The Maltese Falcon

 photo maltese_zpsesvbe4as.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgSan Francisco, 1941. A gorgeous but distraught woman named Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) enters the detective agency of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She says she’s looking for her missing sister. Apparently the woman ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Something about Miss Wonderly’s story doesn’t quite ring true. Is that even her real name? But the monetary compensation is so good, why challenge a solid paycheck?  After Archer and Thursby are found murdered, Spade realizes circumstances are a lot risker than he had originally presumed. That Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (Gladys George) doesn’t help the situation. That’s merely the beginning of his problems.

For many historians, The Maltese Falcon is considered the first major film noir, a cinematic term primarily used to describe those stylish Hollywood crime dramas of the early 1940s to the late 1950s, roughly the decade after World War II. The strict definition of what makes a film noir can be a bit abstract. It’s more of mood or a point-of-view than an easily definable category. The lesser known 1940 picture Stranger on the Third Floor actually predated this film. However director John Huston’s masterpiece presented the detective drama in a more definitive way. It in fact was the third adaptation of the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett. The first released in 1931 and the 2nd titled Satan Met a Lady in 1936. That one starred Warren William and Bette Davis. The exalted reputation of the 1941 interpretation trumps them both making this arguably one of the greatest remakes ever made.  It set the bar extremely high for later classics of the genre like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and The Third Man.

The Maltese Falcon is highlighted by a character study of contrasting personality types. People wrestle with greed, deception, and loyalty. Humphrey Bogart is conflicted by darker desires. He’s more of an antihero as the lead.  Cynical and hard-hearted – he doesn’t seem overly troubled by his partner’s death, removing his fellow associate’s name on the business door while the body is still warm. Nevertheless Bogart exemplifies cool collected style as the self-assured gumshoe.  Mary Astor is captivating as the requisite femme fatale. She initially appears fragile, but looks can be deceiving.

Then there’s a colorful trio of shady individuals. 61 year old stage actor Sidney Greenstreet surprisingly making his feature debut here as “The Fat Man”. He was Oscar nominated for his supporting role. Yet Peter Lorre is just as iconic as the effete Joel Cairo. Joel is no match for Spade. “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it,” Spade rebukes him. Elisha Cook, Jr. is the lightest heavy of the three. He provides some much appreciated comedic relief. At times, the set-bound action almost resembles a play. The movie is talky to say the least. Scenes are inundated with words, overstuffed even. But oh what dialogue! John Huston’s Oscar nominated screenplay is so meticulously composed, you’ll marvel at its construction.  It demands repeat viewings to take it all in, but it only gets better with age.

A whole review and I haven’t even answered the titular question. What is the Maltese Falcon anyway?

Why it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” of course.

02-24-16

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14 Responses to “The Maltese Falcon”

  1. Thanks for reminding me of a movie I thought was excellent when I watched it years ago. Time to watch it again!

  2. Simply one of the best films ever made and a personal favorite.

    • Millions agree. It’s currently #173 on the Top 250 movies as rated by IMDb users.

      • Yep. But that IMDb list still baffles me.

      • Really? I find it to be an accurate representation of the most time honored films by regular people.

      • Absolutely. For example The Matrix in the Top 20. Deadpool ahead of movies like Taxi Driver, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Third Man, Cool Hand Luke, and Fargo. Warrior ahead of The Maltese Falcon. Just so many things that blow my mind.

      • Well it’s not my taste either. It’s everyone’s preferences grouped together in one big massive list. There’s millions of users who’ve never seen a movie before the year 2000. I’m amazed some of the really old titles like Chaplin movies still rank.

  3. I’m kicking myself cause I had the chance to see a special showing of this in the theater and I didn’t go, the parts of this movie that I’ve seen I’ve loved

    • Well at least the movie is available on DVD. While I do agree movies are always better on a big screen in a darkened theater, this will still maintain most of its allure on a nice sized TV as well. Rent it as soon as you can. 🙂

  4. A classic I’ve never seen till now. It was quite good. Humphrey Bogart was superb. Peter Lorre was good too. 4 1/2 stars

    • This was the first of 6 movies that Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart did together:

      The Maltese Falcon (1941)
      All Through the Night (1941)
      In This Our Life (1942)
      Casablanca (1942)
      Passage to Marseille (1944)
      Beat the Devil (1953)

  5. Great review on a classic film Mark. I love how you provide historical context for it within the film noir genre and discuss the movie’s place as the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett. I agree that the dialogue is fantastic and that the movie demands repeat viewings to take everything in.

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