Monday 21 January 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Here is a film I have been looking forward to see for a long time. “The Maltese Falcon” is touted by the book and elsewhere as a cornerstone film noir and a very good one at that. In other words it is a classic movie, yet I have never had the opportunity to see it before now.

I was not disappointed. Not at all. But I made the mistake of seeing it late in the evening almost overcome with tiredness. This is not good because this film requires concentration from the viewer. The day after (yesterday) I saw it again on my laptop with headphones and much earlier in the evening. What a different experience! There are so many threads in this story to keep track on and the dialogue is deeply convoluted and made much so by the fact that everybody is pretending to be somebody else and lying outrageously. Miss O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) alone changed her story I think three or four times and even then I am still not entirely sure we ended up getting the right one.

This of course sounds awfully complicated and bothersome, but actually it is deeply fascinating and very entertaining and I think the film gained at least 50% in the second viewing.

I do not think it suffices to call “The Maltese Falcon” a film noir. It defines a film noir. We get all the ingredients: A hardboiled detective (Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade) who swims in the murky waters of the underworld, a damsel in distress who is hiding both motives and real identity and is fatal to touch, gun touting bad guys in trench coats and fedora, a deeply convoluted plot and a fatalistic less-than-happy ending.  Add to that that most of the film seems to take place at night and we are home. If there had been a tired voice-over it would probably have gone cliché, so thankfully there was none.

Plot wise however it could not have started more cliché. A woman walks into the office of private detective asking for help. Is she or is she not what she pretends to be? That scene has been played out a thousand times since. It is so classic. But, boys and girls, this is where it all came from.

I certainly would not say that the story as such is cliché. It is far too complicated and resolves based on hints and half veiled signs that most other films would not dare to take on. I am kept on my toes throughout, mystified the same way Sam Spade is, yet he is two steps ahead of me because he is good at recognizing bullshit.

He also has integrity despite of being a tough detective. As tempting as it may be to play along with the bad guys including Miss O’Shaughnessy he remains clean. Stretching the law but abiding by it. Fending off the police, but cooperating when it matters and despite his ladies friend attitude he does play fair with them. Ruthless, yes, but fair. I root for him all the way through. He is my Humphrey Bogart. And he got so many good lines! As when he tells his secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) when his partner Miles Archer has been killed, “Now don’t get excited”.  That is such a massive understatement as if it happens every Thursday afternoon that one of your colleagues gets killed. Or his verbal dressing down of the policemen when he is being hassled by them.

The bad guys here are a bunch of people more or less fighting each other. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) is the jovial yet dangerous and certainly scrupulous ring leader. He is hunting the precious Maltese Falcon, an extremely valuable artifact and has finally obtained it, except that his henchmen turned out less than loyal. With his hearty laughs and Irish accent he is very likeable, but we also catch a glimpse of madness in the eyes of this avid collector. His team who were supposed to bring the falcon to The States from Hong Kong has exploded into an everybody-is-looking-for-everybody situation. It is my impression that it is Miss O’Shaughnessy who has engineered all this trouble, so while she is playing the scared, defenseless woman she is actually busy manipulating people to do her bidding, which makes her the most dangerous of the lot. Sam Spade is just her latest tool. Too bad for her he has too much integrity to be bought by her.

Of Gutman’s two other henchmen Joel Cairo is the more interesting one. This is Peter Lorre with a French accent. The last time I saw him was in “M” as one of the creepiest villains ever. In “The Maltese Falcon” he may be slightly mad but also comical with his sleazy talk and eagerness to draw his gun. He seems at first to be an independent between Miss O’Shaughnessy and Gutman, but end up solidly aligned with Gutman.

The other henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook) on the other hand is a young muscle man fiercely loyal to Gutman, yet betrayed by Gutman in the end when they need a “fall guy” to take the blame for all the shooting.  Ah, all those shifting alliances. It is like playing Diplomacy.

I am sure I am going to see “The Maltese Falcon a few times more. There are still loose ends that I cannot fit in and I am sure they do if I look closely. It is that kind of movie. Very well crafted. And highly recommended.


  1. I completely agree that you have to pay attention to this movie in order to follow everything that is happening.

    By coincidence I just reviewed this myself a few days ago.

    1. I know :-) I have postponed reading it till I have written my own. I will check it out here sometime in the morning.

  2. Definitely see it again. The book is worth reading, too--the film is extremely faithful to the book.

    I love this film. It's one I can sit down and watch whenever. To put it another way, I'm always in a mood for this film.

    1. I know what you mean. It hits a tender spot with me as well. I am sure that by third viewing it will get even better.