Few films have birthed an entire film style, but the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is one of them. It often receives credit as the first film noir. Where morally grey protagonists navigate worlds of pronounced shadows and trade quick-witted barbs with femme fatales, mobsters, the police (who are corrupt or ineffectual), or sometimes all three. So as this year marks its 80th anniversary it’s time to see if John Huston’s debut remains a classic.
While taking on a job for “Ruth Wonderly” (Mary Astor) private detective Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) is killed. His partner Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) then finds himself at the centre of a dangerous game. The police suspect he killed Miles. And Brigid O’Shaughnessy, (Ruth’s real name), is revealed to be involved with a gang of colourful mobsters. The dangerously unassuming Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the imposing Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), and the vicious Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.). All believe Sam has the legendary Maltese Falcon. A figure with a value the mobsters place far above any human life. Who can Sam trust and will he make it out alive?
What Did I like?
What’s impressive about The Maltese Falcon is how it transcends its limits. Although taking place mostly in hotel rooms and offices the story feels much bigger. This is largely thanks to the superbly gloomy music which adds great heft to proceedings. Along with the well-written plot and rapid-fire dialogue that constantly introduces something new for us to chew on and keeps the pace fast enough to keep us interested.
Another potential issue is that the film has a lot of elements to keep track of. And a lot of critical plot information isn’t shown but relayed to us through other characters. This could leave people feeling very confused or frustrated. But this choice makes it feel like we are truly experiencing the movie through Sam’s eyes (certain scenes like Miles’ death notwithstanding). Making the experience even more engaging.
Lastly, the film’s over-reliance on dialogue could have felt very lazy. But The Maltese Falcon overcame this by making its dialogue punchy and entertaining and hiring a stellar cast to deliver it. Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. are great as the wannabe big shots always getting shown up. Sydney Greenstreet delivers some stellar monologues. Mary Astor is a fantastic enigma who succeeds at being both feisty and vulnerable. But the movie’s undisputed MVP is Humphrey Bogart. Sam Spade could have come across as a truly insufferable thug. But Bogart makes him a magnetic presence. His hard-boiled dialogue delivery feels as fitting as Laurence Olivier reading Shakespeare. And his self-assured image makes him look effortlessly cool along with making the rare successful rug pulls feel satisfying. Bogart arguably is what makes the Maltese Falcon a classic.
This coupled with the sparse use of beautiful shadowy imagery shows why the film hugely impacted generations of filmmakers.
What Did I Not Like?
Of course, after 80 years there are definitely places where the film shows its age. Like many older films, a few of the action scenes are awkwardly staged and become unintentionally comedic. Either because of the chosen angles or the choreography. Similarly, some of the actors occasionally are a little overdramatic which renders the scenes humorous rather than impactful.
There is also some rather unfortunate subtext here, modern audiences may see the film as slightly homophobic, sexist, and derogatory towards larger people because of how the villains are codified and the way the film treats many of the female leads. And while Sam is flawed he is presented more favourably than everyone else. Who are shown as pitiable, untrustworthy cowards for being who they are (villains) or objects to be used for Sam’s benefit (female cast).
Finally, the narrative does lack emotional weight. Sam is always in control of the situation, even quickly regaining control after the rare successful rug pull. Therefore it’s hard to feel any tension for his situation. And the supposed romance between Sam and Brigid is somewhat hard to buy as Sam is consistently aware of how manipulative Brigid is. Because of this the romantic tension never feels genuine and prevents audiences from engaging with it.
Like the central MacGuffin, the Maltese Falcon is an old beast. Some of its attitudes may put off modern audiences, some of the staging and acting choices seem comical now and those wanting an emotionally enthralling story may find the movie’s hard coating alienating.
However, like the central bird, it is built to last. Having a solid if slightly confusing plot bolstered by sparkling dialogue, great music, and an incredible cast, with Bogart being its shining jewel. Despite some imperfections, it remains a film milestone for good reason. It is the stuff that noir is made of.
Rating: (3.5 / 5)
Also Read: Retro Review: Frankenstein (1931)