If you have never seen The Maltese Falcon, you have deprived yourself of something truly spectacular.
You should fix that. Immediately.
The granddaddy of film noir–the biggest and best of them all–this is one of those landmark films which ushered in an entirely new genre in movie-making, all on the very capable backs of director John Huston and actor Humphrey Bogart. This film launched Bogart into the stratosphere, helping craft the gruff, hardboiled, anti-heroic guise that would become his trademark in the latter half of his career. In Sam Spade, Bogie found a perfect match for his rather low-key, yet intense acting style, and the result is pure cinema magic
In the film, Bogart’s detective Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, are approached by the beautiful and mysterious Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor), who seeks their assistance in finding her runaway sister, whom she claims was seduced by a man named Thursby. The detectives agree to take the case, but Archer is killed that evening while following the purported suspect, and Wonderly disappears. When Thursby, too, ends up dead, Spade is suspected of committing both crimes, the motive being his secret affair with his partner’s wife, Iva. When Spade finally encounters Wonderly again–now under her real name, Brigid O’Shaughnessy–she admits that she had completely fabricated the story about her sister and claims to know nothing about the murders. When a man named Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) appears in Spade’s office and searches it for the statue of a bird–a statue that is also sought by criminal Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet (article)), also known as the “Fat Man”–Spade finds himself pulled into the search for the figurine, all while trying to figure out who murdered his partner and fighting off the advances of both the alluring Brigid and the incessantly needy Iva.
The plot is somewhat convoluted, and upon the first viewing, it may be difficult to follow who is doing what to whom and for what reason. But in the end, the plot doesn’t matter overmuch; the real draw of the film is the cast and their fiery interactions throughout the film. In adapting Dashiell Hammett’s original story, not much was changed; the majority of the dialogue was retained in the film version, and the only omissions were some epithets and occasional references to sexual relationships as per the rules of the Hays Code. The gritty story stays very true to the spirit of the original; the striking cinematography, in which low lighting and atypical camera angles are used to create a rather unsettling mood, heightens the uneasy mystery of the tale.
Bogart is decidely brilliant as Spade, but the film’s real strength comes from its supporting cast. Astor, who until this point in her long career had been relegated to playing ingenue roles in silent films and light comedies, is an unexpected revelation in Falcon. She deftly portrays the alluring, conniving Brigid, switching easily between simpering femininity and leashed ferocity, all while allowing just a hint of reluctant sympathy to enter her performance. She practically snatches your attention from Bogart in their shared scenes–something incredibly difficult for any actor to manage, truth be told. And Astor is not the only one to accomplish this–as the criminal duo Cairo and Fat Man, Lorre and Greenstreet add their typical, respective gravitas to each role, and Greenstreet’s performance is especially impressive considering that, at the age of 62, this was his first time on film (more on Greenstreet’s career here).
I own the three-disc special edition of this film, and it’s been one of the best additions to my personal classic movie library. Not only does the set include the digitally-remastered Bogart edition, but it also features both of the earlier film versions of the story. It’s great fun (well, in my world, it’s great fun) to compare the three versions of the story for yourself and see the strengths and weaknesses of each. You can also hear three different radio adaptations of the tale! The set also includes some great extras, including an interesting documentary about the film and several Warner Bros. shorts and cartoons.
Brandie Ashe is a writer and recent escapee from graduate school. She is now in hiding on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Brandie and her blog co-authors Carrie and Nikki recently celebrated their 100th post on their blog True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, where they share their love of Alfred Hitchcock, screwball comedies, Katharine Hepburn, and all things old-school Disney. Visit their Facebook page here.
Humphrey Bogart fans read about the Non-Essential films of his career.