REVIEW: The Maltese Falcon [1941]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: October 18th, 1941 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): John Huston
Writer(s): John Huston / Dashiell Hammett (novel)

“You’re a good man, sister”

Based on pure coincidence from a conversation that had nothing to do with John Huston’s classic debut The Maltese Falcon, watching Rian Johnson’s Brick later in the same night couldn’t have been more perfect. The latter a modern noir described as Dashiell Hammett in high school, the parallels were hitting me left and right without my realizing that the scribe who inspired it actually wrote the novel the former was based upon. Exchanges are mirrored in Brick—like the lead detectives confronting the law in a sarcastic, fearless manner, relaying that they’re done talking unless an arrest or subpoena precedes the next question—as well as a similar tense mood, making the proceedings utterly dire in the weight held with each action yet still able to retain a sense of humor. The influence is impossible to miss, the film an archetypal example of the genre. And say what you will about Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Sam Spade is his career-defining role. Exuding an indifferent cool, he looks out for himself, takes what he can, laughs at danger, and never looks back. His moves are calculated to the finest detail and he’ll have his fun along the way, forever in absolute control. Everything noir after 1941 is merely a copy.

Hand rolling his smokes, a permanent knowing smirk on his face, Spade doesn’t dwell on the past. A loner through and through, it seems out of place that he’d have a business partner, even before we meet his character. What could a man like Miles Archer offer besides a warm body to unwittingly get shot and killed, starting the chain of events to come? Definitely a more exuberant gentleman and a sap, Archer is the one who volunteers to follow their new client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), at this point under an assumed name, despite the threat of real danger from her acquaintance, Floyd Thursby. It doesn’t take long before we see him extend a pleasant hand and receive a bullet in return; it takes even shorter to find out Thursby was shot and killed later that same evening. Already a flimsy case to take—besides the two hundred dollar payday—the only two men that could have helped Spade figure out what happened are gone and the woman who brought the trouble is discovered to be an accomplished liar with motives not yet clear. The intelligent PI has no other move than to find the villains of this mystery and attempt to find answers there.

Under the barrel himself for the murders and without any leads towards the actual culprits, Spade must tread carefully. Despite a buddy on the police force, (Ward Bond’s Tom), his reputation precedes him with Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), itching to take him down. Spade must keep details secret from their investigation, even if they could exonerate him, because the need to know what’s happening, to avenge his partner, (more from obligation then friendship), is front and center. With cynical wit and a penchant to say it like it is, Spade gets O’Shaughnessy to fall in love with him, eccentric middleman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) to loathe him when he doesn’t need him, henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) to want to kill him, and the orchestrator of it all, Kasper ‘Fatman’ Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), to find a kindred spirit on the other side of the law. You see, each of these unsavory characters are involved in a high stakes game to acquire the infamous Maltese Falcon, a bejeweled statue covered in dark enamel worth millions. Through their greed, Spade is able to play them against each other, find leverage on them all, and hopefully pave a way towards justice and wealth.

Brick’s appropriations are unmistakable straight through the doppelganger pairings of Guttman/The Pin; Wilmer/Tug; Cairo/Dodd; O’Shaughnessy/Laura; Effie (Spade’s assistant, played brilliantly by Lee Patrick, whose relationship is key to the story)/Brain; and, of course, Spade/Brendan. Perhaps these tropes exist in all of Hammett’s work, though—unsurprising considering his status as the king of noir—and the comparisons are simply easy to make, but what cannot be denied is the style’s effectiveness over the sixty years between them. What makes The Maltese Falcon so good is the fact you never know exactly what’s happening. The glint in Bogart’s eye, matching the sly grin of clarity as clues are uncovered, is apparent, but his actions never one hundred percent transparent. The search for the antiquity is a game of chess with Spade always at least three moves ahead. He never intentionally uses the pawns coming in and out of the story; he just doesn’t have any moral qualms stabbing them in the back when proven expendable. He respects Gutman and his business scruples, possibly genuine in saying he’d give up the falcon for cash, and he may even love O’Shaughnessy back. Unfortunately for both, his endgame may not be in their best interests.

Huston deftly directs the story through its strong script with most frames containing quick-tongued, plot-heavy dialogue. Body language and facial expressions play a huge role in understanding motivations, but the words are key to catch every twist and turn with each lie. Everyone is in the game for him/herself, looking to cash in on the artifact few know exist let alone understand how close it is to their fingertips. So it’s left to Spade to find a sense of balance and a high enough perch for the big picture to take shape, constantly giving the others a false sense that he is working for them. No matter how good the many faces of Astor, changing at will as the layers of her identity peal back; how innocently creepy Lorre’s Cairo; or how affably in control Greenstreet’s darkly jolly demeanor; it is Bogart with whom we hang to every word. His Spade is one of the best screen characters of all-time: an independent-minded, unsentimental, shrewd gentleman able to toe the line of deception with the best of them. His performance excels to the point where the titular object is rendered a MacGuffin. Whether it will be found is obsolete as Hammett’s words, through Huston’s filter, are what matter, their delivery and content mesmerizing.

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