John Huston, 1941
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet
“When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.”
Sam Spade, a P.I. in San Francisco, begins to investigate when his partner is killed. Their most recent client, a Miss Wonderly, is searching for her missing sister, who was allegedly in the company of a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade’s partner was last seen on Thursby’s tail. The police are suspicious of Spade, because he was having an affair with his partner’s needy, unscrupulous wife.
During his somewhat lackluster investigation, Spade discovers that Miss Wonderly is really named Brigid O’Shaughnessy and is not searching for a missing sister — Thursby was her partner and they were on the trail of something valuable. He learns more when a suspicious man named Joel Cairo hires him to find a “black bird” statue, and he later learns that Cairo is working for the “Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman. Gutman, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy are all criminals, double-crossers playing a dangerous game, hoping to find the falcon statue first. Spade learns about the arrival of a freighter ship and begins to get an idea of where to find the elusive bird and rushes to get his hands on it before anyone else.
Based on Dashiell Hammet’s novel of the same name, this is my favorite adaptation of Hammett’s most popular work. Hammett himself worked as a detective with the famed Pinkerton Agency and is one of the world’s most famous writers of hardboiled and detective fiction. Much of the events and characters in The Maltese Falcon were inspired by his time in the field. Unlike Raymond Chandler’s moral, alcoholic with a heart of gold, Philip Marlowe, Hammett’s Spade is a cold bastard who doesn’t shed a tear over his partner’s murder and isn’t afraid to throw the woman he loves to the police, where she will be jailed and likely executed.
This 1941 film is actually the third version of The Maltese Falcon. It followed a pre-Code 1931 film banned from Hollywood for several years, and a comedic remake in 1936 with Bette Davis known as Satan Met a Lady. Though it is the third version, it marks several firsts. This was Humphrey Bogart’s first big role and would go on to launch his career after a decade of languishing as side characters in gangster flicks. The role of Sam Spade was originally offered to George Raft (in They Drive By Night, Bogart’s previous film), who rejected it in a series of career mistakes. He also turned down High Sierra and Casablanca; all three of these roles were passed on to Bogart and are responsible for his stardom.
The great John Huston, who would become one of Hollywood’s finest directors, began his career as a screenwriter, but cut his teeth on directing with The Maltese Falcon. The detailed script and methodical filmmaking allowed Huston to make the movie quickly and efficiently. He got along with all the actors and the team regularly lunched and breakfasted together. He finished under budget and before schedule, a remarkable achievement for a first film. Huston and Bogart would go on to have a close friendship and working relationship, including classics such as Key Largo, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The African Queen.
This was actor Sydney Greenstreet's first film, though he was an experienced stage performer. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, which he richly deserved to win. His portrayal of Gutman is certainly one of the film’s high points. Gutman’s employee, Joel Cairo, was slightly changed from the book, where he is openly depicted as a gay character. This was against the Hays Code, so actor and German expatriate Peter Lorre’s Cairo is merely portrayed as effeminate. The two actors have incredible screen chemistry and work perfectly as the lethal, but effete team of Cairo and Gutman. The Maltese Falcon was actually the first pairing of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. They would go on to appear in Casablanca and a few other films together, while Greenstreet and Lorre were paired up nine times over the years.
In the final first, The Maltese Falcon is often considered to be the first film noir. Both Stranger on the Third Floor (with Lorre and noir regular Elisha Cook Jr, who appears in The Maltese Falcon) and I Wake Up Screaming (again with Elisha Cook Jr) were released a year or so before The Maltese Falcon and contain an enhanced amount of what would come to be known as noir style. Though The Maltese Falcon is often considered first, both of these others are deserving of consideration, particularly the excellent and somewhat disturbing I Wake Up Screaming.
Though I have nothing bad to say about cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who has some great, suggestive shots full of odd angles and subdued lighting, I’ve always felt that The Maltese Falcon was unable to really compete with other noir classics in terms of style. I Wake Up Screaming is far more stylized and visually dramatic, while Stranger on the Third Floor is generally regarded solely for its powerful visuals. Though there is a more downbeat conclusion, this film isn’t as dark or pessimistic as many later film noir efforts. Huston, co-wrote the script, expertly used most of the dialogue from Hammett’s novel. The only major changes being that references to sex and alcohol are largely removed, due to the strictness of the Hays Code.
On a final note, the complicated plot is a joy, as it is in Hammett’s novel. The falcon itself is little more than what Hitchcock would later dub a MacGuffin, a red herring or useless object at the center of a more interesting, involved script. My only major complaint, both with the film’s plot and its acting, is Brigid O’Shaunessey. She lacks the overripe sex appeal of the character in the books (thanks again, Hays Code) and, I hate to say it, but Mary Astor is dreadful in the role. She’s the absolute worst thing about the film. She is neither lush nor sexy and instead looks like a school marm with a bad, unwashed hairdo. Astor was nearly 40 when The Maltese Falcon was made. While I have nothing against casting older actresses as characters with a lot of sex appeal (Honor Blackman will always be amazing in Goldfinger), Astor looks like someone’s mother who accidentally got involved with a gang of effeminate criminals.
Aside from Astor, who is easily ignored aside Bogart, Greenstreet, and Lorre, The Maltese Falcon comes recommended. It is a decent introduction to noir and is working picking up. It’s available on DVD and will hopefully make it to Blu-ray soon.