Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Black Bird (1975)


The film-noir revival of the mid-’70s produced a lot of interesting films, including a handful of comedies satirizing the tropes of classic private-dick flicks. In The Black Bird, George Segal plays Sam Spade Jr., son of the detective character played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—the idea is that Sam Sr. left the actual Maltese Falcon among his personal effects, and three decades after the first set of lowlifes tried to acquire “the black bird,” a new crop of loonies pursues the prize. Story author Gordon Cotler came up with a decent concept, but screenwriter-director David Giler employs cheap gags instead of sophisticated wit. For example, characters keep joking that how strange it is that Segal’s character is named “spade” even though he’s not black. The movie isn’t quite as bad as that running joke suggests, but it’s not great. To the filmmakers’ credit, the narrative is as convoluted as anything Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett ever wrote, so the spirit of the thing is basically right, with deceitful dames and trigger-happy thugs appearing at every turn; furthermore, the Sam Spade Jr. character combines the usual cynicism of a noir detective with the added element of familial resentment, since he hates the fact that he inherited his dad’s business. Segal is also in rare form here, demonstrating impeccable comic timing with his exasperated line readings, slow-burn reactions, and tumbling pratfalls. He tries valiantly to raise the level of the material, so whenever the movie settles into long dialogue passages, things start to crackle. (The best verbal interplay is between Segal and gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander, playing a slow-witted hoodlum who ingratiates himself into Spade’s life.) However, many key elements in the movie just sit there, like the absurd villain (an excitable Nazi dwarf, if you can believe that) and the forgettable leading lady (thick-accented French actress Stéphane Audran). So, even though The Black Bird is amusing-ish, it never coalesces into anything special.

The Black Bird: FUNKY

2 comments:

Mark said...

Peter, where did you find a copy of this film? I can't seem to find it anywhere.

By Peter Hanson said...

It's broadcast on cable periodically, which is how I saw the movie. If you can stand commercial breaks and TV editing, for instance, it shows up periodically on Antenna TV. Definitely a hard one to find, though...