Sinister Cinema: And the Bleak Noir Rains Crashed Down

theaterI’ve got my slideshow talk in Livermore tomorrow, after warming up with the Q&A in Novato the other day.

Wow. You can tell when you’re showing a genuine noir classic, because the sky breaks open and cold rain paints everything in shades of gray. . . .

And did it ever do the noir rain thing for the benefit for the Novato Theater. Freeways flooded — the near Biblical works, folk! I’m surprised I made it out alive.

But people showed up for the Q&A despite the weather — and I have it figured out that a few people bone up on their Qs by looking over the IMDb trivia. The idea that the Knights Templar, blurbed in the opening scroll, had disbanded circa 400 years before the Knights of St. John moved onto Malta — whose error was that?

Well, as I always say, blame John Huston — he can take it.

Hollywood always conflates names/dates/facts — they did it then and they still do it today. Got to tell the story in a couple of hours or so, not get people too confused.  And let’s face it, the term Knights Templar is pretty well known, has a nice ring to it.

But the Knights of St. John? Have you ever tried to say Hospitallers with a straight face?

Not long ago on the walk itself, a woman mentioned that The Maltese Falcon was a bad movie. Why? Because the shadow of a boom mic can be seen briefly in one sequence (I looked for it, didn’t spot it). That’s one of several technical goofs listed on IMDb, though if you think something like that completely ruins a movie, I’m guessing you don’t have very many favorite films. If any. Continuity errors, anachronisms — from top critically acclaimed titles such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo on down, pretty much every movie has them. And no one thinks Peter O’Toole actually was Lawrence, of Arabia, right? (He deserved the Oscar for the performance, I think, and it is a genuine travesty that he never got an acting Oscar — one of many.)

It’ll probably take a couple of years before the Novato Theater is renovated fully and ready to rock, but I told the committee that if I’m still alive and kicking when the day comes, I’d be happy to come back up for some kind of little film festival spotlighting Charles Willeford, who began his long career as a novelist while stationed at Hamilton Fields. They could show Cockfighter — hey, maybe Roger Corman would pop for a restored print. Miami Blues. The Woman Chaser with Patrick Warburton.

And a memory resurfaced as I watched the Falcon yet again, seated in that magical near dark, taking me back to 1975-76 when I was first getting into Bogart movies. I haven’t seen every Bogart film, but I have seen most — and I tracked them down in various rep houses in those years, not on TV, not off video or DVD.

I was talking with Donald Wandrei about the movies, maybe the Falcon proper, but perhaps the Bogie version of The Big Sleep, which I had just seen with Phil Rahman. Wandrei was a pal of H.P. Lovecraft, and co-founded Arkham House in 1939 with August Derleth to collect Lovecraft’s work in hardcovers after his death.

Wandrei started telling me about seeing The Maltese Falcon when it had opened in 1941, and how he regretted that a scene he remembered vividly was later cut. He claimed that when Gutman was explaining the shadowy history of the Black Bird that parts of the sequence actually appeared as scenes — the Knights, the pirates seizing the ship.

He swore that’s what he had seen in the first release.

Now, as far as I know, no extra scenes such as those were ever shot. The movie was on a tight budget and shooting schedule. What you see now was what you saw then.

But Wandrei with his imagination — he was just short of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as one of the major visionaries of cosmic horror to emerge from the pulp magazine Weird Tales — conjured up the images even as he watched Sydney Greenstreet relate that incantatory history devised by Hammett.

The power of words, of story. The power of cinema.

Wandrei didn’t say one word about noticing a boom mic.

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