Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Why does Bogart have a different haircut in this movie than he has on this poster?
Who says remakes are always a bad idea?  The Maltese Falcon is the third film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's classic novel of the same name, and the third time is definitely the charm.  I haven't seen the other two versions (one has the same title and the other is a comedy, titled Satan Met a Lady), but only this one is widely regarded as a timeless classic, so I think it's safe to assume that this is the best version to date.

I'm going to be completely honest with you right now.  I am a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled novels and am a fan of any movie that chooses to adapt his work.  I am also a big fan of Humphry Bogart, at least in part because I've only seen him in his classic roles; I'm sure the man made some flops in his time, but history tends to gloss over those mistakes in favor of his more famous work.  I am also a big supporter of director John Huston.  And if none of that convinces you that this is going to be a great viewing experience, it was in the inaugural class of movies chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.  If you're still hesitant to check out this movie because it's black-and-white or because it's old or because you only like movies with talking animals in them, my advice is simple.  Man up and get some culture.  It is significantly awesome.

The private detective firm of Spade and Archer consists of three people: the secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  One day, a new client hires them to track down her sister, who has run away from home with an undesirable man named Thursby.  The client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), doesn't tell a very convincing tale, but she waves around a lot of money, and that's enough for the detectives to take her case.  Liking the looks of his sexy new client, Miles offers to be her proverbial white knight, boubie, and track down this Thursby himself.
Did Miles Archer influence the character of Ellis from Die Hard?  Surprisingly, they're pretty close.
That night, Miles is shot and killed.  Sam gets the call, heads to the crime scene, and promptly leaves to clear his head.  When he gets home a few hours later, the police are right behind him; Thursby had just been gunned down in the streets, so the cops naturally assume that Sam killed the man who killed his partner.  He didn't, but his alibi is basically "wandering around aimlessly in the streets," so Sam Spade has to solve the case to clear his name.  Besides, it's good business to avenge the death of your partner.  Sam quickly finds himself in complex web of lies and deceit as he tries to discover...well, I suppose he's trying to solve the murder of his partner and simultaneously cover his own ass, but he doesn't seem to concerned about that.  Instead, Sam seems to genuinely enjoy the game of deception as he and three other interested parties converge on the object that ultimately caused all this trouble, the Maltese Falcon. 
Bogart, about three seconds away from giving you a facial burn for laughing at his toy bird.
Admittedly, the story isn't terribly special.  A detective manages to get entangled in a mess of lies?  You could pick my jaw up off the floor.  It's handled very well, though.  The pace is brisk, the plot is murky enough to keep you guessing while Sam Spade puts all the pieces together, and the ending scenes are great, appealing to many demographics (romantic, cynical, heart of stone, tough guy, etc.) and somehow never losing its bad-ass edge.

The acting and directing are nearly flawless.  This is one of the two films that helped Bogart become a star in 1941 (the other was High Sierra) and was his first significant non-gangster role.  What can I say?  The man was born to play tough guy detectives.  His timing with dialogue is perfect here, managing to be funny, witty, and sadistic --- sometimes in all in the same line.  As someone who has read dozens of hard-boiled novels and seen many film noirs, I can state that Bogart's portrayal here is the archetypal noir hero.  That might seem like a "no duh" in retrospect, but consider just how many classic actors from Hollywood's golden age tried similar roles; it's a great performance, but it's even more impressive when you realize how many other actors fail to live up to it.
So that's where they got the hair idea for There's Something About Mary...
The supporting cast was nearly as good as Bogart.  Mary Astor's femme fatale, while a little melodramatic by modern standards, still holds up pretty well today.  She's mean and nasty, but vulnerable and magnetic, the very epitome of a dangerous lady.  The other women in the film play their parts pretty well, but Gladys George (Archer's wife) and Lee Patrick can't hold a candle to Astor's performance.  Peter Lorre does a great job as an effeminate criminal; the interactions between him and Bogart amuse me so much, especially when Bogart is mocking an armed Lorre.
Well...that's phallic.
This was Sydney Greenstreet's film debut (and the first of nine movies with Peter Lorre) and his performance is especially impressive for a rookie; as the main villain in the film, he managed to be sneaky, powerful, and humble in quick succession.  Perhaps my favorite supporting performance in the film (although it is hard to beat Lorre) comes from Elisha Cook, Jr. and his part as the gun-toting arm of Greenstreet.  I've always liked the idea of a character that plays tougher than they truly are, but I think Cook really nailed that idea on the head with his performance.
The writing gave these performers a lot of great lines, but John Huston did a wonderful job directing them all.  The timing in each scene was impeccable, the pace is fast but you never get lost in the details; these are important elements in any crime story, but are essential when the dialogue needs to crackle with wit.  Huston also did a good job with the cinematography; there is a lot of symbolism in this movie and there are a lot of interesting (and, thankfully, meaningful) camera angles used.  Even though this was his first film, it must have been apparent from the start that John Huston was a master director.

When you add all that up, what do you get?  In short, probably my favorite movie of all time (although Raiders of the Lost Ark is another good choice).  It has great direction, a better script and a delightful cast.  Is this an action-packed movie?  No, but the story moves quickly enough to make you think otherwise.  That might be the key to this film's longevity; even though times have changed, everyone loves the guy who outsmarts the competition and mocks his enemies.  It's the American Way in (a slightly cynical) film format.  In other words, in a genre --- this is vintage film noir, in case you hadn't realized it --- of tough men, dangerous women, and hazy morality, there is nothing better than The Maltese Falcon.


  1. nice review Brian. you want to add a couple hundred words to the noir post on this next week or shall i just link over?

  2. also, you're right about the novels and Bogie. I can't read hardboiled detective novels without imagining him as the lead!

  3. I'd definitely like to write up a little bit for Noir-a-thon. I'll have it to you on Saturday morning (American time)