. Just coming to know and understand these basics will help you come to some decisions about possible topics.

Next, it might be helpful to learn something about the author's biography and statements that they have made about the work itself. This material is readily available from secondary sources online and in databases that are available through the college library website. A recommended database for starting a search might be Pro Quest, for example. As this background knowledge is "pre-searched" you may again imagine possible topics for closer examination in a research paper of 6 or 7 pages. Often, such as in the case of "The Maltese Falcon" there is a connection between the author's biography and the work itself that may be suprisingly direct. Aspects of the author's own life experience, personality and moral or political outlook may be reflected in the character of his hero. This kind of thinking may lead to a topic directly. There are, however, more tangential ways of thinking about a literary work.

Sometimes the work itself may create or bring to prominence a new type of genre and set the gold standard for our expectations of this kind of work for what comes after. For "The Maltese Falcon", aspects of the film genre, film noir, or dark film, may have been sharply illustrated for viewers, setting the standard for many films to follow. Here, the directorial techniques, including lighting, camera angle, ways of moving from scene to scene, for example, set a dramatic and slightly threatening tone. This, combined with music and selection and presentation of dialog from the original novel, create a dark aura for the film. Scenes are harshly or dramatically lit, played out in shadow or through a glass, darkly.

Characters are seen in unflattering ways, such as viewing a fat man from the belly up. More than the physical aspects of filming, however, is the importance of such things as the moral ambiguity repesented by the characters, especially the so-called hero or leading man.

In addition, the role of the female in this film comes to set a standard for a bevy of women's roles to follow. Here the leading woman is not seen on a pedestal, as a 19th century heroine or even 20th century heroine might be.

She may have a set of values but lack of set of moral scruples. She is full of feminine wiles that are used in a way that pre-Elizabethan dramatic heroines used theirs, or snake-haired Greek leading ladies used theirs. She may not use force directly to get her way, but force, danger and double-dealing are part of her operating pattern. In fact, the role of the female lead here is repeated for most of the following decade in films starring Barbara Stanwyck and other leading ladies who came to be known fore their beauty, their wiles and their lack of moral scruples.

Many other considerations about the novel and the film may be taken into account in choosing a likely topic for further examination. These might include, but are surely not limited to such aspects as the nature of the detective story as it operates here, the role of the San Francisco as a setting, the differences between the film and the novel and the nature of the quest that these characters are on as well as the nature of the symbol they seek.

Don't forget to put yourself into the equation when you begin to determine the nature of your search. Who you are and what you bring to the search is often a very important aspect of how devoted you will be to the task at hand. Your interest in other aspects of the curriculum, including history, for example, may help you make an informed choice. Your life experience may be another factor. I lived in San Francisco for several years and love the way the geography of the city plays a role in the novel and the film.

Lecture 2