The Maltese Falcon
by Del Harvey
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In 1941 a screenwriter named John Huston was given the opportunity to direct for the first time. Huston chose a story he was particularly fond of. It contained a band of uniquely desperate characters driven by greed and bent by corruption. It was filled with the most marvelous dialog. It was a harsh examination of what makes these mortal coils shuffle and click. It was The Maltese Falcon, a mystery novel by Dashiell Hammett, first published in 1929, much simpler times than the forties and certainly much simpler than now.
This film was one of the first examples of film noir, as well as one of Huston’s favorites. For good luck he gave his father Walter a small part in the film. And this was the fledgling director’s first time working with Humphrey Bogart; there would be several more. Huston had been a boxer of some ability in college, and he hit it off right away with the refined Bogart.
Bogart was perfect as Sam Spade, a character whom Huston saw as something more than a simple detective. And Huston knew that Bogart would give the Spade character the proper depth and dimension he was after. Huston’s method of directing amounted to getting the “right” people for the part — according to his personal judgement, anyway — and letting them do their job. Most of the time it worked.
In The Maltese Falcon it worked superbly. From fade in to fade out, this film is perfect. And it is dialog that makes the story; the tension is provided by words and expression and acting, and not by superlative, excessive action. The entire cast carries off their complex scenes perfectly.
As the film’s opening credits appear over a still of the black bird, the exotic icon’s legend scrolls up:
“In 1539, the Knights Templar of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain by sending him a golden falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels——-but pirates seized the guard carrying this priceless token and the fate of The Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.”
Shots of 1940’s San Francisco skyline appear in succession, pausing on a long shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, and we zoom out to see that we are peering through a glass window with golden lettering proclaiming “Spade & Archer,” in the office of a pair of private detectives. Spade, sitting at his desk, looks up as Effie (Lee Patrick), his secretary, enters with a Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor).
From this very moment the deception begins, as we will eventually find out this is but one of three or four names she claims during the film. Astor weaves a far-fetched story for Spade’s benefit, replete with sobbing and self-pity. Archer, Spade’s partner, enters, sees the pretty girl, and takes immediate interest in “the case.” He volunteers to help her out, and Spade smiles at both his partner’s gullible qualities and the marvel of their clients. But soon Archer is dead, shot in a dark alley. This singular occurrence sparks a deep concern on Spade’s part, although he barely shows it at the time.
In short order we are exposed to our cast of supporting players, each singularly odd and remarkable as fictitious characters go. Sydney Greenstreet is Gutman, a portly gentleman with refined speech and shifty tongue. It is a sad remark on many an actor’s career, but Gutman is Greenstreet’s defining character. However, there are none more slippery in the rollcall of filmic characters.
His fair-weather partner is Joel Cairo, played by the irrepressible Peter Lorre, here a stylized, greasy-haired snake with feminine mannerisms, tiny chrome-plated pistol, and trademark bulging eyes. This is also one of Lorre’s landmark performances.
Elisha Cook, Jr., plays Elmer, a miniscule gunman whose pistol and talk are larger than the reality that is his palpable, stutter-inducing fear. He is a constant source of comic relief in what was his career defining role.
And the beautiful Mary Astor, an actress of some renown, is the perfect feminine foil to Bogart’s tough guy. She slithers and smiles through her many-dimensioned, frustratingly and teasingly chameleonic character(s). She is as treacherous as the characters of Gutman and Cairo, but somehow even more deadly.
But, most of all, there is Bogart. He struts, he tiptoes, he strides, he slinks, he dances, he stalks, and he is perfect at every step. The film is rich with dialog, and Bogart’s Spade gets the very best. Many people have cited their favorite lines from this film. I will leave you with mine, which Bogart delivers after determining which of these charlatans killed his partner for a silly bit of metal and some rocks:
“Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and a lover of film noir.
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