THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

  • Director: John Huston
  • Writers: John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
  • Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, & Sydney Greenstreet
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#31), 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Sydney Greenstreet, Best Adapted Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Today’s version of The Maltese Falcon would make a big deal of how clever it was, of all its twists and turns. But that is not how this movie works. Instead of creating a straight line that it can then twist and turn into unexpected shapes, it throws all of its plot points at us without keeping them in order, creating a sort of haze of unreality. Nothing in this movie feels real, because all of its various feints seem to happen at once. It is less a mystery than a state of mind. And all of this in a movie that seems to consist mostly of people talking in about four different rooms.

The Maltese Falcon is one of those films with an outsized influence on movie history above and beyond how it might appear on the surface. Released in 1941, the same year as Citizen Kane, it is one of the first entries, and certainly the most influential, into the genre that the French would later call “film noir.” It also marked the turning point in the career of Humphrey Bogart, who went from a side character in mostly B gangster movies to a Hollywood legend, and the first film of its director John Huston, who had a long and distinguished career.

Bogart plays the prototype for dozens, if not hundreds, of private eyes, Sam Spade. What’s interesting is that in this movie he doesn’t have that much of a mystery to solve, or if he does it’s sort of obscured by everything else. He is not really a good guy, he drinks a lot, and he has a temper. He also isn’t the world’s smartest dude, though he seems to read people fairly well. The thing is, there isn’t anything in particular “cool” about him, it’s more of a general vibe. It’s like Bogart in general: he’s not really very attractive, but he sure seems like he’d know what to do.

Like all stereotypical private eye stories, The Maltese Falcon starts with a woman in trouble (Mary Astor) walking into Spade’s office. She asks for protection while she confronts her sister’s mean boyfriend. Somebody shoots Spade’s partner while he’s following her. The police think it’s Spade that did it, so he goes to find the woman. She confesses that she’s really looking for a centuries-old falcon statue crusted in jewels. But also looking for it is the serpentine Mr. Cairo (Peter Lorre) and, behind it all, the huge, dangerous Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). In an effort, I think, to figure out who killed his partner, Bogart joins the others in an extremely uneasy alliance to look for the statue.

Perhaps the movie’s most memorable bits from a modern perspective are the surprising performances of Lorre and Greenstreet, whose careers were also both re-started by this movie. Lorre was a famous movie actor in 1930s Germany, most famously as perhaps the first really iconic movie serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M in 1931,  but he was Jewish and had to flee to America when the Nazis came to power. The first thing we learn about his character in this movie is that he has a scented business card, which is code to tell the audience that he’s supposed to be gay, and therefore, the movie thinks, is not to be trusted. Greenstreet had a long career as a stage actor, but had never been in a movie before Falcon. They both proved so popular that they went on to appear in nine more movies together over the next several years, including Casablanca.

Bogart was only cast in his role after it was turned down by one George Raft, who is almost unknown today but was a bigger star at the time, primarily in gangster movies. Raft reportedly “didn’t want to work with a first-time director.” He is best known today for the roles he turned down, both this and the Fred MacMurray role in Double Indemnity (one of the other best known film noirs). He has the only actor I know of whose Wikipedia page includes a list of roles he turned down in addition to a list of the movies he actually appeared in. 

This is sometimes considered the first “film noir,” but it’s based on a novel from ten years earlier by Dashiell Hammett (who was a private detective in real life). The term then wasn’t actually coined and the genre “canonized” until the late 50s and after, mostly by French film critics. It was based out of cynical crime fiction of the Depression, and featured a very distinctive visual and emotional language full of sarcastic, hard-edged dialogue and extremely sharp and prominent shadows. I could spend many pages talking about the conventions and origins of the genre, but maybe some other time. In 1941, they probably would have categorized this movie as a “crime picture” or a “melodrama.” I am pretty much always up for one, even a bad one. And this definitely isn’t a bad one.

It’s amazing how iconic bits of the movie feel despite, again, it consistently almost entirely of people talking to each other in small-to-medium-sized rooms. Bogart gets all the most memorable lines. His two most memorable out of context include a scene where he yells in Lorre’s face, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!” Then he slaps him. At the end of the movie, when [spoilers] he’s about to turn Mary Astor’s proto femme-fatale into the police, he tells her, coldly, that he “hopes they don’t hang you by your pretty neck.” The whole movie basically sounds like that.

John Huston had been a writer in Hollywood for some time before he convinced the studio to let him direct this movie. He became the consummate tough-guy adventurer director, much parodied but never duplicated. He went on two make two other movies on the AFI Top 100 list (both also with Bogart), along with dozens of others, and also starred in several movies as an actor, including playing the villain in Chinatown opposite Jack Nicholson. He also managed the unique achievement of directing both his father (John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and his daughter (Anjelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor) to Oscars. He was an extremely interesting guy even beyond all this, and it’s probably inevitable that somebody tries to make a movie about him. He married five times and was close friends with Ernest Hemingway. He made many different kinds of movies, but if he had a stereotypical movie it ended up involving men on a heroic quest under harsh conditions. Ten years after Falcon, he presided over the famous shoot of The African Queen, which involved him trucking Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, and a full Hollywood crew to the middle of jungle, seemingly mostly because he thought it would be interesting. In the 1950s, he moved permanently to County Galway in western Ireland and renounced his American citizenship, saying he couldn’t stand to live in America anymore after the HUAC hearings led by Joe McCarthy. He bought and restored a huge 1700s mansion there and became “Master of the Hounds” in the annual fox hunt. The university film school in Galway is now named after him.

Anyway, back to this movie. It was a big hit at the time, all out of proportion to its small budget, and launched numerous careers. It also provides perhaps the most obvious movie example of the “MacGuffin,” a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock around this same time that is still in use today. The “MacGuffin” in this case is the falcon statue itself. It’s an object with no particular intrinsic importance to the plot in and of itself. It doesn’t matter what the object actually is, all that matters is that all of the characters either want or fear it. But even the statue itself has become something an icon over the years, simply by association with this movie.

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