Saturday, April 10, 2010

#15: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Released: October 3, 1941

Director: John Huston; Screenplay: John Huston based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; Cinematography: Arthur Edeson; Music: Adolph Deutsch; Producer: Hal B. Wallis; Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O'Shaughnessy), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Barton MacLane (Det. Lt. Dundy), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer), Ward Bond (Det. Tom Polhaus), Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), John Hamilton (Bryan)

- “The stuff that dreams are made of…”

The film that is often acknowledged as kicking off the “classic noir cycle,” The Maltese Falcon remains a true treasure of American cinema. Does it possess all of the elements that one immediately looks for in film noir? Not necessarily – it is not nearly as dark, both in terms of look and content, as other classics. But it is so important in defining how the noir anti-hero is supposed to act and the moral ambiguity and flip-flops that these men must go through. Its legacy cannot be overestimated. Aside from helping to jumpstart that what would eventually become known as “film noir,” it was also the springboard for a number of other important moviemaking developments. It was the first film directed by John Huston, resulting in one of the most impressive debut films in Hollywood history. Also, while Humphrey Bogart was already a well-known quantity and his rise to stardom had already been started by High Sierra earlier in the year, this film is what put him into a whole other stratosphere of stardom. On these facts alone, The Maltese Falcon is rightly recognized as a landmark.

I think the quote that opens this write-up, which remains one of the most famous in the history of film, summarizes the entire production. As already mentioned, you have a director who has never been at the helm of his own major production. A leading man who was not the first choice – George Raft is actually said to have turned the role down. The story is based on a pulp novel that, for all of its merits, boasts a handful characters that could justifiably be labeled one-dimensional. How does the studio combat this? It puts together an absolutely dynamite cast to fill every role, bringing the characters to life. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet make characters like Cairo and Gutman some of the most unforgettable personalities ever committed to celluloid. The movie itself is confined to only a handful of sets, the bulk of it in a single room of an apartment, which is something that one would normally expect from a stage play. And yet never once does the movie feel like it is bound in anyway to the set, or anything else for that matter. Everything comes together for a wonderful, wildly entertaining picture. Truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

Bogart plays legendary Dashiell Hammett character Sam Spade, a private eye who owns an investigation firm with friend and partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). When the two are hired to track someone for a mysterious Miss Wonderly, Miles is murdered. Determined to discover who killed his partner – not just out of friendship, but also so he is not set up for the crime – Spade is plunged into a world of international intrigue. Miss Wonderly turns out to actually be Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a woman who has been traveling the world trying to track down a valuable treasure. The item she seeks is the Maltese Falcon, a statue of a bird that is encrusted with priceless jewels and gems. The danger arises out of the fact that she is not the only one that seeks the figurine. Other unscrupulous characters like Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) are also on the chase. Spade is thrown into the middle of everything, as he tries to fend off the police at the same time he tries to profit from the search for the missing falcon.

Every performance in this film sparkles, because they have to. Almost every moment of the film takes place indoors and all of the action is propelled by lengthy conversations between characters. The connection between all of the actors leaps off the screen, giving all of the bickering and conniving so much authenticity. Bogart has a number of characters for which he will always be celebrated, but next to Rick Blaine this is might be his most legendary. He _is_ Sam Spade. He makes Spade the prototype for how private eyes would be portrayed in cinema for at least the next thirty years. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet work together flawlessly, alternating between being allies and enemies. Cairo and Gutman may at times border on caricatures, but what does it matter when they are so much fun to watch. Great ensemble acting, combined with the unmatched cadence and snappiness of Hammett’s dialogue is arguably the greatest asset of the entire production. It is not all about the actors though, as director and cinematographer pull their weight as well. Director of photography Arthur Edeson uses bizarre camera angles and very low-key lighting to ensure that the simple sets never become boring. The shadows that run deep into the background are striking, giving the impression that there is some intense source of light emanating from the floor. This effect is accentuated by camera angles and placement where the camera is situated at ground level, looking up at the characters as they converse.

Even with all of this going for it, what ultimately elevates The Maltese Falcon to greatness is, in my opinion, the fact that what should be nothing more than a simple mystery is made into an interesting character study. The falcon is the ultimate McGuffin and once you realize that they are all chasing an object they are never going to capture, it becomes interesting to try and understand what motivates each person. Obviously, the most interesting of them all is Spade. The first time you see the movie, it really is difficult to get a handle on where he stands until the very end. Is he with Brigid or only out for himself? Is he searching for Miles’ killer or just trying to save his own skin? It almost seems like Spade himself doesn’t know the answers to these questions, which only makes him all the more intriguing as he gets drawn in deeper.


  1. Maltese Falcon isn't just considered one of the earliest film noirs ever made, but was also the first film noir that I saw. I still remember Bogart's incredible persona and the murky human corruption in the story. Unfortunately, everything's a blur for me right now. I hope this fine review of yours compels me to watch it again sooner rather than later.

  2. Huston got away with a surprising amount here, especially the borderline explicit references to Cairo's homosexuality. Astor is maybe miscast, at the very least unexpected, although she does as well here as she probably could (few forties actresses were more constantly underappreciated or misused by Hollywood). Spade is even more wicked in Hammett's novel, towards the end forcing Brigid to strip for him so he can make sure she doesn't have the bill Gutman claims she palmed. I don't think nearly as highly of this film as you, but it's a very solid private eye movie with a great Bogie performance.

  3. Bogart is always so great as a world-weary private eye, and Lorre and Greenstreet are just right too. I agree with Doniphon that Astor might be miscast, fine actress though she is. Your review makes me want to see this one again.

  4. Your first paragraph is just perfect, a great review, Dave. Unlike "The Big Sleep", Huston follows the book closely extracting dialogue word for word. Wonderful performances by everyone. As you state "The Maltese Falcon" is often claimed to be the first noir though some argue the low budget "Strangers on the Third Floor", with Lorre may declare that spot. The film is also important in the detective genre as really being the first to have the private eye as anti-hero.
    It is interesting to compare the 1931 version of this film with Huston's 1940. First Spade is not played as a anti-hero in the 1931 version, he is much more straight laced and the tone of the film is more humorous at times. The other noticeable factor is that the 1931 version did not have "clean up" some of the novel's suggestive situations due to being a pre-code work. Still, both films do follow the novel fairly closely. Interesting to compare.

  5. Great review! I don't agree that Mary Astor was miscast, as many have said. As many scholars have said, she brought personality to the role and you could understand why Spade would be interested in her. Too often in movies there's no good reason why a guy should like a girl, besides the fact that she's a "knock out."

    Here is my Blog entry on Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre's cameo in Hollywood Canteen:

  6. The Maltese Falcon?

    When was this film made? I've never heard hide nor hare of it? And who pray tell is Sam Spade?

    Ha! Well Dave, such is the case when you get within the Top 15, though I must say I'll rather surprised this didn't make the top 7 or 8 with you. But this tells us nothing other than you have an exhaustive command and appreciation of this genre. A far more casual fan might swoon at this cinematic landmark by distancing themselves from great film noirs that don't boast this kind of general reputation. Your essay here reveals a deep passion for the genre you've put under a magnifying glass in this spectacular countdown, and you leave little for the peasants to expound on.

    THE MALTESE FALCON'S emphasis on 'peculiar' character traits is in my view it's most compelling claim to greatness. Lorre, Greenstreet, Cook Jr., and of course Mary Astor, are a peculiar lot, whose strange and obsessive characteristics are as psychologically fascinating as anything in this engaging detective yarn, and Bogart's Sam Spade is one of the iconic figures in all of American cinema. But in truth this film set the personalities for these characters in their future careers. Hitchcock was a master at brininging his supporting characters to quirky life, and in this film Huston's accomplishment is peerless. The snap-fire dialogue, the pacing and Arthur Edeson's extraordinary noir cinematography all conspire to make this one of teh defining films of the 1940's and of the form.

    It wouldn't be a stretch to say that as far as detective films go, this is the one that actually set the hard-edged style and tone.

  7. I pretty much agree all around on this one - although I don't think that, as some have suggested, Astor necessarily detracts from anything. She certainly is not as strong as Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet, but I don't think she hurts anything in the film.

    Shubhajit - Would love to hear your thoughts if you do watch again.

    Doniphon - I remembered you saying some time earlier that you preferred The Big Sleep to this. I go back and forth in that argument all the time.

    Judy - Making somebody want to re-watch a film after reading one of these makes the whole thing worth it.

    John - I haven't seen the 1931 version, but it sounds like it would be interesting just to compare the two.

    Herald - Thanks for stopping by, I will check out that link. We're on the same page concerning Astor, as I don't think she harms things at all.

    Quirky Character - Glad to hear you love this one as well.

    Sam - Awesome response and we pretty much agree on all points. I thought that having this seminal film at #15 would make things _very_ interesting coming down the stretch!

  8. Dave, definitely check out the 1931 movie. Ricardo Cortez comes closer to Hammett's physical description of Spade and Dwight Frye as Wilmer is arguably just as perfect casting as Elisha Cook was. The first adaptation is a solid movie but Huston's blows it out of the water. The personalities and performances pop in a way the first try can't hope to match.

  9. I enjoyed your blog entry on “The Maltese Falcon” very much.
    You may be interested in reading my blog entry on a baseball mystery related to “The Maltese Falcon” here.

  10. How about a cheer for Elisha Cook as Gutman's sadsack henchman, Wilmer? He gets kicked around by Space, figuratively speaking, and ends up sold out by his boss. Small role. Great work.

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