I first saw “The Maltese Falcon” years back probably in junior high when it was my custom to seek out classic movies at my local video store. I found it in a green case with a picture of Humphrey Bogart holding the black bird that has become such an iconic figure in film history. I was curious about it, I had heard of these Humphrey Bogart detective films and I was very excited to finally see one. I’ve pretty much lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film since then, needless to say, I know it inside out, I can probably recite dialogue from it almost verbatim, yet it never loses its mystery, or its sense of effecient, and effective storytelling. It’s a film that even if you haven’t seen it, you still know it, it’s synonymous with the beginning of film noir, and both the careers of Humphrey Bogart as a star, and John Huston as a director.
It should be noted that “The Maltese Falcon” started out as a crime novel by the master of the hard boiled genre Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was known for his string of detective books which also included “The Thin Man”, as well as “Red Harvest” which introduced his nameless Continental Op detective, a character he used in a string of short stories. “The Maltese Falcon” has probably become Hammett’s best known book no doubt because of the film’s notoriety. The legend goes that John Huston, who was a prominant screenwriter at the time, but who had ambitions to be director, took the advice from the great filmmaker Howard Hawks to make “The Maltese Falcon” the subject of his first film and simply film the book as closely as possible. Filmed versions of the book had actually been done twice before Huston’s film, both with middling success, yet I believe Huston was able to grasp the tone of the book better than before, he was able to find the edge the other films neglected to include, he was also a young filmmaker who wanted to be economical when making the movie in order to come under budget, but he was not afraid to try some new bold techniques.
Humphrey Bogart plays detective Sam Spade who along with his partner Miles Archer, is hired by a woman, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to follow a man named Thursby. Archer decides to be the one to follow Thursby, but he soon ends up dead, shot at close range by an unknown assailant. Spade who shows no signs of remorse to his partner’s death decides to try and solve the murder anyway. This leads him to a few more shady characters, first there is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a well dressed, but weakling of a man who is the first to confront Spade about the Maltese falcon, an infamous bird statue that is worth a fortune. Pretty soon, another party known as “The Fat Man”, is also interested in the same bird, this man is later revealed as Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), a thief who has been tracking the falcon for years. There is also Gutman’s loyal young henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who constantly tracks Spade, and is usually humilated by him everytime Spade outsmarts him. The Falcon itself is mostly a McGuffin which is a word usually credited to Hitchcock as something that didn’t really matter but drove the plot, yet the Falcon does symbolize the idea of unattainable riches that men strive for, and the lust and greed that overtake them. The idea of greed and lust shows up quite often in Huston’s films, most prominantely in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, as well as “The Man who Would be King”, those seeds are planted here in his first film.
“The Maltese Falcon” is quite a miracle in economic filmmaking, watching it again, I was struck at how much of it takes place in interior settings. This could’ve been detrimental to the cinematic quality of the film, but Huston stages the scenes in very inventive ways. Along with his cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who Huston worked closely with, the look of the film became its biggest asset. Edeson created very low key lighting, working with more expressive shadows and light mostly closely associated at the time with German Expressionism, and the classic universal horror films like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula”. But this choice of lighting gives “The Maltese Falcon” its bleak atmosphere, and cynical outlook that would be staples in film noir throughout the forties.
Huston also used unique camera angles, sometimes low to the ground which could emphasize the growing paranoia in the room, or simply give a character a certain ounce of malice. This worked beautifully on Greenstreet’s main villain Gutman who was commonly seen at a low angle giving him a larger than life presence. Greenstreet, who was a veteran stage actor, had never been in a film before, but this made him one of the most recognizable character actors of all time, he brings a sense of jovial villainy to Gutman that makes the character contageous to watch each time he’s on camera.
Let’s talk about the other stars here. As Wilmer, the young henchman who’s inexperienced in the presence of Bogart’s seasoned detective, Elisha Cook Jr. brings his usual ounce of neurotic nervousness to this role that served him well throughout the years as a film noir staple. Sometimes Cook played the cuckolded lover like in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”, or the little tough hood who sacrifices himself for the woman he loves in Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep”, Wilmer is somehow probably the most sympathetic character in “The Maltese Falcon” for the simple fact that he’s the eternal heel who’s not smart enough to know it.
In the role of Joel Cairo, Peter Lorre gives one of his best performances, and it was said that it was his favorite performance. Lorre’s Cairo is at once sinister but also comical, seen as a dandy who is in over his head in the tough guy department when he’s up against mostly everyone else in the film, Lorre is perfectly cast.
A Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Mary Astor is fasinating as a woman who seems to be playing both sides, but you’re not quite sure which side she’ll ultimately end up on. She probably has the most complicated role, which requires her to be a woman in distress, a woman in control, but also a woman in love. Astor brings frailty, and cunning into the mix which I think makes her one of the most interesting femme fatales in film history.
But I wanted to leave Bogart’s Sam Spade till the end because this is really his picture, as it sinks or swims with Sam Spade. Probably for the first time in his career, Bogart is aloud to show off the kind of charisma he was born to play. Spade is a tough guy, but also a bit unlikeable. Setting him apart from Bogart’s other detective character Phillip Marlow in”The Big Sleep”, Spade isn’t afraid to play it loose with his morals, or to lie, steal, and cheat to get what he wants. Spade does have his own moral code, and like Marlowe he doesn’t fall into the corrupt world that film noir characters live in, but he’s just a bit more dastardly, and dirty. Bogart seems to be taking glee with this type of anti-hero finding the humour, but also the biting cynicism that goes with being a man in this type of work, dealing with criminals and thugs, and people who can’t always be trusted; he gets the job done, but not without a few sacrifices.
“The Maltese Falcon” is commonly cited as the first of the film noir genre, although it could be argued there were others that came before it such as Fritz Lang’s “M” which starred Lorre as a child killer, or even Jean Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” which dealt with the trope of a femme fatale trying to get her lover to kill her husband. But “The Maltese Falcon” is the one that really started the American film noir movement, the war had begun, the world seemed bleak, and movies were ready to dive into existential questions of man’s fate, and the cheapness of life. “The Maltese Falcon” set the tone, and others followed, and movies would find there dark side, and things were about to get complicated. Perhaps it’s not much of a coincidence that “The Maltese Falcon” was released the same year as that other masterpiece by a first time director “Citizen Kane”, a film that really played with narrative, and structure unlike anything before it. Along with “Kane”, “The Maltese Falcon” was showing a growing maturity in film language, it had a point of view that clicked with the growing uncertainty that World War II brought, and in Bogart, it created a hero who didn’t always do the right thing, but did what had to be done.