Below, a small piece (of a much longer piece) from my days in academia…
Set and Set Decoration in The Maltese Falcon
Most examinations of the visual style of film noir focus on the way in which the films and their individual scenes are lit. These examinations emphasize the interplay of light and shadow and the various forms that it takes. Pools of light, shafts of light broken by Venetian blinds, and shadows are used to both hide and highlight characters and settings. Lighting (and shadows it creates) is also used to add to the narrative information provided by the movie’s dialogue. This emphasis on light and shadow, however, often comes at the expense of another visual tool used to dramatic effect by the makers of films noir– set and set decoration.
Perhaps more than any other cinematic style before or after it, film noir used set and set decoration to enhance traditional narrative techniques. Specifically, by creating a mise en scene that was as much a part of the dialogue as the lines of the actors (including voice-overs), film noir writers and directors were able to create a richness of mood that was beyond the grasp of filmmakers working in other cinematic styles. Additionally, by providing an alternative means by which to inform the audience, traditional dialogue was given a greater gravity. The “unspoken” dialogue contained in the mise en scene thus provided as much (or more) information as spoken dialogue. The result created a depth of narrative despite the minimalist spoken dialogue that would become characteristic of films noir and specifically of Humphrey Bogart. The clipped and sparse delivery of film noir actors did not detract from the fullness of the narrative, but was bolstered by both lighting techniques spoken of above well and the set and set decoration discussed below.
One example of how set and set decoration can provide narrative information is found in the movie considered by many to be the very first film noir-The Maltese Falcon. Although Humphrey Bogart’s Samuel Spade says almost nothing that gives the viewer a window into his private life or thoughts, his apartment and office say all that needs to be said abouthis personality, and his view of the world. The viewer’s impression of Spade as a solitary, focused, and principled man comes as much from where he does his speaking as from the words that he actually speaks. There are two sets in the movie that inform the viewer as to the kind of man Samuel Spade is- and isn’t: his office and his apartment.
The viewer first encounters Spade sitting behind his desk, in his office, his back to the city and to the “Spade and Archer” stenciled window that overlooks it. Spade’s name comes first, and this, as well as the pride of place given to his desk tells the viewer everything about his relationship with Miles Archer- his doomed partner. The layout of the office also makes it clear that though they are partners, they are not equals. This disparity is nicely illustrated in the wide shot after Miss Wonderly leaves the office following her initial conversation with Spade. Archer’s chair and desk are noticeably smaller, he has the benefit of only one- smaller- window, and his “half” of the office is smaller than Spade’s and pushed up against the side wall. Archer’s space in the office is indicative of the role he will play in the remainder of the movie- secondary. The nature of Spade’s relationship with Archer is further reinforced by both dialogue and developments later in the story, the most obvious of which is Spade’s emotionless response to Archer’s murder. Spade treats the event with detachment and the viewer feels that finding Archer’s killer is simply one more task for Spade to complete. He says almost as much later in the film as he explains to Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he has to seek justice for his late partner- it is a point of honor, not one of emotion.
The décor of the office also provides an early look into the personality of Samuel Spade. It is, in a word, utilitarian. The only framed items on the walls appear to be diplomas and licenses that pertain to Spade’s occupation; there are no paintings, no photographs. The desk contains all of the items one might expect- stapler, intercom, paperweight, etc., only the eagle topped centerpiece which decorates his inkwell gives the viewer any reason to pause or to speculate. The fact that the eagle is absent from later scenes of the office may be a problem of continuity, or it may speak to its symbolic link to the titular Falcon.
There are no visible objects d’art in Spade’s inner office and there is only one in the outer office (a small landscape painting on an inner wall), where one might expect more, if only to entertain those awaiting an audience with Spade. Spade’s office is a place of business, and its inhabitant is a man who runs his life in a business-like manner.
It is also worth noting that the viewer never sees the exterior of the building that contains Spade’s office. There is, however, much about it that can be safely assumed. Judging by Spade’s office and the hallway outside it, the building is of turn of the century origin- perhaps like Spade himself. One also suspects that, though well preserved, it is no longer as fashionable as it once was in either its style or its location. Again, the same could be said of Spade. Spade clearly lives by a moral code that, though it may have once been admired, has quickly become antiquated as the twentieth century neares its halfway point. Certainly, this is all speculative, but the fact that it flows so naturally from that which can be seen in the movie speaks well of the ability of the set and set decoration to enhance the viewer’s perception of Samuel Spade and the world he inhabits.
The viewer’s first glimpse of Spade’s private world comes in the scene immediately after Miles Archer is murdered. Spade’s apartment is first revealed in the dark, with only his night table and its functional contents (a book, a phone, a newspaper, an alarm clock, an ashtray, and a pouch of tobacco) visible in front of an open window that allows the entrance of a soft breeze. The action begins as Spade’s detached hand reaches outside the frame to answer the ringing phone. When Spade completes his phone call the scene widens and he snaps on the bedside lamp. Much to the viewer’s surprise, the light reveals nothing. It may seem at first to have revealed Spade’s face, but this revelation has as much to do with Spade’s head entering the shot as it does from the light illuminating it. A careful viewing reveals another deception- the light illuminates the wrong side of his face (the side facing away from the viewer), exaggerating not the light from the lamp, but the darkness in which Spade’s face remains. Spade then pauses briefly as if, even with light thrown on his problems, nothing is any clearer.
When Spade returns to his apartment following his trip to the scene of Archer’s murder the light is still on. However, even in this wider shot of the apartment’s main room, nothing further is revealed, save that Spade keeps a glass and a bottle of bourbon under his night table. This, given the viewer’s increasing knowledge of the character, can hardly come as a surprise. It is only when the camera angle finally changes- after the arrival of Detectives Dundy and Polhaus- that the viewer begins to learn more about Spade and his world. For example, above a previously unseen fireplace are several pictures (only one of which is framed, though it is not hung) of jockey-topped thoroughbreds. From these pictures one can gather that Spade enjoys at least one form of relaxation when not on the job. It is, of course, a pastime that only serves to reinforce his status as a man operating along the margins of society and among society’s marginal characters. On the opposite wall- parallel to Spade’s bed- is a small, almost empty, bookshelf. It is presumably the source of the single volume on his nightstand and its out of the way, almost forgotten location, suggests that while Spade might be a reader, he is not a man of letters.
Following Spade’s interrogation at the hands of Detectives Dundy and Polhaus the scene shifts again to Spade’s office and this time the viewers is able to watch him enter through the outer office. The outer office is, with the exceptions of a single flower on Effie Perine’s desk and the aforementioned painting, just as utilitarian as Spade’s inner office. After Spade’s brief encounter his partner’s wife, Iva Archer, Effie Perine, enters the office in another wide shot that it is notable for two items. First, Archer’s portion of the office seems even smaller than the first time it was shown, and second, the angle of the sun shining through the stenciled window only casts a shadow of Spade’s name on the floor- Archer’s is not visible. As though prompted by this, Spade asks Effie to have Archer’s desk removed and his name removed from the windows while he goes to visit Brigid O’Shaughnessy. After the visit Spade returns to his office to find that a workmen has already begun carrying out his request to have Archer’s name removed from the door and that Archer’s desk and belongings are gone. After this point Archer’s presence in the storyline is negligible.
The arrival of the Peter Lorre’s sniveling Joel Cairo at Spade’s office brings with it the appearance of the last, and perhaps most telling items in Spade’s office- the small sink and mirror that Cairo uses after he is roughed-up by Spade. While this surely serves a practical purpose along with the other furnishings in the office, the viewer suspects that it has a greater, more metaphorical meaning as mirrors and water play such a significant part in the visual imagery of film noir. The viewer’s suspicions are confirmed in a later scene later when the captain of the La Paloma arrives with the Maltese Falcon and then promptly drops dead. Spade keeps his cool, and while instructing Effie as to how to deal with the police, stands before this sink and mirror and cleanses his hands of the captain’s blood.
Later in the film Spade returns to his apartment with Brigid O’Shaughnessy and it is at the conclusion of this scene that the viewer gets the first glimpse of Spade’s apartment beyond his combination living room and bedroom- the kitchen. The interior of the kitchen is initially seen through the doorway from the main room and all that is visible is a group of liquor bottles and glasses on the counter. Spade’s later actions demonstrate that there are supplies for making a pot of coffee in the kitchen as well. In the penultimate scene of the movie (after Gutman realizes that Wilmer has escaped and begins searching for him) there is a shot that shows tthat the kitchen also contains a stove and a simple metal teapot. It is also during Gutman’s search for Wilmer that the viewer gets a brief look inside Spade’s bathroom. Here again, there is only simplicity and utility, the only item visible is a simple white towel at the left side of the shot. Though the viewer is unlikely to expect anything else by this point in the film, it is still shocking just how empty the bathroom is. One longs to see something, anything- a comb, a tube of toothpaste, but there is only a stark, white, emptiness.
The office and apartment of Samuel Spade, private detective, provide a look into the inner workings of the character that the spoken dialogue, interaction with other characters, and other forms of traditional narrative do not provide. While Spade’s dialogue does advance the film’s plot, demonstrate his cynicism and his sense of humor, it does little else to inform the viewer as to the other aspects of his personality. Thus, it is left to the set and set decorations to fill out the rest of Spade’s character. The narrative information provided by the set and set decoration shows the viewer that Spade is a man who leads a life of simplicity and that this simplicity is both of action and of attitude. It is also this simplicity- his certainty at who he is and what he believes in- that allows him to navigate safely in a world filled with characters (particularly Gutman, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy) that are morally adrift. It is through this combination of dialogue, lighting, and set and set decoration the fully formed character of Samuel Spade emerges. The viewer is presented with a character who, despite his staccato speech and brusque physical manner, is a man of great depth and integrity. It is essential to understand this aspect of Spade’s character, for without this understanding his actions can seem emotionless and calculating, and his treatment of Brigid in the final scene would lack the devastating emotional impact in so clearly contains. The understanding of Spade and his world created by The Maltese Falcon’s sets and set decoration, allows teh viewer to see that his decision to “send Brigid over” is consistent with the rest of his behavior- he is a simple man who occupies simple spaces, he is a man of black and white feelings in a word of gray.