I know, I am so late on this one. Let’s get to it, shall we?
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
Director: John Huston
Written by: Dashiell Hammett (novel) and John Huston (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet
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!