The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston
Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you’re thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren’t, the person you’re thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We’re getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It’s fascinating to watch these movies; they’re either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they’re the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we’ve come to think of when we say “mob movie,” or “film noir”.
This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He’s approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner’s been murdered.
The man his partner was following — Floyd Thursby — was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly — who renames herself O’Shaughnessy once the jig is up — is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one’s quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.
Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can’t help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There’s no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.
The plot is convoluted, of course, but it’s also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it’s difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it’s a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that’s been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.
I think that’s what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they’re rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.
It’s such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn’t been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven’t seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they’re in trouble, and they’re smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.