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The Maltese Falcon

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on February 23, 2009

I know, I am so late on this one. Let’s get to it, shall we?

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

Crucials

Director: John Huston

Written by: Dashiell Hammett (novel) and John Huston (screenplay)

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet

Recommended? ABSOLUTELY

This is a fascinating film to me. I found it to be both compelling and provoking. It’s literally a glimpse into a few days in the life of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Detective Sam Spade. As the film progresses, you really have no idea what to think of any of the characters because we’re barely given any amount of background on them, including Spade. One of the things that struck me was the complete lack of emotion from Spade when he heard about his partner’s demise. He didn’t even sound shocked. He simply repeated the words back to the police on the phone that Archer was dead. Was Archer his friend? Was Archer a bad guy? What was their story? We never get a full answer to these questions, and that’s a general theme of the movie. The characters are almost sketches, but the lack of mandatory exposition to fill in their histories makes the whole film feel even more real. People don’t rehash all the important things they already know about each other at the most convenient moments life. And The Maltese Falcon doesn’t give us the satisfaction of ever really knowing whom to trust. Sure, we all want to trust Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart is our leading man. But who is Sam Spade? Is he a good person? Is he only looking out for himself? Will he do anything for money? Is he trying to do the one decent thing in his life, or was this all an elaborate ruse and he’s a decent guy at heart? It’s hard to say. He’s the only character to root for throughout the film (except for the ever-faithful Effie, played by Lee Patrick– but even she isn’t above suspicion throughout the film as everyone is not quite what they seem), and you definitely want him to make the “right” decision in the end. I thought the film would have a more typical Hollywood ending, which would have been very unsatisfying.

Many label this film as the quintessential film noir film, and I couldn’t agree more. From its roots in the pulp fiction novel written by Dashiell Hammett to its low-key lighting, it’s a perfect example of the genre (if you are of the opinion that film noir is a genre, of course). I found it interesting that most, if not all of the dialogue was taken directly from the novel. According to some trivia, Howard Hawks (director of The Big Sleep, which is sometimes compared to The Maltese Falcon) knew that John Huston wanted to direct, and told him to take Hammett’s novel and make it into a film. He suggested that Huston “film the book”, and that’s exactly how the script was made. Although, the classic line of the film, “The stuff that dreams are made of,” was an adlib by Bogart, paraphrased from Shakespeare. And how true that was of the Maltese Falcon. It’s like every item sought after in these films; every take on “the Holy Grail”. People risk anything and everything for these objects with some idea that, once they obtain it, everything will magically come together and be alright.

The best performances were given by Bogie, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, by far. I didn’t really feel much for Mary Astor’s character, nor did I particularly care for her performance. This film definitely brought to attention how badly I need to re-tune my observational skills for older films; Peter Lorre’s character, while being much more subtly so in the film, is apparently gay. The hints were obvious in the context of the strict code being in place at the time of the filming, and had I been more in that mindset, perhaps that would have stood out to me. The handkerchief smelling of gardenias; the suggesting way he played with his cane; the strange conversation about the boy Turkey that Astor couldn’t seduce, it seems, though Lorre never got to finish the sentence because Astor slaps him across the face before we learn exactly what she couldn’t do. All signs that Lorre’s character was gay. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to his style that I didn’t pick up on anything in his performance that would hint at that; perhaps there was something effeminate in his quirkiness during this role that I missed? Regardless, he was stellar, as always. And for Sydney Greenstreet’s first performance in a Hollywood film, he was tremendous and extremely likable. Well, he was tremendous either way. I loved his scenes.

This is a film I most definitely recommend. It’s another one of those classics that everyone tells you to see and so you never do, but this is one you shouldn’t ignore. I bet I will find that a lot of these classics are like that, though, so be prepared to have me yelling at you all to watch these classics for your own good!

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5 Responses to “The Maltese Falcon”

  1. versedev said

    Well, speaking as one of those constantly told I need to see this particular classic but never getting around to it, I’d say this entry inspired a definite interest. It’s one thing to say that a movie is a must watch, but presenting it as such an active watching exercise aroused my curiosity.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Glad to pique your interest! I certainly hope you watch it soon! Come back and tell me how you like it! And thanks for the positive comment 😀

  2. Serryl said

    You’ve made some really interesting points in your review. I have a few comments.

    I too observed a lack of background detail surrounding the characters; however, I wasn’t as “aware” of it as you seemed to be. Perhaps I was just swept up in the speed and complexity of the developing plot. Perhaps, my years of listening to old time radio dramas with characters like Philip Marlow and, yes, Sam Spade had gotten me used to the idea of not getting a lot of detail about the characters. I think not knowing is one of the joys of this type of movie. Typically we expect a certain degree of character development in a film, but I find that a lot of it is unconvincingly pasted in. Movies like “The Maltese Falcon” have an austerity to them that I love.

    I didn’t know this was adapted from a novel. I’ll have to read it and compare the similarities for myself.

    I find fascinating the idea that Lorre’s character was played as a gay man by 1940’s Hollywood standards. When I saw the movie, that thought never crossed my mind. I thinks it’s a good review that makes you want to go back and search for the things you missed. I look forward to the next one.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Thank you for the kind words. I did really enjoy the fact that there was very little background information about the characters. It made the film much more fascinating to me. And let me know how you liked it after re-watching it!

  3. Serryl said

    I just finished reading the book and watching the movie again. It’s true the the script follows the book very closely, mostly removing those parts which would lengthen the movie without adding much depth. Other than the fact that Gutman dies at the end of the book, there were two noticeable omissions.

    First was Spade’s relationship with Archer. As you mentioned, the movie doesn’t provide any information about how they got along, forcing the viewer to infer detail from a few lines. The book was more generous; Spade didn’t like Archer at all. Beyond the fact that he was sleeping with Iva Archer, Spade mentions at many points in the story that Miles was “a son of a bitch” that he intended to cease doing business with at some point

    The second omission was of anything sexual. You are correct in presuming that Cairo is gay. It never occurred to me when watching the movie and still doesn’t seem noticeable as I watch it now; perhaps I’m just clueless. In the story however, he is introduced as a “queer,” leaving no doubt as to his sexual preferences. Spade’s nighttime dalliance with Brigid was not graphic in the book, but was present in an obvious manner; they embraced and the next scene finds Spade awake in bed with her next to him. In the film, the scene is cut in such a way that one might think nothing happened. Also, when a $1000 bill goes missing towards the end, Spade forces Brigid to strip naked (while protesting) in the bathroom before believing her. In the movie he accepts a shake of her head.

    The writer’s also presented Spade as being more of an enemy of the police and District Attorney than he was in the book. A lot of his lines were the same, but in the book you got the impression that he liked or respected a lot of the individuals who questioned him; he just had to act tough to keep them off his back.

    Anyway this comment is already too long. Just thought you might find some of it interesting. Oh and seeing the film again reminded me of how much I love Greenstreet’s performance. He matches the character of Gutman perfectly. (^_^)

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