In the last week at home I've watched three great movies: The Wizard of Oz, Clockers, and The Maltese Falcon (TMF). (A smidgeon of their greatness lies in the fact that I acquired all off them either for free or for about a dollar.) The first is great just because it's so imaginatively rich and cinematically lush. The second is great because the camera work and themes keep your eyes locked in. The third is great for its dialogue and especially for its cinematography. Cinematography is one of the most important aspects in my appraisal of a film. I regard film as an especially visual art form, so, even though I realize Story (à la Robert McKee) is what film is, or should be, about, I insist the telling of that story be a principally visual act. This doe snot mean film is a visual art in the same way as photography, since the former is exactly a moving (narrative) art, unlike the latter, which really is contained in the composition of the pixels and frame alone. Good cinematography uses the images themselves to create mood and implicit content. Bad cinematography either handles the camera un-self-consciously (straight shooting) or stumbles into photography. Most flicks commit the first error. In them there is nothing intelligent in the movements and angles of the camera. We are just being given a stream of neutrally, blandly filmed sensory data.
As for the latter error, where the director is confuses visual richness with cinematic visualism (by which I mean the properly cinematic uses of images as a narrative device), you can see this all throughout M. Night Shyamalan's films. The worst example of it I can recall (indeed, cannot scour from my memory) is in Unbreakable. About halfway through the film, we are presented with an overhead still-shot down onto an office desk. The lens does not move for several seconds, but then pans lugubriously to the right and finally catches sight of actual actors. This is bad cinematography. Nothing in the shot adds to the mood (other than boredom with Shyamalan's chronically baffled characters), nothing enhances insight into a character, and nothing about the shot moves the story. It is dead screen time, not because it is a purely visual demi-scene, but because it's use of visualism as more photographic than cinematic.
I can put it this way: good directing is directing which I can tell "is there", much as a good fish is one that tugs on the other end of the line. If I can see intentional themes and techniques in the film, I can "feel" the director's tug on the other side of the screen. (It may, of course, be that I am the fish and the director my hook-dangling hunter, but the point is the same: a dead filament is a dead film.) At the most basic level, it's as simple as getting an A for effort. If I see the director is consciously, and conscientiously, manipulating the camera and the motifs and the scenery, et c., then I can respect the film that much more as WORK of art. (Whether I like the work produced is a different story, but at least I can be engaged by a film with directorial pulse.) If a scene is shot so strikingly as to call attention to its own visual composition, as opposed to simply "capturing" (as if on home video) the content of the scene, then I know I am in the precincts of an intelligent, mindful filmmaker.
In any case, TMF is a good film largely because it has such compelling cinematography. There are no dead moments on-screen. Every scene adds to the mood or actively moves the telling of the tale. For example, the film opens by showing us Spade & Archer in reverse stenciled on the office window. Then, shortly before Archer is shot, Huston (the director, John Huston) shows us the same names legible on the floor in a shadow. Then, shortly after Archer is in his office again, he tells Effie, his secretary, to remove "Archer" from the window and replace it with "Samuel Spade." By the next scene in the office, a man is re-stenciling the names on the door, and then, only a scene or two later, we see Samuel Spade complete on the original office window. Brilliant, constructive, intentional scene construction. And while I realize that such elements are not technically cinematography, yet Huston's care to make sure such details are visible in each scene, add to his cinematographic prowess.
A second, quite famous, example is when Spade is talking with "the Fat Man", Casper Gutman, played in his film debut by Sydney Greenstreet (the rotund English actor also famous from his work with Bogart in Casablanca). Huston shoots Gutman, seated in a chair, from below, which visually describes him as a "Fat Man," massive, greedy, literally a gut man. The sculpture of the shot jumps at at the viewer, making for great photography.
It turns out my theory of the “tugging line” (i.e., the idea that so to speak palpable cinematography is an indication of intelligent directing) is borne out by the film's history. According to Wikipedia,
During his preparation for TMF, first-time director John Huston planned each second of the film to the very last detail, tailoring the screenplay with instructions to himself for a shot-for-shot setup, with sketches for every scene, so filming could proceed fluently and professionally. Like other directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Huston was adamant that the film keep to schedule, and that everything was methodically planned to the fullest....
(The Maltese Falcon (1941), accessed 21 Sept 07)
That's what I call conscientious directing, and it shows when you watch TMF.
Incidentally, I learned a new word, and one new cultural arcanum, from the film. First, I ask you, what is a gunsel? Well, according to Michael Quinion, although a gunsel has come to mean a “gunman” in modern slang, originally it meant a young homosexual partner, a raw youth, a Gänslein in German or a gendzel in Yiddish. The arcanum I picked up was, after a little Googling, the Ronson touch-tip lighter, which is what you see numerous characters using in numerous old movies to light their numerous old cigarettes. It's cool beans.
One last observation I'll make is about the marketing of TMF in its day. Look at these promo posters:
What are their only common visual elements? Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and... a handgun or two. Even so, Spade says explicitly in the film that he doesn't carry guns because he doesn't like them, and in fact, the only time he really handles two guns is when he slips them off Elisha Cook, Jr.'s Wilmer, the very gunsel in question, in a deft quasi-gooseberry lay (a term edited out of Dashiell Hammett's works, according to Earle Stanley Gardner). Indeed, throughout the movie it's Spade who is always getting guns pointed at him, not the other way around. Clearly the ironic glorification of violence as a sleek lubricant for ticket sales goes back longer than Tarantino.