Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Verdict: 9/10

The Maltese Falcon is written & directed by John Huston and adopted from Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name. The movies star cast includes Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, Lee Patrick as Effie Perrine, Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook, Gladys George as Iva Archer amongst others. There is a special cameo by Walter Huston.

The Maltese Falcon received Oscar nominations for Picture, John Huston for Adapted Screenplay & Sydney Greenstreet for Supporting Actor.

I won't give any plot details here except that this is a wonderful crime mystery that started the classic film noir period of Hollywood. The movie starts with these lines scrolling.
"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 galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day ---".
So we know that we have to find the falcon & in the process we deal with lies, murders, characters full of deceit & cunningness. You know the typical film noir settings.

The Maltese Falcon is the first movie directed by John Huston who in his illustrious career was nominated for 15 Oscars. John Huston hated the two previous movie adaptations of the novel The Maltese Falcon. He thought that there is a lot of scope for improvement. The beauty of the film is that there is not a single waste line nor a single waste shot nor a single waste performance. Everything is so perfect & each character is very well developed. I felt Huston has filtered the movie like water, over & over, until it became so perfect.

The performances in the movie were of the highest order.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy is not your typical film noir femme fatale as this is only the start of bigstudio film noir. In fact I felt that Brigid O'Shaughnessy was the perfect template for the future femme fatales where the writers had this template to work on & develop a perfect femme fatale such as say Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson or Vertigo's Madeleine Elster. Although Brigid was responsible for the deaths of 3 people she never appears as a threat to the protagonist Sam Spade. Astor was very good in the movie. She keeps her best for the climax confrontation with Bogart.

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo gave an amazing performance. His intro scene is great. You can see the power of his performance in the climax where he goes from delighted look while opening the package - exploding on Gutman after knowing the truth about Maltese Falcon - controlled dialogue & expression after Gutman says that they will revisit Istanbul. Simply brilliant. The combination of Lorre & Greenstreet was such a success that they have worked in 9 movies after this.

Sydney Greenstreet enters the movie only around the 50 minute mark. He was 60 years old, this was his debut performance & he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. His years of stage experience shows in his portrayal of Kasper "Fat Man" Gutman. Those subtle expressions & gentle laughs. Simply wonderful. Elisha Cook Jr. in one of his early roles as Wilmer "Little Boy" Cook, the cold assistant to Gutman is good. Do the words Fat Man & Little Boy ring anything in your mind?

Bogart lived the role of Sam Spade. That he didn't even get an Oscar nomination for this is quite a puzzle for me. Either the real nominees have given all-time greatest performances or the Academy is dumb. Bogart's Sam Spade is one of the meanest, ruthless heroes that you will see. I heard that the original Sam Spade in the novel was a 6 feet heavy built figure. Bogart is not a big person physically but he more than makes it up with his voice & mannerisms. See that scene where he mocks his partner's widow by saying "You killed my husband Sam. Be kind to me". His clap, his smile & his subtle expressions in that scene were as mean as you could see anywhere. Or that scene where he says "Ya with $10000 insurance, no children & a wife who doesn't like him" about his dead partner. Or the scene where he says "When you're slapped, you'll take it & like it" and slaps Joel Cairo. Bogart's Sam Spade is arguably the most ungenerous & masculine character until Marlon Brando gave that tour de force performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar named Desire. In a way, even Sam Spade was not a complete film noir protagonist because he was always in control of the situation except for that one scene in which he is intoxicated. Even there I didn't felt that he could be harmed.

Think about the fact that Bogart was not even the first choice to play Sam Spade. Only after he started playing this role that he & John Huston became friends & they made 5 more movies which includes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre & The African Queen.

Cinematography is by Arthur Edeson, who was one of the founders of the American Society of Cinematographers. Edeson has worked for almost a 100 movies prior to this & he also did Casablanca later. He used some very innovative angles. You can observe that for most part of the film, the position of the camera is at the waist level. So we have a lot of low-angle shots which were made more famous later in Citizen Kane. The low-angle makes the already sinister characters more sinister.

Max Steiner gave good background score for the movie. Editing is one of the key things for a crime mystery. Owen Marks did a fantastic job with editing. I only found one bad cut in the entire movie where Spade sends off Iva Archer before he gets a call to meet Gutman.

All in all with one of the best ensemble performances that you would see in a film noir, superb script & directing, great technical achievements this is one of those films that you shouldn't miss.

In fact, I was so engrossed & immersed in the story & the performances the 1st time I viewed this that I completely forgot about the other aspects of the film. I rewatched this immediately to concentrate on the other technical aspects. For me the movie, the protagonist & the femme fatale are not the ideal film noirs but rather the initial models which were developed into more defined figures for the next 2 decades of film noir. 

So, in a line, what is The Maltese Falcon?
The stuff that dreams are made of & the stuff that started an amazing style of film making.

If you are interested in film noir, see my brief review of the BBC program The Rules of Film Noir.

Love to hear your thoughts about The Maltese Falcon,


  1. We discussed The Maltese Falcon on the podcast only last week!


  2. simon,
    heard your podcast. funny one but I felt a little bit bored in the middle. I too have to start some kind of podcast although I'm too shy right now for it. Probably next year.