Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a consummate gumshoe. He has the ability to spot a liar from a mile away, and he knows he’s found one when Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) saunters through his door. He pegs her as trouble on a pair of stunning gams, but he cares more about her $200 than her honesty. In truth, her lies are what hold his interest. When she confesses her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and claims she’s done things “worse than you could know,” he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Good thing he doesn’t charge extra for the witty rejoinders.

Sam’s unflappability and lack of warmth make him something of an anomaly as a “good guy” in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Bogart churns out quips like an assembly line, and while they’re canny or downright comical they serve a greater purpose: to create distance between Sam and everyone else. He wants things on an even keel, and emotions have a way of mucking up the peace. So he’s an off-putting choice for a traditional hero. Then again, there’s not much about “The Maltese Falcon” that plays by any cinematic rulebook. If anything, Huston’s taken the book, ripped it to shreds and then written a new one. Huston’s noir film, based on Dashiell Hammett’s thorny detective novel, was a game-changer. Whether “The Maltese Falcon” is the first noir film is up for debate, but there’s no denying the movie’s impact on Hollywood. Few noir films since have boasted ensemble casts or cinematography this good, femme fatales as slinky and devastating as Astor or leading men as exquisitely droll as Bogart. This was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of directing, writing, filming and acting.

“The Maltese Falcon” would lose immeasurable impact if Bogart were even one inch off in his timing and delivery. He isn’t. From the minute Sam Spade appears onscreen, Bogart makes it plain he’s a hard nut to crack. He barely has to say anything; just the sight of him behind that desk, cigarette smoke swirling, is enough. Along comes Brigid and the drama begins. She wants Sam and his partner Miles (Jerome Cowan) to find the dangerous man who has kidnapped her sister and taken her to San Francisco. Miles tails the would-be kidnapper and ends up with a bullet in him. When his widow (Gladys George) shows up, Sam wastes no time putting the moves on her … something he started doing long before Miles died. But despite his lack of compassion, Sam has principles, and they dictate that he find the man who killed his partner. The investigation will prove rocky because of Brigid’s sheer inability to tell the truth. She has many faces that she counts on to fool everyone, since most fall for her knockout looks. Sam’s immunity to her charms is the one thing she didn’t count on.

And so “The Maltese Falcon” starts unspooling. Every lie is followed by another, and more unsavory characters appear: “dandy” Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the ominous Frank “Fat Man” Gutman (a pitch-perfect Sydney Greenstreet); and Wilmer “Little Boy” Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), Frank’s flunky. The only commonality is their desire to find the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious and priceless artifact. Convoluted as it is, the plot, ultimately, isn’t the point, just like the falcon statuette isn’t the point. These are merely devices to lead all these characters to the same place: the unavoidable showdown. It’s coming and we know it, but those final 20 minutes are thrilling to behold, a showcase of fine acting. Greenstreet, in his first film, exudes a quiet menace that catches us by surprise (particularly in the scene, so subtly filmed and acted, where he drugs Sam; in the end, he still seems kinder than Sam. Lorre kicks in the comic relief, and Astor is a tempest of an actress (a precursor for Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois), whirling from sobs to doe-eyed swoons with alarming speed.

Still, all roads lead back to Bogart. He’s tough, diamond-hard at the edges, yet lets us see that somewhere deep in there, there’s a reason for all of it. That he won’t reveal the “why” makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.

Grade: A

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10 Responses

  1. Great review. I love this movie.

    Have you seen Kiss Me Deadly? One of my favourite Noir’s.if you think Bogart’s Spade has a “lack of warmth” Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer is positively icy bordering of heartless misogyny

    • It’s going in the list. I think “The Maltese Falcon”/Bogart combo is about to kick off a film noir tangent for me!

  2. Bogart is one badass guy. I always feel bad when I forget Astor is such a good actress.

    • Understandable, though, considering Bogart runs away with the show (although Greenstreet is very, very good — reminds me of Brando in his old age).

  3. I’m glad you liked the film so much. It is, without question, one of my all time favourite films. Sam Spade is the prototype for all quick-witted film noir heroes.

    • That seems to be the consensus. Roger Ebert did a great and comprehensive list of all the firsts “The Maltese Falcon” achieved, and he said much the same thing you did about Sam Spade. Bogart became the standard almost no one could live up to!

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  5. [...] in this genre such a treat. Line for line, “Out of the Past” nearly stacks up to “The Maltese Falcon,” no little job considering Bogart’s skill for slinging wisecracks like flapjacks. Mitchum, [...]

  6. [...] the story itself doesn’t quite live up to Bogart’s wry narration of its parts. Unlike “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep,” the plot of Cromwell’s film isn’t especially difficult [...]

  7. [...] M is for “The Maltese Falcon” [...]

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