Friday Film Noir: The Maltese Falcon at 80!
It has often been written and said that John Huston’s 1941 classic, The Maltese Falcon, brought it in the era of film noir, or that it is the definitive entry within the genre. The origins of the genre and where Huston’s picture comes into play in that debate shall not be discussed, primarily because there is still no genuine consensus, even after all these years. As for its quality and worth as part of the long line of noir adventures, it is safe to say that the verdict is clear cut and has been for decades already: The Maltese Falcon is a masterpiece. Why? Far be it from this amateur film fanatic to enlighten the readers as to why exactly. That venture shall be left for the historians and appointed experts in the field of film studies. Consider this week’s review a small chapter in a long, gloriously endless book about what makes Falcon so terrific.
Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is the quintessential hard-boiled private detective, co-founder of ‘Spade and Archer’ private eye agency in downtown San Francisco. One day, a woman (Mary Astor) arrives at his office. The woman is distraught, concerned for the safety of her sister who may be at the risk of being physically maimed by her husband, a man named Thursby. Sam’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) accepts the task of tailing Thursby one night, but instead of catching anybody performing illegal acts, he becomes the victim of one, as an unseen shooter murders Miles at point-blank. From that point on, the story only thickens for Sam, as police detectives investigate the murder of Miles, the mysterious woman reveals herself to be one Brigid O’Shaughnessy and admits to having made up the story about a sister and brother-in-law. What really going is on is very slowly revealed as more and more characters become involved, albeit not in anything related with a feuding family, but rather a wild, crazy hunt for a historically forgotten yet highly valuable falcon statuette: an exotic, effeminate (and in all likelihood gay) man named Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a conniving, deceitful fat man (described as such in the film, not just the article’s author) named Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and the latter personal henchman, the young hotshot Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.).
A guy without a conscience! A dame without a heart!
As previously stated, Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is the quintessential private dick. The idea of a quintessential detective in of itself does not mean much of the actor playing the role is incapable of making it his own, of truly living the character. In short, there is a bland way to play a private eye and a good way. To put it bluntly, Humphrey Bogart makes the good way, look bland. Bogart, unquestionably one of America’s screen legends, forever cemented as one of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen, gets down and dirty in The Maltese Falcon, brushing up on his pithy, snappy one-liners and spitting them out quicker than a machine gun can fire bullets. Just as Steve McQueen was the essence of cool in the late 60s and into the 70s, Bogart was ‘it’ in the 40 and early 50s. His roles varied considerably, some for which he definitely did not portray very likable or cool characters (check back next week for a review of Treasure of Sierra Madre), but the fond memories people have of him are the direct result of his work in films like Casablanca and, of course, the John Huston film under analysis today. To be so confident in the face of danger is the stuff people dream about. Who does not want to have gained so much street smarts as to face top criminals and murder suspects and nail them, psychologically, with terrific, shattering questions, or have the gall to act in front of someone who is clearly a powerful, influential being just because you have a hunch and hope he falls for the bait? Bogart was fantastic at this. Possibly better than Robert Mitchum? That debate will have to wait for another day, another article.
Where the character of Spade truly wins the audience over is in his desire to find out the truth. The truth behind who is who, what they are after, why they are after it, and, as is revealed at the very end of the film, why somebody went out and killed his partner. Ultimately, the character of Sam Spade has a conscious and a heart. His instincts tell him that Ms. O’Shaughnessy may be in over her head and therefore decides to assist her, even though his smarter half warns him not to play too much into her hands. There is a sadness and even a fit of anger at the loss of his partner’s death. Sure, Miles was oogling over O’Shaughnessy from the moment the temptress walked into their offices, but he was first and foremost his partner, and as Spade says himself when your partner is killed, you simply have to do something about it. In the end, Sam Spade proves to be cool but not mechanically so, which leaves the audience with a very favourable impression of him.
One needs to consider that Sam is also risking his neck by investigating this matter with so little to work with at first. It is not long before O’Shaughnessy explains that she had duped him and Miles a few days ago with her tale of a fictionalized sister in trouble, but all the clues are not solved then and there, with Spade only having to go from point A to Z. Nay, even then the seductive lade refuses to let him in completely, and neither do Joel Cairo and Kasper Gutman once they enter the fold. Just who is exactly is on whose side? What exactly will the end game be for everyone involved, especially the protagonist, once the titular Maltese falcon is located? What exactly are the origins of this coveted treasure and how has it arrived on the west coast of the United States? Spade knows very little of any of this. He is therefore forced to extract all of that information by simultaneously playing for and against just about everybody involved. If they fall for his ruses (all the while playing their own games, mind you), then the case is solved. If not…well, they have dispatched unwanted players before. He is intrepid, smart, witty, and stone-cold at just the right moment. All in all, he is a phenomenal character played by one of the most phenomenal actors of all time.
Yet this film is not strictly about Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, even though that it the major driving force. The supporting cast is jaw-dropping as are the tiny bit players. Mary Astor gives her most iconic performance as the ever dishonest yet very beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy. One can almost feel sorry for her character. Is that because she plays she is injecting genuine emotion into the role or because she is so good at pretending to inject genuine emotion into the character’s play-acting? It is an excellent question, and, regardless of what the answer is, it stands as a testament to the strength of the performance. Peter Lorre. What can be written? It is doubtful the man has ever given a poor performance. His Joel Cairo is so slimy, so odd, so perfectly foreign yet nearly lovable for said oddness. His mannerisms are both funny and arresting. It is a prime example of a character who is played partly for laughs but also very seriously. The character is not a joke by any stretch, but the performance hits so many notes of weirdness, many of which have to do with Lorre playing up the fact that English is not Cairo’s first language, that he becomes funny, at least some of the time. It seems nonsensical to hear that Falcon was Sydney Greenstreet’s first-ever film role. He plays the part with so much confidence, so much ‘joie de vivre’ that one would easily be forgiven for thinking he was an old pro. The character of Gutman ends up being the chief villain of the piece, yet leave it to Greenstreet to never give up on presenting him with the variety of class and sophistication that only an Englishman can exude. Even tiny roles, like those of detectives Dundy and Polhaus, are filled by noir veterans, like Barton MacLane and Ward Bond respectively. Lee Patrick is the ultimate, smarter than one thinks secretary, Effie Perine.
The Maltese Falcon is simply one of those movies for which all the ingredients fall perfectly into place. The director, John Huston, whisks the viewer from one dialogue-heavy scene to another, wherein plenty of questions are asked and plenty of additional information is provided, most of which is debunked later on as hogwash. The quality of the acting, the dialogue, and the pacing gives the film its heart and its energy. The film is never boring or too slow despite there being little to no action. Quite the contrary, it is rather thrilling. At one point, the viewer might not even care anymore about what the sought-after Maltese falcon is, yet still care very much to learn what fate has in store for the characters, which is a sign that everything is working like clockwork.