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The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr.

Written By: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett (novel) Directed By: John Huston

The Short Version

When you say “classic movie,” The Maltese Falcon is always one of the first names to come up.

This is one flick that has not only stood the test of time, but danced circles around it and bought a round of drinks.

Bogart puts in a performance for the ages, and you won’t believe that John Huston was a first-time director.

The razor sharp dialogue is simply a joy to listen to.

The Maltese Falcon truly is the stuff that dreams are made of; call it required viewing.

The Long Version

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Whether or not it’s the spirit imbibed on camera, the spirit of the film itself calls for American whiskey, and of those, I’ve selfishly picked my favorite.  Just remember that the advice given by Sydney Greenstreet’s character is fundamentally bad for you no matter how true it is.

“I distrust a man who says "when."  If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does.”

“I haven't lived a good life.  I've been bad; worse than you could know.”

“You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.”

Whether the actual reason was that he considered The Maltese Falcon an “unimportant film” or that he thought working with a rookie director was beneath him, seven decades later, we look back upon George Raft and his decision to pull out of the starring role of The Maltese Falcon and we laugh.  For now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that The Maltese Falcon is important enough for a spot on just about every critic’s all time Top 40 list (often in the top ten and seen regularly enough as the top one), and an example of one of the best directorial debuts in Hollywood history.  It is, as Humphrey Bogart would tell us, the stuff that dreams are made of.

Our story begins with a title card of fictional history that reads like so:

“In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels.  But pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token, and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day…”

Have yourself a free drink if you know that in reality, the Knights Templar and the Knights of Malta (aka The Knights of the Hospital of St. John) are in fact two different Orders, but then let it go.

We move on to present day (circa pre-Pearl Harbor 1941) San Francisco.  Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca) is the primary half of the detective partnership of Spade & Archer.  As we meet Mr. Spade, his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick, Visit to a Small Planet), informs him that there’s “a real knockout” calling herself “Miss Wonderly” (Mary Astor, Meet Me in St. Louis) waiting to see him.  After being shown in, Miss Wonderly explains that she’s terribly worried about her missing brother, whom she fears has become caught up in some shady business with a local no-goodnik named Thursby.  If, perhaps, Thursby could be followed that night, he might lead the way to her missing brother.  And the lady will be happy to pay a generous amount in advance, of course.

Neither Spade nor Archer (Jerome Cowan, High Sierra) believe the lady’s story, but they do believe her money, so Archer volunteers to tail Thursby.  But before the night is over, he’ll be shot dead, and Miss Wonderly will have disappeared from her hotel.  Gosh, do you think that any of this might have to do with the title card we read at the beginning?  Spade may not have been privy to that little hint, but he’s certainly determined to find out anyway…

Most modern audiences don’t realize that The Maltese Falcon that we all instantly recognize is in fact the third attempt to make a movie out of Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled masterpiece.  The first two flopped to such a degree that the studio considered changing the title to avoid taint by association, but John Huston talked them out of it.  Part of the problem, he reasoned, was that neither of the first two films were faithful to the book, most notably (but certainly not entirely) on account of having happy endings forced upon them.  Huston therefore set out to present a faithful adaptation, to the point where he (or his uncredited secretary, depending upon whom you ask) simply transcribed Hammett’s book into screenplay format and went with it.  Any changes were minor, and the end result was the beginning of the Golden Age of film noir.

This just goes to show that expertise is not simply a matter of what one does, but also of what one does not do.  Huston saw the genius of Hammett’s work – and how well it would translate to the medium of film – and didn’t mess with it.  (I imagine a long line of modern novelists begging for Hollywood to remember this philosophy.  I also imagine that they’ll be kept waiting a long time.)

He also proved to be dynamite in the director’s chair.  Huston came to the set extremely prepared, with every shot storyboarded out at a time when this was not ‘par for the course’ practice.  What followed was an impressive collaboration of professionals.  The experienced cast saw the excellence of the rookie director’s planning and didn’t feel compelled to throw their weight around just because they could, while at the same time the rookie director understood the value of the cast’s experience and was willing to consider suggestions when they were presented.  (Bogart’s last line, for example.)  When all was said and done, most of it was said and done Huston’s way, and frankly, you won’t find many better-directed films out there that don’t have the name “Hitchcock” attached.  Though most critics prefer to gush over the ‘seven minute take’ or the symbolism surrounding the leading lady, I have to say that my favorite bit of directorial genius here is the handling of the first appearance of Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre, The Raven) in Sam Spade’s office.  The whole scene is marvelously done, and the end of it never ceases to make me laugh even more than Bogart does.

And hey, how about that cast?

Needless to say, it all starts with Humphrey Bogart.  The term “pure genius” tends to be overused when describing performances, but in this case, Bogart’s razor sharp, two-steps-ahead portrayal of Sam Spade is exactly that.  He may not fit Dashiell Hammett’s physical description of the tenacious gumshoe, but he nails the spirit of the character perfectly, and that’s what counts.  When Bogart’s at the top of his game, he’s mesmerizing to watch, and he is very much at the top of his game here.  The compliments could go on for days, but I think you get the point.  [A quick pause here, by the way, with regard to Mr. Spade.  I find it funny that one of the more common poster variants for this film contains the tagline “a story as explosive as his blazing automatics.”  In fact, Spade never carries a gun that he doesn’t take from someone else, and he tends to give those guns back without shooting them.  There are no “blazing automatics.”]

Backing him up is Mary Astor, who hams it up in the best possible sense as the femme fatale who relies on the feigned innocence card to keep herself afloat.  Her performance is great fun to watch, and though it’s slightly over the top, after seeing The Maltese Falcon many, many times, I think it plays best that way, and indeed, comes across as more genuine to the character.  (You’ve almost certainly met at least one person in real life who is like this character – probably several – and given that experience… yeah, she nails it.)  Interestingly though, the combination of Astor’s excellent performance and Bogart’s excellent performance lead to the one and only thing that I can look upon as a flaw in this film: I can’t buy into the possibility that Spade really falls in love with this woman, and not simply because it’s obvious that Spade never believes her.  (Let’s face it; lots of people fall for others they know to be compulsive liars.)  Bogart plays Spade as so savvy that I just can’t picture him finding this degree of dishonesty attractive.  What’s more – and perhaps more important – there’s just no romantic spark between Bogart and Astor.  Competitive, yes.  Intellectual, yes.  Romantic, no.

But let’s be honest, folks; the quibble is a minor one.  By allowing the real noir ending, Mr. Huston has made sure that this small detail doesn’t ruin an otherwise incredible party.

It would be criminal to neglect mentioning more of the superb supporting cast before we part.  Sydney Greenstreet (Three Strangers) makes his memorable screen debut here, and proves that his presence goes far beyond the simple fact of his physical girth.  His verbal sparring with Bogart is an absolute joy to listen to, and even if this first role had been his last – which it thankfully wasn’t – this single performance would have cemented Greenstreet as one of the great supporting actors of the noir era.  And then, of course, there’s his frequent costar Peter Lorre, who plays Joel Cairo to greasy perfection.  When you’re looking for a shady character. You just can’t go wrong with Peter Lorre.  Also standing out here is Elisha Cook, Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby) as Greenstreet’s easily needled hired muscle.  It’s the tension he brings to the role that makes the character dangerous, and a wonderful offset to the conniving intellectual characters surrounding him.

When all is said and done, The Maltese Falcon truly is the stuff that dreams are made of.  The herald of the Golden Age of film noir, this is a flick that only gets better with age.  If it has flaws, they’re minor ones that just can’t get in the way of one of Hollywood’s greatest stories.

Bottom line, if you don’t already own The Maltese Falcon, you should; repeat viewings are too much of a must to call this one a rental.  And while you’re at it, you might as well pick up Dashiell Hammett’s book, too.  It’s a hell of a read.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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