The Maltese Falcon

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston (from the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

Country: USA

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Taking film-noir to a whole new level

If the superior 1940 B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor can lay claim to being the first true film noir, then John Huston’s first directorial film, The Maltese Falcon, decidedly an A-movie, took the genre to a whole new level. A distinct visual style, a complicated plot, a hard-boiled private eye, a femme fatale, a cast of colourful supporting characters, and crackling dialogue, this film has them all.

The story (actually the third filmed version) is based on the novel by former Pinkerton agent, Dashiell Hammett, and features Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade. This prefigured by five years Bogart’s performance as Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep.  There are resemblances between the two, not least because Chandler himself was undoubtedly influenced by Hammett, and wrote approvingly of his detective fiction in the 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder. However, Sam Spade is actually a grittier and more cynical character than Philip Marlowe. When, at the start of The Maltese Falcon, he learns that his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been murdered, Spade barely reacts; shortly after this we discover that he is having an affair with Archer’s wife. The day after Archer’s death, Spade tells his secretary to have his partner’s name removed from the office signage.

The story begins with Spade being hired by beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy (a.k.a. Miss Wanderley) to find her missing sister. However, she is really hunting for the Falcon. Whereas femme fatales typically cause disaster for the leading man, in this instance Spade has her measure right from the start, taking her money but not believing her story. This does not stop him falling for her, and she apparently for him. The combination of love and lying makes for an intriguing cat-and-mouse game between the two.

Also hunting for the Falcon are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Lorre gives another superb performance as the (understatedly) gay Cairo, and probably relished this role, coming as it did in the wake of his nine performances as the Japanese detective Mr Moto. Lorre’s opening scene is a masterpiece in how to grab an audience’s attention. It was Greenstreet, though, who got the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the age of 61, it was the first screen role for this 20 stone performer. As Kasper “the fatman” Gutman, Greenstreet is a perfect combination of urbanity and amorality. Gutman is what economists would call a rational actor. He is only interested in what is good for himself. Other people matter only insofar as they have something to offer him and, consequently, he is continually weighing advantages and disadvantages, and is willing to shift alliances when circumstances change. Moreover, he is quite open about all this. When the time comes for him to sacrifice his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), he tells the young man “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon”.

Lorre and Greenstreet aren’t the only actors turning in top performances here. All the key figures are superb. For Bogart, the role of Sam Spade was an opportunity to break away from the bad guys he had been so used to playing, and to portray a rather more nuanced character; Spade is tough and flawed, but beneath it all there is a kind of rough integrity. Mary Astor is delightful to watch as she acts the innocent, vulnerable woman, whilst spinning a bunch of yarns to Bogart. Also turning in a fine performance is Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the young tough who is continually undermined by Sam Spade (Cook would later appear with Bogart in The Big Sleep).

Rating: 10/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September – October 2014.

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