Cahiers du Cinema: The Arabian Falcon

by Hugh Fitzgerald (March 2007)


                            Ci-gît Jacques d'Iraq. He deserted the West.

    Radix malorum cupiditas est.

                                    Epitaphe d'un homme d'état


    Prie Dieu, prie Dieu, prie Dieu derechef.

                                    Avvakum (trans. Pierre Pascal)


The classic example of American film noir is the 1941 The Maltese Falcon, in which John Huston made his directorial debut. The film revolved around the search for a fabulously valuable bejeweled falcon, made by the Knights Templar on the isle of Rhodes in the sixteenth century. In the many centuries since, the statue has appeared, in the possession of various owners, then disappeared again, only to resurface, finally, in Istanbul -- old Stamboul, city of mystery -- now in the possession of a White Russian, a certain General Kemidov. A motley crew, including Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, a private detective, and a host of rivalrous villains, including Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, appear, trying to track down that Maltese Falcon for themselves, and ending up with only – well, if you haven’t seen the movie, let me not spoil it.

For some years American filmmakers have contemplated a remake. Amazingly, a story about another fabulous bejeweled falcon, involving people at the very highest level of world politics, has surfaced and it happens to be true. I tell the tale that I heard told. The story begins in the late-1970s. The war in Vietnam is over. Jacques Chirac has just been serving as Prime Minister of France. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has begun to construct a nuclear reactor.

Decades earlier, in the waning days of World War II, a mild-mannered American had befriended a Frenchman. The friendship deepened during the period of the Marshall Plan. In the years that followed, while the American became an academic, the Frenchman became a very rich contractor, particularly rich from work he performed in the Arab oil states during the 1970s.

At the end of that decade the American happened to be in Paris and had dinner at the home of his old friend. They had both been drinking; the Frenchman was in an expansive mood, a mood for revealing secrets to his old friend. “Do you want to see something awful?” he asked his American friend. “Something of mauvais goût, really mauvais goût?” And he motioned for his companion to follow him into a room down the hall where, from a closet, he removed a large, heavy box, and opened it. “Just look at that,” he said. “What am I going to do with it? I can’t sell it. It was given to me by the Arabs, a kind of reward.” What the American saw, and did not forget, was a bejewelled falcon, very much like the Maltese Falcon as described in the eponymous film. With a body of gold, and precious gems, including diamonds, studding the body, resulting in a figure ornithologically incorrect, but worth close to a million dollars, perhaps more. “Only two of them were made,” he continued. “The other one they gave to…” At this point he named a figure then prominent in French political life, and after a quarter-century, prominent still.

The story made sense. Desert Arabs are known to love falconry; for the richest, bustard-hunting safaris as far away as Pakistan are a passion. And the desert Arabs of the Gulf are known to give expensive presents, often of a kind that can fix forever a certain attitude in the recipient. Just last year it was revealed that one of the gifts Princess Diana had received, and that was among the objects removed for safe-keeping by her loyal butler, was a bejewelled model of a ship, a gift from the Emir of Bahrain, appraised at more than a half-million pounds.

What about the other falcon, the one the Frenchman said had been given to that political figure, Monsieur X? In the United States, such gifts must be turned over to the government. Perhaps that falcon was turned over to the French state, or given to a museum, or sold for the benefit of French widows and orphans. But perhaps not. Ostentatious display of wealth is, of course, something of which only Americans are guilty; they know how to order these matters better in France which, after all, is an old country, sans moeurs et sans reproches.

All this cries out for a remake of The Maltese Falcon, and what a wonderful film it could be. The French version originale bears the unusual title

Le Défi de la farfouille, but American audiences will undoubtedly see it under a more straightforward and less allusive title -- say, The Arabian Falcon. Think of it. Scenes of the Empty Quarter. Quelques arpents de sable. The workrooms of a Parisian jeweller, where two men in dishdashi are quietly consulting in a corner with a third man in a Western business-suit. A very particular meeting dans la plus stricte intimité. Scenes of a code-name being entered into a computer -- Project Majnoon -- in a palatial office, in an unidentified Middle Eastern capital, with a moiety of Muslim moon visible through the window, high above the date palms swaying in the outside night. Then, the delivery and viewing of the bird, a viewing shared with only one, or two, or possibly three special friends, all sworn to secrecy. And then the problem of hiding the falcon, or disposing of it profitably. Perhaps the three “friends” share the proceeds. Perhaps it is sold back to someone in the Gulf. Perhaps the precious gems are removed and the statue melted down. Or perhaps the Arabian Falcon simply vanishes, like its Maltese original in the film, never to be seen again.

Such a big-budget film will surely require an international cast worthy of the theme. Possibly Anthony Hopkins could play the corrupt and dissolute politician. Christopher Walken might be his trustworthy and sinister aide. John Malkovich would be perfect as the French-speaking C.I.A. agent determined to expose both the French politician, and similarly corrupt Americans, members of his own agency, including a former station chief in Jiddah who turned out to be responsible for the deaths of three of his fellow agents. The beautiful Persian Jewish spy who helps to uncover the full extent of the conspiracy -- she is known as Leila to the enemy, though her real name is Esther -- ideally should be played by Laura Morante or Erika Marozsan. Finally, the casting director could scarcely do better than enlist the services of Arielle Dombasle, Laetitia Casta, and Emmanuelle Béart as the expensive trio of friendly genuflectors. And just imagine what it would do to box-office receipts if, just before the movie went into distribution, the missing Arabian Falcon -- the very one given to that prominent Frenchman as part of top-secret Project Majnoon, that plan which almost succeeds in establishing, on behalf of the Jihad, a vast network of bribed and co-opted political figures, diplomats, arms salesmen, intelligence agents, academics, and journalists, through all the capitals of the Western world -- were finally, clamorously, tellingly to be found.


Avec privilège et approbation

Imprimerie de la Vérité

Ça Ira, Virginia


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Hugh Fitzgerald contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.




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