John Huston’s 1941 detective tale The Maltese Falcon gets credit for a lot of things. Not the least of which is the launching of both Huston’s career and the career of its star, Humphrey Bogart. It also gets credit for beginning the longstanding and successful onscreen pairing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, and heck, more often than not it’s pointed to as the beginning of the entire film noir movement of the 40s. That’s a lot of acclaim for a pretty simple mystery story about a salty detective named Sam Spade trying to find the whereabouts of a statue shaped like a bird.
The late 70s and early 80s were a time when genre films were king. Not only were the titans of the industry, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, tearing up the box office with huge event franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but lots of other directors were getting in on the act as well. Joe Dante hit it big with horror/comedy Gremlins, Robert Zemeckis struck gold with sci-fi/comedy Back to the Future, and even directors like Walter Hill made their names doing exploitation stuff like The Warriors. But, despite having the schlocky grit of something like The Warriors and the goofy humor of something like Gremlins, Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man remains a movie remembered only by those plugged into the pulse of cult film. It’s a trivia question, an obscure pick, and not a cherished childhood memory like all the others.
What do they have in common?
The Maltese Falcon and Repo Man are both films set in the underbelly of society. They’re not about the average Joe, they’re about the weird worlds of private eyes and repo men. Or, as Emilio Estevez’s character Otto puts it in Repo Man, “You never told me it was gonna be like this, man! Cops and robbers! Real live car chases!” They’re both films that are full of crime, double crosses, and greed. These are worlds where you’re always looking over your shoulder, always trying to protect what you have from getting taken away by someone else.
And they’re both films that concern themselves primarily with the possession of objects that take on almost mythic statuses. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade and the other characters are looking for the obscenely expensive statue that the film’s title is derived from, and in Repo Man Otto and his fellow scavengers are hunting down a ’64 Chevy Malibu that will supposedly fetch the guy who gets his hands on it $20,000. With big payoffs like these out there, it’s imperative that you keep your friends close, and your—no, scratch that—you have no friends.
Why is The Maltese Falcon overrated?
A lot of people love The Maltese Falcon because, when you break it down, it’s really just a movie about people talking about things that never really happen, yet it still entertains. I don’t get that. I don’t need to break it down to get to that conclusion, to me it’s very obvious, and consequently huge portions of this movie drag. There’s some good acting, particularly from Bogart and Lorre, and there are some good speeches, particularly when Spade is dealing with Mary Astor’s character toward the end, but the majority of this movie is just expository jibber jabber that Bogart, Lorre, and occasionally Greenstreet try to lift up with their Herculean strength.
I could take a lot of talking if the characters were complicated and they developed over the course of the film, but we don’t get any of that either. Spade is introduced to us as hard boiled and stubborn, and he stays that way to the bitter end. We don’t trust Astor’s character when we first meet her, and by the end of the movie… we really don’t trust her. There aren’t any revelations in this one, just a couple memorable lines and some decent acting.
Really, it seems to me that this movie is so well thought of more for what came after it than what it has to offer itself. This is one of the first films that introduced us to a callous protagonist, but there were better ones that came after. This is the movie that began Bogart’s run as a huge actor, but all of his best work came after (both of these points can be proven just by comparing his work as Sam Spade here to his work as Philip Marlowe later). And, over time, Bogart became a name synonymous with his pairings with leading ladies. You’ve got Bogart and Bacall, Bogart and both Hepburns; all great pairings, and they completely overshadow his work with Astor here. This may be the worst femme fatale Bogie ever worked with. He chews Astor up and spits her out in every scene, the big kiss they share is limp and comes after the trading of some really generic barbs. The Maltese Falcon may have been a launching pad for a whole host of great things, but when viewed on its own it’s kind of just a hokey, dated film where Bogart girl slaps people and karate chops guns out of their hands.
Why is Repo Man underpraised?
If you want to look at this one in relationship to The Maltese Falcon, instead of being a movie with a bit of good dialogue where nothing much happens, this is a movie with a bunch of good dialogue where all sorts of stuff happens. No, there isn’t anything in here on par with Bogart and Lorre chewing scenery, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t packed full of fun (and Harry Dean Stanton). This movie has gang fights, chases, radioactive cars, flying saucer time machines, and a smart-mouthed, earring wearing, spiky-haired Emilio Estevez as its protagonist. It’s got some great action scenes with explosive gunshot wounds that rival anything in any of the other squib-filled 80s greats. It’s got immortal lines like, “Ordinary fucking people,” as well as flirtatious exchanges that rival Han and Leia dialogue like,
“What about our relationship?”
Repo Man has more to offer than just mouthy characters and action-packed exploitation though. There’s some insightful commentary on the human condition going on here too. Once the promise of the $20,000 starts revealing everyone’s true natures, all of the relationships get deepened. Characters who have relationships with Otto that you might have thought were important are revealed as being false, and others as flawed but real. And aside from being a look into how people respond to the corrupting influence of greed, this one also works as an insightful look into the frustrations of being young and confused. Otto is having a lot of trouble finding his place in the world. His girlfriend is a slut, he can’t find a job that allows him to be treated like a human as well as an employee, and his parents, the people who are supposed to be his guiding influence, are too zoned out in front of the TV to pay any attention to what’s happening to their son. Predictably, he turns to violence. Repo Man tackles the ennui and aggression of youth just as effectively as any straight street crime drama I’ve ever seen.
The crafting here is nothing to be sneezed at either. The mystery of what’s in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu, what makes it so valuable and why it’s so dangerous, is built really well throughout. The pacing never drags, the tension around the acquisition of the car keeps building, and by the time the fate of the car is eventually revealed, what happens probably should be a big disappointment, but it actually delivers. This one’s got a bunch of tense moments that rival many horror films as well. I especially liked a scene where Otto tries to repossess a little old lady’s car by having tea with her, when suddenly her very large, very masculine family shows up. Cox leaves Estevez sitting there, surrounded, for a few beats longer than I would imagine most other filmmakers would, and it really amps up the awkwardness and tension of the situation. It’s a shame Cox never made any more movies.
Oh wait, he did? Oh.
Evening the odds.
If you need a short, concise exercise to let you know why I think The Maltese Falcon gets overrated and Repo Man gets underpraised, just listen to their soundtracks. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the goofy incidental music in The Maltese Falcon’s score got recycled decades later as random walking around music in episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. Meanwhile, Repo Man has an insanely good punk soundtrack with tracks from people like Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies. This isn’t even my kind of music and I’ve been listening to it nonstop over the last two days. It’s got to be considered one of the greats of its decade.