Americana Movie Month: "The Maltese Falcon" Review


Americana Movie Month: "The Maltese Falcon" Review

-- Rating: PG (violence)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 1941
Directed by: John Huston
Genre: Crime/Drama/Film Noir

The opening frames of "The Maltese Falcon" set the stage nicely for what the audience can expect for the rest of the movie. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a temperamental private investigator working with his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), who he doesn't care for very much. In walks Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a woman using a pseudonym because she wants to stay anonymous. She tells the two sleuths a tale of woe regarding her sister, who has run off to San Francisco with a mysterious man named Floyd Thursby. She offers the two detectives the then princely sum of $200 to find Thursby and bring her sister back to her.

Spade's partner agrees to tail Thursby, which results in Miles being violently shot to death just hours later. Spade shows no emotion at the news of his death, instead enlisting loyal secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) to tell his widow Iva (Gladys George) the news. He may not have cared for his partner, but part of the code he lives by is that he must now track down his partner's killer. He becomes a prime suspect of the cops as he does his own investigation, which leads him down a tricky maze of suspects and events. He soon finds out that Brigid has no sister, and is instead looking for a black falcon statue that may be priceless. He believes that whoever is behind Archer's murder is also trying to find the statue.

He slowly begins to piece together all his information, conducting surly interviews with suspicious people while also personally trying to find the statue. He also has to sidestep Iva, with whom he was having an affair because he no longer has any interest in her now that her husband is dead. Instead, his affections turn to Brigid, partly because of her looks but also because he seems to admire how stealthy she is in hiding her secrets. She appears to reciprocate, though it may be simply to get him on her side, especially as all the clues he gathers begin to point to her as his partner's murderer.

The film is based upon the book of the same name by crime novelist Dashiell Hammett, who allowed two other adaptations of his book, both filmed and released before this version. The first had the character of Sam Spade show more of an interest in being a lady's man than a detective. The second, called "Satan Met a Lady," was a comical adaptation that starred Bette Davis. Both films didn't have much success at the box office, which is why it was a surprise that any studio allowed a third adaptation to be filmed. Thankfully, someone at Warner Bros. had the foresight to allow director John Huston to not only pen the screenplay, but direct the film.

Before "The Maltese Falcon," Huston was only a screenwriter who desired to direct but hadn't been given his big break at the helm of a film. After directing the movie, his life and career would never be the same again. People were equally in love with and shocked by the tone and ending of the film, which were unlike anything else the movie studios had put out before. The reason that the previous two film efforts were different from Hammett's novel is because the directors of those films felt the book was too hard-boiled for audiences. In 1941, most detective films had a sleuth who was wealthy and did investigations more as a hobby than a profession. They were often chummy with the cops and were good natured outside of work. The character of Sam Spade was none of those things. In fact, one could easily argue that he was the polar opposite of those detective stereotypes. He had no money and lived in a dingy apartment, he had a tempestuous relationship with the police, and he barely had a kind word to say to anyone. He was brutally honest to the point of being abrasive, which was a far cry from the congenial detectives of the era.

Since the Spade character and tone of the film were so far removed from the norm in movies at the time, many film historians feel that "The Maltese Falcon" was the movie that ushered in the new film noir genre. Some also argue that Sam Spade was one of the first, if not the first, anti-hero in the history of film. Whether or not this is true, the fact is that "The Maltese Falcon" changed cinema in ways that are still evident and relevant today.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars