The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet
Written By: Dashiell Hammett and John Huston

I recently got to see this film again for the first time in many years at the CineCenta theatre with a near-capacity crowd. Watching old movies — particularly familiar classics — takes on a lot of new meaning when you have a crowd, a fine print, excellent sound and such a big screen. Changes the whole dynamic.

When people refer to “film noir,” this is one of the archetypes of that whole genre. Many people today believe it refers to crime films taking place largely at night, but it actually has less to do with the stylised B&W look and a lot more to do with characters who have ambiguous motivations, secrets, and sexual agendas (well downplayed thanks to the Hays Office, but represented in other ways).

Bogart’s character Sam Spade is the perfect example: he’s in business with his partner Miles Archer but doesn’t like him, and at some point in the past was seeing Archer’s wife (though he has since lost interest). He doesn’t mourn Archer’s death when it happens, but he gives up a promising love affair to see his murderer brought to justice. He plays both sides of the law like a hopscotch court, alternately cooperating with then abusing the local police; and he admits that money sways him, although he (barely) ends up the hero. “Hard-boiled” is too weak a description for this guy: he drinks and smokes like a fiend, is blatantly greedy, is abusive to the people who are the most help to him, and his moral compass swings around like its at the North Pole.

The colourful supporting characters, and Bogart’s interaction with them, is what really holds the film together and why this version (and not the two previous film versions) is so well-remembered. Although each character (but one) is a delight, it’s Bogart deftly adapting to each one that is the real magic: Sam Spade is a consummate judge of character, knowing exactly how far he can push each person till they give.

Of course, this is the long-gone world of the early 1940s, and the interaction of characters as seen now gave for many moments of laughter as Spade steamrollers his devoted Miss Moneypenny secretary, smacks Peter Lorre around and tells him he’ll like it, intimidates the hapless police and brushes off Archer’s now-available widow in favour of the more dangerous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, among others. The laughter came naturally from a combination of awareness at how social morés had changed, along with the sharply written and rapid-fire banter. There’s a lot of really good lines in this film.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie is well-stocked with a diverse range of well-drawn characters, from the relentlessly civilised crime boss Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) to the rage-filled gunsel (that term used quite deliberately it would seem) Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) to Peter Lorre’s unforgettable clever weasel, Joel Cairo. Even Spade’s office moll Effie (Lee Patrick), forever to become a caricatured stereotype in later films, projects a lot of heart into what we would today call a hopeless enabler. The only person really miscast in my view was Mary Astor, trying too hard to match Bogey’s machine-gun delivery until in some scenes it resembles an episode of Dragnet, and carrying off an Irish immigrant grifter about as well as Queen Elizabeth would have. She’s too stiff and too upper-class to really pull off the constant turns of softness and hardness the character needs, alternating from victim to gangster in a flash. Astor is just naturally glamourous and while some of that is called for, it never cracks enough for us to see if there’s anything underneath.

First-time (at the time) director Huston makes up for his inexperience by cleverly planning out every sequence and shooting almost totally in chronological order, making it easy for the actors to keep their performances consistent and keeping the crew on high efficiency (almost no dialogue was cut from the raw footage to the final edit). There are still short bits where the story gets into a bit of a muddle, but overall this is a very sharply-directed film.

There are several long sequences that appear to have been shot in a single take, including the finale which is over seven minutes of uninterrupted single camera angle, but my own favourite scene in the protracted struggle between Spade and Cairo in Spade’s office; motivations and fortunes change several times in the course of a five minute scene, with brilliant dialogue as punchy as the violence. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon is a far less violent film than you would expect; ultimately only two people actually die, and one of those is off a character who never actually appears in the film.

The elaborate plot unfolds rather deliciously, with the viewer led on a number of false starts; this is still a refreshing change from the hamfisted spell-it-all-out-complete-with-flashbacks approach too many modern mysteries indulge in. With almost all of the characters, there’s so much we’ve clearly not been told that could flesh them out, but instead Hammett and Huston leave them as they are, and we accept them as they are — even though we’d love to know more. We get enough of their essential personas to let our imaginations fill in the gaps, and the sexual innuendo and tension laid on thick thanks to the censorship of the times actually helps give these characters more mystery than they would have had otherwise.

I was particularly re-impressed (as I always am) with the various scenes of Spade’s love/hate relationship with the police; there were gasps from the audience during moments where Spade takes command and browbeats the fuzz into submission, not once but several times.

Music, sound effects, incidental characters and establishing shots are similarly concise and economical, letting the characters and dialogue have the day over much action or violence — all in service to the story, which is how it ought to be for a movie like this.

Despite some now-unintentional comedy due to the customs of the day, the tale and particularly its players bring a still-modern sense of complexity and ambiguity to their parts that still works to keep our interest; its only in the climax of the film that we finally find out of Bogart is going to sacrifice all for love, fall in with the villains or — as it turns out — find a nifty third way out of the whole mess.

Well-cast, well-played, shot in a workmanlike style and directed with great economy of tone, memorable characters and a multi-level story make The Maltese Falcon not just the first, but one of the best, of a just-minted genre. Guys should take their dolls out to this one; it’s not only a classic, it’s a San Francisco Treat.

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About chasinvictoria

Writer/Editor, Comic Performer, Doctor Who fan, radio DJ, Punk/New Wave/Ska fiend, podcaster, audio editor, film buff, actor, producer, leftie (literally and figuratively), comedian, blogger, teacher, smartarse, and motormouth. Not necessarily in that order.

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