Probably a lot of readers have an imaginative picture of The Maltese Falcon reflective of the 1941 John Huston movie starring Bogart. The black and white classic, definitive of film noir, both follows the novel closely and departs from it stylistically in some ways to create its own visual world. (Art direction by Robert M. Haas and costumes by Orry-Kelly.) For instance, costumes are updated clearly to that of the late 30s opposed to what Mary Astor might have been wearing had the movie been made in the late 20s with the fashions of that time. Every reader probably has their own imaginative art direction going on as they read this book or any book.
So let me introduce another visual interpretation of the book. San Francisco Bay area artist Owen Smith.
Readers may well recognize his style from the 2005 book by Maureen Dowd, Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide or any of the 18 covers he’s done for The New Yorker magazine. Want to see the The New Yorker covers? Visit their Cartoon Bank and type Owen Smith in the search box.
In 2008 Smith created a series of posters, Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, for the San Francisco Arts Commission’s annual “Art on Market Street” kiosk poster series. Six huge posters introduced and captured moments from The Maltese Falcon for city dwellers from June through September. The posters lived in kiosks along Market St. between Van Ness and the Embarcadero. On June 28th, Owen Smith joined our friend Don Herron on The Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour and talked about his inspiration for and development of the images.
Critics admire Owen Smith’s style as “Pulpy, film-noirish, with an earthy, almost proletarian sensibility” and a “lurid figurative art [which] often depicts the basic, sometimes base elements of life. Inspired by popular culture and artwork of the first half of the 20th century, his works are reminiscent of the robust style and subject matter of Depression Era art.”
And according to The Thrilling Detective’s analysis of really great book cover art, “Owen’s illustrative work is a marvel of swirling, pulpish impressionism that harkens back to the days of public works programs and working class murals as much as it does pulp magazines. It’s not really “realistic,” but it’s vibrant and muscular and there’s a throbbing, almost disturbing visceral energy about the way he portrays the people in his paintings. There are no wimps or pretty people in his work — everyone’s built like a bruised brick shithouse.”
Well now there’s some evocative criticism, and I have to say, I agree. My own imagination’s art direction of The Maltese Falcon ramped it up several notches after seeing these images. The color is a visual slam after picturing the narrative in black & white, conditioned as I am by the movie version, in spite of Hammett’s own use of color in the book. And yes, these figures are vital and active and muscular and forceful. Enjoy!
Mark Coggins, the critic who enjoys Smith’s “earthy, almost proletarian sensibility” has a great piece in SFGate, “Owen Smith: San Francisco’s Diego Rivera” which appropriately affiliates Smith’s style and approach with the 20th century Mexican artist. Coggins talks about Smith as a public artist and celebrates his successful effort to get an Owen Smith work for the cover of one of his own books, The Big Wake-Up.
More about Owen Smith at Billy Shire Fine Arts, including images from a 2009 exhibition including the oil on panel painting of Gutman and Cairo which serves as the image for the same poster.
Email conversation with Owen Smith this past summer indicated that he wanted me to give credit where credit was due, so thank you to the artist himself (good jpgs of the posters on the Public Art page of his website, images 22-27), to the San Francisco Arts Commission for their public art programs and these images, and to the illustrator websites who had jpgs of the images. They are Art on A Grand Scale, for the photo of the poster of the Falcon on the map of San Francisco in situ in a Market St. kiosk. Art on a Grand Scale is Richard Solomon’s powerhouse for developing commissions for superscale public art and an online gallery hop of the artists he represents is worth your time. The i Spot, The Illustration Site an amazing website. If you are an artist or illustrator, you probably know it, and if you’re not, it’s a wonderful gallery to visit for visual delight and inspiration. I found large jpgs of the posters at their site, and thank you. Thank you to California blogger Joe Thomas at Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion for the image of Gutman and Cairo in its kiosk, in his blog that’s about, well, everything!