The Maltese Falcon (1941) dir. John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Gladys George, Elisha Cook Jr.
By Alan Bacchus
“The stuff dreams are made of” is Bogey’s final line of this film, and one which ambiguously explains what exactly the Maltese Falcon really is. It’s arguably the most recognizable of maguffins in film history, a metallic statuette, made of some unknown substance, but has such innumerable value that is drives the entire story without the need of an explanation.
What is the Maltese Falcon? In cinematic terms it’s an excuse to get a punch of tough, greedy, backstabbing characters in a room together to scheme, fight and kill each other over.
For novelist Dashiell Hammett’s hero Sam Spade, the adventure starts when a lovely young woman Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) enters his San Francisco office and hires Sam (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer to find her sister, who has seemingly attached herself to a nefarious slimeball whom we never see named Floyd Thursby. While tailing Thursby Archer is killed, which sends Spade hell bent on revenge.
That same night Thursby is found dead as well, and according to the cops Spade is one of the suspects. So Spade not only has to clear his name but find the murderer of his partner. He tracks down Ruth and discovers a complex web of lies and deceipt which track back to the aforementioned precious artifact being transported from abroad into San Fran harbour - The Maltese Falcon.
Bogey is at his most confident here, playing Spade as a determined and unflappable gumshoe who has the ability to get out of any situation, either by his impressive abilities to find the angles in every scheme, or simply by brute force. In fact on numerous occassions when he’s targeted at gunpoint, he can simply swat the gun out of his assailant’s hand with ease without getting shot. It’s fun, but it’s also a rather shallow characterization of the protagonist. Spade, although he has the skills as Bogey’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca, he lacks the vulnerability and broken heart which makes him identifyable and endearing.
As such, like say, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon is a plot driven affair. A completely dispassionate potboiling film noir, before there was such a term. Despite its sterling reputation though, Falcon doesn’t hit the hit high water mark of Bogey’s The Big Sleep. Both are complex and confusing crime stories, but I think the difference comes down to one scene at the end of Falcon when Bogey literally asks big ol charming Sidney Greenstreet who did what and why. It’s shamefully expository and the worst scene in the movie. The Big Sleep on the other hand, is purposely oblique and baffling which adds an element of cooky brainteasing fun. One of the death in that film is never solved and is debated by film buffs to this day.
That said, Falcon is still an enjoyable and entertaining cynical and tough noir piece. Watch Spade’s continual put downs of the effeminate hoods played by Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr., a treatment which, in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, was famously analyzed as concealed homophobia. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s a fascinating layer in subtext and characterization as well an interesting viewpoint into the time and place in which the film was made and one of the reasons why the film continues to be watched and discussed to this day.
The Maltese Falcon is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video