The Noir world is like ours, except the dialog is wittier, the shadows are deeper, the sins are darker, and the prize, be it treasure or the truth of human nature, is more magnificent. You don’t get more magnificent than the Maltese falcon.
Directed by:John Huston
Written by: John Huston (from the Dashiell Hammett novel)
Produced by Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis
Warner Brothers; 1941
Runtime: 100 Min
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Barton MacLane (Det. Lt. Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Ward Bond (Det. Tom Polhaus), Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook)
A Few Thoughts
Sam Spade is an unpleasant man. That’s where it all starts. He sleeps with his partner’s wife, hardly reacts when that partner is murdered, hits the implied-homosexual for the fun of it, and throws tantrums. Not that he’s particularly worse than the average person; he’s just no true-blue hero. He can be violent and cruel, and he’s not trying to improve himself, but he’s better than most of the other inhabitants of his world. Thus Film Noir was born.
Whether The Maltese Falcon is the first Film Noir or not is open to debate, but it’s easy to see why it is generally given the honor. All the parts are there: The hard-boiled story by Dashiell Hammett, the anti-hero detective, the collection of distinctive criminals, the less than honorable police, the femme fatale, the mystery that leads to greater mystery, the deep shadows, the unusual camera angles–particularly from the floor shooting up–the witty dialog, and the dark, uncompromising ending. Add in that it is a truly great film, and it’s an excellent place to mark the beginning of a genre.
What makes The Maltese Falcon so good? It’s the combination of many elements.
- The script is tight. Huston cleverly kept very close to Hammett’s book, which read as more of a screenplay than a novel. In Hollywood legend, Huston did not write a script, but simply had the book typed in script format. There are no slow moments–a substantial achievement in a film that is mainly talking.
- The cast is nearly perfect. This was Bogart’s breakout role and he devoured it. He’d played the petty, one-dimensional villain many times before, but in The Maltese Falcon, he imbued Sam Spade with a seldom seen depth. A bit of the old villains are there, and so is the tough guy with a code. But more than either, Bogart gives Spade mystery and pain. There is no mention of Spade’s past in the story, and yet every time I see Bogart on the screen, I know that Spade’s past is filled with terrible, heart-breaking moments. As good as Bogart is, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet ( in his first film role) match him. One of the great joys of The Maltese Falcon is listening to these wonderful voices. The exception to this is Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who lacks the sex appeal normally expected of the femme fatal. It’s hard to see how she could captivate Spade. But this isn’t a problem for the film. Spade is a mystery, and his particular interest in O’Shaughnessy is part of that mystery. Also, considering what Spade does to her, it is likely that Spade is only so enthralled.
- The camera work is dramatic and innovative. This is particularly evident in scenes with Kasper Gutman. As he sits and talks, the camera looks up at him, making a substantial man into an intimidating mass and giving us so much more of a feeling of who this man is than a straight shot would have. The most impressive work is a seven-minute scene where Spade and Gutman spar. What makes this so impressive is that the camera work does not draw attention to itself, but rather draws attention to the story and the characters.
The black bird of the title is the prize the story revolves around–but this is no Macguffin, as Hichcock labeled the item that everyone wants but is of no real importance. The uranium dust in Notorius is the perfect example of a McGuffin–if it had been a powerful poison or plans for putting together a fourth Reich, the story wouldn’t have changed; all that mattered in that film was that there was something the bad-guys shouldn’t have. But any change to the falcon (as was done in the 1936 version, called Satan Met a Lady, where the bird was replaced by a horn) would change the film. The black bird is more than just a prize. It is, as Spade says, the stuff that dreams are made of. It is mythic. It elevates the quest of the characters from just a desire for cash to something grander. It’s something just a bit beyond reality. And that’s what good Noir is. The Noir world is much like ours, except the dialog is wittier, the girls are prettier, the shadows are deeper, the sins are darker, and the prize, be it treasure or the truth of human nature, is more magnificent. You don’t get more magnificent than the Maltese falcon.
Sneaking Around the Production Code
With all Noir films made under the production code, and with the sin inherent in the genre, it’s not surprising that filmmakers found ways around the code, even if it’s only by implication. The Maltese Falcon had plenty to shock 1940s audiences, if they looked hard enough. Repeatedly, Sam refers to Wilber as Gutman’s gunsel. This was one of Huston’s cleverest gags as he knew the censors would think “gunsel” was slang for “gunman,” a meaning it has since picked up due to others making that mistake. But “gunsel” meant homosexual–a submissive homosexual. Add in Joel Cairo’s scented handkerchief (another sign of a film homosexual), and the film takes on a new sexual dynamic. Wilber has been Gutman’s plaything. It is with regret that the fat man gives him up, but Cairo has already replaced him before the film ends. Those three are not the only ones who are sexually active. Cairo makes it clear that Brigid has leapt into bed with almost every straight male she’s met. But don’t think a sexual appetite defines the villains. Spade has been sleeping with his partner’s wife for some time. And do you really think he’s asking for a kiss from Bridgid when he asks what else she will give him to keep him loyal?
So we’ve got sex, violence, witty dialog, great voices, beautiful photography, a no compromises ending, a legendary statue, and a bit of philosophy on the meaning of life. That should be enough entertainment for anyone.
Why is it Important?
As previously mentioned, The Maltese Falcon is considered to be the first Film Noir. That is enough to make it one of the most significant films in movie history. Hollywood was changed, and 400+ films would follow in the shadow of The Maltese Falcon. It also made Bogart into a star. And few films are more well known, or have so often been copied.
It’s wonderful when great films look great. The DVD has as good a transfer as can be imagined from a 60-year-old film. Sure there are a few lines and a bit of grain, but they are trivial. The extras are unexciting, but fun (two trailers, a documentary on the trailers for Bogart films), but when the film looks this good, the extras are of little importance.