Should I Watch..? The Maltese Falcon (1941)
What's the big deal?
The Maltese Falcon is a film-noir mystery released in 1941 and is the third adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The film sees private detective Sam Spade thrust into a murder-mystery when his partner is killed during the pursuit of a mysterious statue by numerous criminals. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Gladys George and was directed by John Huston in his directorial debut. The film has come to be regarded as a staple of the film-noir genre and has been endlessly imitated and parodied over the years. Unlike the two previous adaptations, this version was a critical and commercial success with global takings of $1.7 million (worth about $29.4 million in 2017) and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
What's it about?
San Francisco and into the office of private detectives Sam Space and Miles Archer walks beautiful potential client Ruth Wonderly who asks them for help in locating her missing sister. She claims that her sister has disappeared with a man named Floyd Thursby, a dangerous man who Wonderly fears. After being paid a healthy sum, Archer agrees to follow Thursby and persuade Miss Wonderly's sister to leave him. However, later that night, Spade is woken up by a phone-call informing him that Archer has been murdered around the time that Thursby himself was shot dead.
The police believe that Spade was the killer, seeing as Thursby was likely responsible for Archer's death and there are uncomfortable rumours circling suggesting Spade was conducting an affair with Archer's widow Iva. Spade, however, suspects that answers might lie with the bewitching Miss Wonderly and quickly tracking her down, discovers that she is involved in something more complex than a runaway sister. Slowly but surely, Spade finds himself dragged ever deeper into the mystery and ever further into danger...
Brigid O'Shaughnessy / Ruth Wonderly
Effie Perine, Sam's assistant
John Huston *
Release Date (US)
18th October, 1941
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Lorre), Best Screenplay
What's to like?
Not really much of a film historian, I had always associated film-noir with Bogart's later picture The Big Sleep and his timeless portrayal of Raymond Chandler's world-weary gumshoe Marlowe. But this predates that movie by some five years and one can clearly see the seeds being sown right here. All the classic ingredients are there - the complex mystery, the assortment of larger-than-life characters, the dramatic lighting, the femme fatale, the endless cigarette smoke and of course, an anti-hero who is always one step ahead than they appear to be. As Spade, Bogart displays the perfect mix of charm, cool and repressed action - it's no wonder he popped up later as Marlowe.
Astor puts in a suitably dramatic performance as the beguiling heroine who isn't quite what she seems but Lorre is just perfect as the slimy, snivelling Cairo who is almost as captivating as Bogie. Thankfully, the material isn't anything like as confusing as The Big Sleep which is so confusing that even the producers of that film had to consult the author! The Maltese Falcon is certainly an impressive web of lies and half-truths to be unpicked and with Bogie on fine form in the middle, it's great fun trying to keep up with him as the fog slowly begins to clear.
- The first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was released in 1931 but not warmly received and was much more suggestive. As a result, a second adaptation was released called Satan Met A Lady and was much comical in nature. It also bombed.
- Three of the statuettes are still in existence and are worth over $1 million each - way more than the film cost to actually make. One of them is dented because Bogart accidentally dropped it during filming.
- Greenstreet had refused to appear in films until he was 62, having an extensive theatre career before his debut in this film. Weighing in at 357 lbs, his wardrobe and chairs had to be custom-made to accommodate his large frame.
What's not to like?
Modern audiences might be put off by the lack of violence, sex, explosions and other attention-diverting devices. But this is a wonderfully old-school mystery so I'm afraid that you will need to concentrate on the story and dialogue to stand a chance of keeping up with the story. The other problem is that the film utilises a lot of the sort of gumshoe parlance you'd imagine so you actually have to kinda put yourself into the character. Not that you mind that much because Bogie is absolutely perfect as Spade - you can't imagine anyone else in the role, even today. I even found myself reciting his lines in his distinctive drawl.
As a frustrated screenwriter myself, I have always found myself drawn to noir as I believe it is long overdue a comeback. Watching films like The Maltese Falcon feels like an education in the art of true film-making, the possible power contained in something as abstract as lighting. Each frame feels thought-out and the attention to detail is inspiring. True, the movie might benefit from some of modern cinema's editing tips (clearly, nobody here has heard of continuity as cigarettes move or disappear in between shots) but in truth, only someone nit-picking would notice these things.
Should I watch it?
I suspect that writers of crime thrillers these days would benefit enormously from watching this timeless piece of cinema, replete with Bogart's fabulous performance and Hammett's twisting tale of cross and double-cross. The Maltese Falcon stands up as a true classic, illuminated by a fantastic cast and a story that will have you hooked from the very start. There's no nonsense or flim-flam in the picture and is all the better for it.
Great For: mystery lovers, fans of cinema in general, film historians
Not So Great For: viewers with short attention spans, black-and-white snobs
What else should I watch?
Film noir can be a bewildering topic at times - indeed, some debate continues to rage about what exactly defines a noir picture. What is generally agreed is that the golden age of noir in Hollywood was the 1940's and 1950's when films like Double Indemnity, Out Of The Past and Touch Of Evil set the standards for others to follow. The Maltese Falcon was hugely influential at the time, inspiring writers like Chandler and Mickey Spillane to create their own hard-boiled heroes, Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer.
These days, noir is more about style and aesthetic than subject matter with films like Basic Instinct and Sin City copying the monochrome look for artistic reasons. Probably the best neo-noir is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, a stunning sci-fi thriller that is as intelligent as it is unforgettable but one that sticks rigidly to the noir conventions. The belated sequel Blade Runner 2049 is a bit too colourful in places but remains a fascinating film to watch.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox