Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Maltese Falcon Film Review

The year 2012 is barely here, but as I look up at the calendar the damn thing tells me that January is coming to an end… already. Criminy! So, I mustn’t waste time. For those new to this site, this means the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I are again restarting a certain practice of ours, following our end-of-year holiday break. Back in 2010 (why does that seem so long ago now?), we began a series of duo posts, though the credit for the idea (and the string of posts) was Rachel’s. In parallel reviews on our blogs, each of us per month would examine a noted book and its later film adaptation. Traditionally, my northern California colleague reviews the novel. “Why“, you ask? She’s good at it. Plus, she not only does this for her blog, but for the San Francisco Book Review and the City Book Review. I perform the film review duties in this partnership. Not that I’m any good at it, but because I’m such a sloooowwwww reader. For this inaugural pair, we will return to the ranks of a classic. Meaning, the oldest book and film pairing for we’ve ever done in this arc of blog posts.

We’ll examine plausibly the most famed detective novel there is. So glad there won’t be any pressure associated with this one. In this case, my colleague will be looking at the best known work by author Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon. The 1930 novel also sourced its most famous transference to film, which was released in 1941. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

A brief synopsis of the film: in San Francisco of ’41, the detective agency of Sam Spade and Miles Archer take on a seemingly straightforward case of locating the sister of the woman who has just walked through their front door. The beautiful Miss Ruth Wonderly has come seeking help in shadowing a man by the name of Floyd Thursby in hopes of finding and drawing her young sibling away from his nefarious clutches. The less than chummy partners agree to take on the case, and of course the high retainer proffered. Archer, the more titillated toward the comely client (and less smart) of the two, eagerly volunteers to start the trail that very evening. When his dead, gunshot body is found that night by police, Spade is called down to the crime scene and questioned. Thus begins the hardboiled P.I.’s search for his associate’s killer and the reason behind it all. He’ll find a perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man name Gutman, a pretty woman he can’t trust, and an ancient treasure piece worth murdering for in his trek.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

Brigid O’Shaughnessy: “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
Sam Spade: “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”

For the longest time, beginning in the 70s after first catching it on TV, The Maltese Falcon was my favorite Bogart. Hell, it was my favorite film, for that matter. In both cases, that fact lasted only a few years — till I finally watched Casablanca, that is. But, that takes us away from what is at hand. The Maltese Falcon was, and still is, the epitome of what was the detective mystery on film in that era. Of course, we have to credit author Dashiell Hammett foremost with putting pen to paper and recalling his ‘Baghdad by Bay’ days as a private detective working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. However, the film has achieved more than just that. Certainly, enough to make it legendary. Let’s count off a few, shall we?:

  • the film was the directorial début of one John Huston (who also wrote its adaptation to the screen)
  • set the standard for the private detective on film, period
  • also got the ball rolling for the film noir genre at the time
  • turned the career of a contract actor doing ‘ B’ gangster pictures on its head and him into a cultural icon
  • introduced a rotund Brit to the screen and instantly established him as the classic, cinematic villain
  • it marked the first teaming of a distinct set of character actors in Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre that would be famously reprised a year later in a certain Moroccan city
  • and became the last true film version of the author’s third novel (I don’t count parodies or homages as adaptations) — in other words, after this no one in their right mind would ever seriously try to top it

I have to say, it’s pretty intimidating to review a certified piece of motion picture history with this film, one that I hold in high regard. I feel there’s no way I’m not going to give it proper justice in whatever I say, and will only embarrass myself in the process, to boot. The Maltese Falcon has been examined to no end, and by those who know a hell of a lot more than I. So, don’t expect anything too deep or insightful here. I guess the only things I can offer are what I genuinely appreciate about the film as a movie-goer.

“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”

First, this film is one of those rare masterpieces successfully brought to the screen by a first-time director. John Huston was barely mid-30s when he accomplished this. Lofty company, indeed. Like the tale of the black bird, there are a few, well-known feature films that meet the same criteria. Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men certainly make the list. A few of us think George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs also qualify. That Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, arguably the top two, came out in the same year makes them the most venerated in that elite group, I think.

The other significant feat is that this film was the third at-bat for adapting Hammett’s story to the screen. The charm, I suppose. Some have argued that the first, Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 film starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels (as Spade and the crooked O’Shaughnessy, respectively), was the more faithful since it was pre-code. Hammett’s story was surprisingly risqué, and some undistorted aspects were incorporated into the earlier picture. However, even though it was shackled by the Hays code ten years later (we’ll jump right over the 1936 adaptation, Satan Met a Lady, as it takes the story into light-comedy) Huston’s The Maltese Falcon still presents the tale with all the bravado, style, and mood the others simply don’t approach (just with a bit more innuendo to placate the censors).

“My guess might be excellent or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn’t raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, and an assistant district attorney and a stenographer.”

You can see, just by watching it, why the film hits the mark. At a 100 minutes, it packs a lot in it relatively short length. The lead private detective character is thrust into a murder mystery inside of ten minutes. Not to mention, saying the plot is labyrinthine (with its feints and double-crosses along the way) is an understatement. Yet, it’s not so much trying to deceive the audience rather than challenging them to keep up with what’s going on. Plus, Humphrey Bogart was tailor-made for role (even though physically he didn’t fit Hammett’s description of the P.I. from the novel). Though charismatic, his Spade could still be just as big a prick, too (having an affair with your partner’s wife, no matter how bad a husband Miles was, certainly qualifies), and a bully at times (just ask Cairo and the ‘gunsel’ Wilmer if that wasn’t true). But, he’s definitely no one’s sap.

Unquestionably, Sam is shrewd enough to piece it all together, even if it costs him the woman he loves (one of the hallmarks for film noir, btw). The small but stellar supporting cast is the clinching aspect that separates the 1941 version from the others. I mean, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Gladys George, and Elisha Cook, Jr. made the type of impression that’s become part of the landscape in the foggy City by the Bay with their roles. As with Bogey, they delivered Hammett’s gritty words with the telltale manner than would become a trait for a John Huston film. Tough, cynical, but in no way indifferent. And, it became a dream cast by pure happenstance. You could say they benefited indirectly by actor George Raft. He to all intents and purposes made a career of turning down what became some of the best roles of the era. This film, High Sierra, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity could have been his, but weren’t. Who can argue against the results, though?

The Maltese Falcon has demonstrated in over 70 years time why it has remained popular among movie fans and the yardstick all other detective films are measured against. It accomplished all that through the splendid adaptation of a source story that became the archetype, a bounty of style, and an economy of production that still encased so much into it that many modern filmmakers should study, and study well. Just about everything in noir emanates from this film. A wisecracking P.I. sexually drawn to a femme fatale, men with guns, and oh yeah, a Dashiell Hammett story that famously utilized the MacGuffin plot twist to its unexpected finale. Let’s not forget the film’s cinematography, with its low angle view onto the characters, continues to give this one a distinct look that stood the test of time and marked it as something special. All this, and an anti-hero for the ages that played divide and conquer among the guilty, and all for the sake of upholding his own code of ethics. While it may be cliché to say, quite simply the film remains the “… stuff that dreams are made of.

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32 Responses to “The Maltese Falcon Film Review”

  1. Ronan

    Enjoyed your thoughts on this Micahel, it’s interesting that you picked up on Bogart’s character’s personal code of ethics. I like the idea of a shady character in a shady film ‘doing his best and following his conscience’, I suppose that’s all any of us can aspire to. In a world characterised by imperfection, each of us has to follow our own jiminy cricket. Thanks for this Michael.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, Sam Spade does fit that description, alright.

      “In a world characterised by imperfection, each of us has to follow our own jiminy cricket.”

      Great point. I need to introduce you to someone who writes about that essence in his characters, Robert Crais. Thanks, Ronan.

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  2. Colin

    Fine review man. It honestly is a daunting prospect to sit down and try to articulate what you feel and get from a movie such as this, one that has been critically appraised and analyzed by all and sundry. Well done.

    I think you’ve highlighted the three essential ingredients that set this movie apart from its earlier versions, and from so many other detective/noir dramas too. The casting, the direction and eye for the sourness of life that characterized Huston, and Hammett’s evocative dialogue. The Cortez version may have benefitted from the pre-code permissiveness, but the lead was altogether too oily and smarmy for me ever to warm to that film.

    Bogart may not have been physically right, but the attitude and delivery of Hammett’s words were pitch perfect. In fact, every member of that small cast nailed their parts and brought them a kind of cinematic immortality.

    Over the years, I’ve tried to decide what was the archetypical Bogart role – Spade, Marlowe or Rick – and finally came to the conclusion that they all were; that is, they’re all interconnected in a way by reflecting a mash-up of the Bogart persona: smart, tough, lonesome and living by their own personal code of ethics. We may not like every aspect of the characters yet we cannot deny that they all behave in a way that’s true to themselves and their own beliefs.

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind, Colin. Excellent points, too, concerning Huston, Hammett, and Bogart. They certainly formed a triumvirate that made this the optimum version of the story. The rest of the cast, too.

      “Over the years, I’ve tried to decide what was the archetypical Bogart role – Spade, Marlowe or Rick – and finally came to the conclusion that they all were; that is, they’re all interconnected in a way by reflecting a mash-up of the Bogart persona: smart, tough, lonesome and living by their own personal code of ethics.”

      Well said, my friend. Thanks for reading and offering up some stellar comments, Colin.

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  3. Naomi Johnson

    A fine review, Michael, and I commend your courage! This is such a good film — and when a few months ago I tried to watch Satan Met a Lady, I thought I was going to be ill. I’m sure that version of his book is what led Hammett to drink.

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks very much, Naomi.

      “…and when a few months ago I tried to watch Satan Met a Lady, I thought I was going to be ill. I’m sure that version of his book is what led Hammett to drink.”

      You all are coming up with notable quips!

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  4. ruth

    This is great! I love your duo posts series, but I realized I missed a few of them since Somewhere in Time so I’m glad you have the list of links here.

    The Maltese Falcon is one of those classics I have yet to check out but I definitely will. I’m guilty of not having seen anything by Bogart, perhaps I should go with this one first before Casablanca?

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Ruth. Let me know what you think of this classic once you’ve screened it. I’m a big fan of this one, along with Casablanca and a number of Bogart films, but every movie-goer is different. What works for me may not work for you. But, given your appreciation of Gregory Peck now, I think you may like them. Thanks for the kind words and the link-love you and Ronan have sent my way.

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  5. Herbster

    oH yes, you took the hammer and nailed it. MF, Key Largo and Casablanca are in my collection all can be watched on a regular basis. The one I need to add is To Have & Have Not. Thems the ones for me. All his movies are watchable and very good, but those four are the cream, IMHO.

    Thanks for the post.

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    • le0pard13

      Oh, you know I love all of these you’ve mentioned, Herb. Great call on ‘To Have and Have Not’. It’s a must get, alright. Thank you, my friend.

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  6. Rachel

    As usual, Michael, you are far, far too modest! I shall enumerate: 1. The duo posts were technically your idea. 2. Your movie reviews are excellent, informative, and always get me interested in the films, sometimes in films I have actually seen and not really liked (that takes talent!). 3. Slow reader? You read far more books in a year than the average reader so don’t think you can fool me. 😉 And, as usual, another great review!

    I am in complete agreement with the accolades you shower on the cast. I found the dialogue in the novel fantastic (so many great quotes) and the actors took that dialogue and owned it. I was so impressed with how they took what was in my head from reading the book and over-shadowed it with even better deliveries. That’s not so very common with adaptations. Plus, the adaptation was pretty faithful making it even harder for the actors to “live up” to the source. Really impressive. I was drawn more to the supporting characters than Spade.

    “At a 100 minutes, it packs a lot in it relatively short length. The lead private detective character is thrust into a murder mystery inside of ten minutes. … and an economy of production that still encased so much into it that many modern filmmakers should study, and study well.”

    Such an excellent point. Economy in story telling is a piece of craft I admire so much and wish we saw more of.

    I experienced less of the “after the fact” problem with the movie than with the book. I’m not sure why that is but there ya go. I will leave more comments regarding that for the book discussion.

    I am so glad you mentioned pre-code simply because I had no knowledge of that bit of Hollywood history. However, back when I used to watch old films pretty regularly, I would come by films that were so racy as to make my eyes bug out! I couldn’t believe what was allowed in these old films and I never noticed that they were from a particular time period. It didn’t even occur to me to look for that but now I have my answer. How very interesting! This makes me want to do an entire pre-code marathon now.

    Since we briefly talked about this last year I’m going to paste in our previous comments below. Thanks for another great discussion!

    “lp13-How does it compare to John Huston’s film adaptation of it in your mind? Did Bogart seem like Sam Spade?

    sgwordy-I thought it was a very conscientious adaptation. My favorite lines even made it into the movie! I was 50-50 on the casting. For Spade/Bogart specifically… he was nothing like I pictured Spade but I did feel some of the mannerisms were dead on. I felt he was much better in the second half of the movie than the first. No idea why that would be since I highly doubt filming sequence matched scene order but that’s how it felt to me. I wish there had been more chemistry between Spade and Brigid. My favorite character in the film ended up being Cairo. That actor was fantastic.” (Gutman was my favorite from the book)

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    • le0pard13

      Well, you started the discourse back in ’10 that ushered in this series (in the comments for one of your posts, I believe). Without your generosity there, I don’t think it gets off the ground. So, whatever lead to it started with you :p.

      “I found the dialogue in the novel fantastic (so many great quotes) and the actors took that dialogue and owned it.”

      Didn’t they? Reading/listening to the book, that stood out, as it does in the film adaptation. This is another case where I definitely feel more adoration for the film rather than the novel (as good and original as it was). The characters are played pitch perfect, or better, in Huston’s film than anywhere else, IMO (and to answer your question from your blog here). I’ll copy Colin’s remark because he expressed it better than I could:

      “Bogart may not have been physically right, but the attitude and delivery of Hammett’s words were pitch perfect.”

      And yes, Peter Lorre is pretty damn memorable as Joel Cairo. His changes of mood and emotion are titanic, but in keeping with the character (even one toned down by the Hays Code). Y’know, I thought Mary Astor as Brigid may have been less sexy than the actress from the ’31, but she’s a better performer. That look on her face as the elevator door closes is quite haunting. Watch it again in a year and see if Spade and Brigid don’t grow on you.

      Yes, a pre-code film-mathon would certainly be eye-opening and worth it ;-).

      Thanks so much for another great duo post, Rachel. I’ll be replying there, too.

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  7. Scott Lawlor

    I am going to be honest here. I haven’t read the review. But I only stopped myself because of your spoiler warning… so thanks for the heads up matey.

    I will come back and read once I have seen the film

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    • le0pard13

      I completely understand, Scott. I do try to make the effort to not spoil things for folks (don’t always succeed, though). After you screen, let me know what you think of the film. Many thanks.

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  8. Matt Stewart

    As a movie buff I am ashamed to say I have not seen this, everyone I know says it is absolutely incredible, I must get to it soon.

    Good review my friend!

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    • le0pard13

      You can’t go wrong checking this classic out, Matt. Either the 3-disc SE DVD or the Blu-ray will give you what you want. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  9. Marianne

    This is such a classic film. I love it every time I see it, which isn’t enough. I love the idea of movie/book reviews, as well.

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