The Maltese Falcon…Remembered
In honor of the Bonhams auction, a review!
The Maltese Falcon (1941) stars Humphrey Bogart & Mary Astor and is directed by John Huston. It is the very first American film noir movie, a genre now seen in many other films, such as Blade Runner, Sin City (or any Tarantino film), or Basic Instinct (1992).
The opening of the film is simple and begins with a scrawling prologue text, like that seen in Star Wars. This is an element commonly used in serials and adventures. I think the text itself, the underlying score, and the idol in the backdrop help give the movie some early sense of mystery about the item and its exotic nature. The text tells us that the fate of the prized falcon remains a mystery to this day. The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often included on compilations of mystery films, although it has elements of the detective genre, film noir, and crime stories.
The beginning opens into Sam Spade’s office and starts with a discussion between Spade and his secretary. A customer arrives and Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, interviews her, beginning the case and the plot of the movie. The Sam Spade character is famous and began the “hard-boiled detective” type, a character type that is now so recognizable, it is considered old and overused. The type usually comes down to being able to take care of himself in any situation. The “hard-boiled detective” is also typically tough and sour, often gruff or ill-tempered, unable to put up with backtalk or cheaters. I’m not sure if Bogart’s portrayal has stereotyped all private detectives into being tough and no-nonsense, but people might be a little too old for that kind of thinking. However, it may still have influence on film.
Spade interviews Miss Ruth Wonderly, played by Mary Astor, like in any good Sherlock Holmes story. She recounts what happened to her and she hires Spade, then the plot is off. It moves quickly and doesn’t wait a moment to move along with some critical action.
After the death of Sam Spade’s partner, you can see Spade become sour and determined. There are several other actors in this film that I recognize and like, who are equally as sour and determined. I wonder if sour and determined is a key trait for film noir inhabitants.
I didn’t know that the film had two previous versions and was written by the director, John Huston, in the third attempt. In a way, this film is a remake of the previous version. It is also based on a novel. Huston continued writing and working with Bogart on another occasion. It is well-directed, using dark and tight shots, those that create the idea of closed space. I think some of the placement of the camera does well to reinforce the style of the film, as in the picture below.
A simple shot really, you can see Spade’s desk littered with hard work and much of the background suggests urban melodrama. Only a little fog or rain might help enhance it. This one shot alone enhances Sam Spade’s characterization. He’s a hard worker. He’s busy. The tight shot reinforces the cramped confines of the room. In many scenes, the camera leads the action and commands the actors, such as when it leads Greenstreet down a hallway or focuses on Bogart’s drugged glass in a key scene.
A young Peter Lorre plays Joel Cairo and he is very memorable. He’s the classic, sniveling scoundrel. Like a bully, he tries to get what he wants by intimidation and force, but quickly backs down. Lorre was typecast as that same sniveling foreigner later in life, possibly because of his accent. Despite his, he was famously in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), where everyone on Earth knows him from. He later earned a star on the walk of fame.
Another actor that was later typecast was Sydney Greenstreet, who appears as the “Fat Man”, a criminal businessman in this film. I enjoy this actor quite a bit and like all his performances, but he usually plays just about the same character in every film. He appears in this movie and Casablanca as an eccentric businessman. That’s pretty much all people remember him from. Me too. Not to say that his performances were bad. I think as eccentric businessman go, no one else is better, and he has some the best dialogue in this film.
“Now, sir. We’ll talk, if you like. I’ll tell you right out I like talking to man who likes to talk,” The Fat Man says.
“Will we talk about the Black Bird?” Spade asks.
“Haha. No beating about the bush. Right to the point.”
Early in the film, Spade is tailed by a man played by Elisha Cook Jr, who works for Greenstreet’s character. Cook is another famous actor many recognize. He has a well-known face and has guest-starred on many old TV shows, even in the famous Star Trek episode “Court Marshal” playing the lawyer. He has a weasely way about him that makes him a perfect lawyer or thug.
Anyway, I get sidetracked talking about all these famous actors in this film. About the Falcon itself, I think it is interesting that we don’t really see it until the last part of the film. It is pictured in the prologue though, and is referred many times throughout the film. Never has a film been made that refers to an object so much. Speaking of famous objects, O’Shaughnessy talks about a price for the Falcon as she rocks in Spade’s chair, a chair up for auction Nov 25, 2013 at Bonhams. It promises to bring at least 150,000. I wonder if it’s still in good shape. Would you sit in a chair you paid 150,000 for?
Overall, the film has some great dialogue. I especially like Greenstreet’s monologues about the history of the Falcon and Spade’s banter with just about everyone. I think everyone tries to intimidate everyone else in this movie, who try to get their way through lying or cheating.
Of the weaknesses, there are very few, if any. Perhaps the environment is a bit repetitive and the movie really is for people who like dialogue, interaction, or plot. Speaking of the plot, it does play into stereotypes and you seem to know who is going to be a villain before they even speak. Also, the score is rather dull, unlike Casablanca or perhaps a Hitchcock mystery. Turner made a mistake in colorizing this movie later on, but hopefully the colorized version made in the 80s no longer exists. Perhaps it was Turner trying to get his billion back he paid for the film.
In the end, Spade gets his man, but doesn’t get the Falcon. Although Spade solved the crime, the Falcon was fake because you wouldn’t want to reduce the allure of such an exotic item, after all. This film is a classic and just right for any detective lover, Humphrey Bogart fan or connoisseur of good movies.
Please see my related story on what is up for auction at Bonhams Nov 25.
- Most Famous Statuette Ever Up For Auction Nov 25 (falconmovies.wordpress.com)