Maltese Falcon, The (United States, 1941)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Maltese Falcon is among the most important and influential movies to emerge from the Hollywood system - as significant in some ways as its contemporary, Citizen Kane. In addition to providing the cinema with a new kind of private investigator (move over, Nick and Nora Charles), The Maltese Falcon supplied an entirely new style by which to tell these kinds of stories: film noir. It was the directorial birthplace of John Huston, who would become one of the dozen-or-so most revered American-born filmmakers, as well as the picture that transformed Humphrey Bogart from a B-level supporting villain to an A-level leading man. At the same time, it tells a twisty, compelling story that holds up reasonably well more than 65 years after being committed to film.

For The Maltese Falcon, the third time was a charm. Warner Brothers optioned the Dashiell Hammett potboiler and had a version of the story on the screen within two years after its publication. The 1931 adaptation portrayed Sam Spade as more of a playboy than a hard-nosed tough guy; it was met with critical derision to go along with its moderate commercial success. Five years later, Satan Met a Lady was released. That was a comedy reworking of the story starring Bette Davis as the femme fatale. The names were changed to protect the guilty but Hammett was given his due credit. The movie bombed. Then, in 1941, the Huston/Bogart collaboration - a production made on the cheap with contract players and a short shooting schedule - changed the direction of Hollywood.

By the time The Maltese Falcon arrived, audiences had become used to a certain kind of private investigator - usually someone with independent wealth who cooperated with the police and avoided too much dirtying of hands. The Thin Man and its sequels are perfect examples. (It's worth noting that The Thin Man was also based on a Hammett property.) The Maltese Falcon introduces Sam Spade - an antihero with a penchant for fast dialogue and faster women. He'll do anything to make a buck or bed a dame, and is likeable only because of his frankness about the world and his role in it. He doesn't carry a gun but isn't afraid to use one if presented with the opportunity. This was not how movie detectives were expected to act before 1941. After the release of The Maltese Falcon, that became pretty much the only way they were expected to act.

As the story opens, P.I. Sam Spade (Bogart) is in his office, engaging in banter with his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick). Enter the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She wants to hire Sam and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She spins a story about her sister having been led astray by a man and brought to San Francisco against her will. For $200, Spade is to liberate the sister from this man, but it may be dangerous. Miles takes the point on the case and is killed during the stakeout. Sam doesn't show much remorse about this development - it's an opportunity for him to change the name of the agency. Plus, he has been having an affair with Miles' wife. Nevertheless, the code by which Sam lives requires that he find Miles' killer and bring the man to justice. His best lead is Brigid, so he starts there. It turns out there is no "sister." This is all about the black statuette of a falcon, possibly a priceless artifact whose current whereabouts are unknown. Sam is only one of a few seeking the falcon. His rivals include the urbane Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the larger-than-life "Fat Man" Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet); and Gutman's muscle, "Little Boy" Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.). It takes a while before the full truth about the falcon and Brigid's involvement is revealed, but Sam eventually gets to the bottom of the caper. (History buffs will note that that the first two atom bombs, "Fat Man" and "Little Boy," were named after Gutman and Cook.)

All these years later, it's tough to imagine anyone but Bogart playing Spade, so watching either of the earlier versions is an odd experience. Bogart embodies Hammett's detective: so calloused by life that he won't become a "sap" even for love, yet hiding a core of humanity that occasionally peeks through via haunted eyes. Bogart's clipped, rapid-fire delivery of Spade's lines has become iconic. When we think of the actor, we most often envision Rick from Casablanca, but that character has more than a few echoes of Spade in him. Before The Maltese Falcon, Bogart was not a big star; this movie elevated him into the stratosphere. For the next fifteen years, he would dominate Hollywood both on and off the screen.

Bogart was a package deal with first-time director John Huston, who would go on to work with the actor five more times (including Key Largo and The African Queen). Huston did not single-handedly invent film noir, but he combined elements of German Expressionism with Hollywood techniques to form a style that relied on shadows, light, and atmosphere to go along with dark plots and shady characters. Film noir became the only way to make crime films and detective stories during the '40s and '50s and its essential elements are still used today, even though the medium has changed from black-and-white to color.

The chemistry between the actors is palpable - it would have to be considering that all five principals (Spade, Brigid, Cairo, Gutman, Cook) are together in a single room for the final 20 minutes of the movie. The trio of Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet (making his first movie appearance here) worked so well together that they were re-united twice more - in Casablanca and Passage to Marseille. Mary Astor had not been the top choice to play Brigid (that had been Geraldine Fitzgerald) but her off-screen notoriety enhanced her portrayal since it "bled" into the character.

Initially, The Maltese Falcon may seem plot-driven but, when one considers that the falcon is actually a Mcguffin, the film can be seen as more of a character study. There are no traditional "good guys." Spade acts as he does not to honor the law but to fulfill his own personal code of honor, and he inflicts pain upon himself (and others) in the process. His choices and actions fly in the face of the belief that love can conquer all. In this movie and Spade's world-view, that's not the case.

In service of film noir, Huston and his cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, use light and shadow liberally and none of what transpires during the course of The Maltese Falcon does so in bright sunlight. The street scenes are in the black of night and, with the exception of Spade's office and Gutman's drawing room, few sets are well-lit. Huston employs interesting camera angles to vary the film's visual look. Greenstreet, for example, is often shot from below so he fills up and towers over the scene. There's also a long, unbroken take when Spade meets Gutman that often goes unnoticed and unmentioned because it flows so well and does not call attention to itself.

I would not argue that The Maltese Falcon is the best filmed detective story, but it is the progenitor of countless films, few of which achieved its level (never mind exceeding it). The movie offers fewer surprises to today's audiences than it would have provided to those viewing it 60+ years ago, primarily because so many of the innovations brought to the screen in The Maltese Falcon have become part of the everyday cinematic lexicon. Nevertheless, with Hammett's dialogue incorporated virtually verbatim into the screenplay, Bogart in top form, and Huston allowed total directorial freedom, watching this first of the films noir is an experience to be embraced.

Maltese Falcon, The (United States, 1941)

Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1