Generally regarded as the first example of film noir, The Maltese Falcon is a slick and engaging thriller set in San Fransisco. The low key lighting and interesting camera angles add to a thrilling story which focuses on the search for a 16th Century statue. The valuable gold statue was stolen long ago and has been hunted for years. Its location has finally been tracked to California where several people are working to discover its exact location. Private Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) becomes entangled in the search along with three unscrupulous hunters, each of whom is out to outsmart and outwit the others. With several murders on the books and a number of motives and suspects, Spade is tasked with not only helping to solve the mysteries but also clearing his own name.
I’d been looking forward to watching The Maltese Falcon for a long time and had long heard about how good it was. I’m sad to report then that the movie failed to live up to my raised expectations despite some genuinely inventive story and film making craft. Although I wasn’t as disappointed as when I watched a couple of other classics (Vertigo), I failed to be entranced by the movie and wavered between gripped astonishment, dull boredom and everywhere in between.
To begin with the positives, of which there are many, The Maltese Falcon is designed to near inch perfect precision. Director John Huston planned the movie so meticulously that he didn’t have to cut a single line of dialogue in the edit. Precise story boards and script notes were made with exact camera positions and lighting arrangements before shooting even began. This not only helped to keep costs down but also got the cast and crew on the same page, springing no last minute surprises on them. The result is a very assured directorial debut from a man who would go on to claim two Academy Award wins from a whopping fifteen nominations during his lifetime.
The attention to detail allowed the director and cinematographer Arthur Edeson to create some truly delightful shots. The use of light and shadow is very important here and very low camera angles is something which was reminiscent of Citizen Kane, a film released just four months earlier. Edeson who had been working in Hollywood for close to thirty years by 1941 obviously knew what he was doing and is responsible for some of the film’s best moments. The scene in which Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) wakes up, surrounded by those in search of the Falcon is a fantastic an almost chilling shot. Costume and set design help to heighten the dramatic cinematography with certain characters seemingly imprisoned in sets with stripped furniture and the shadows of venetian blinds radiating across the room.
The story itself is generally tense and engaging and I was attentive throughout but every now and then I began to lose track of what was happening or why. On the whole though the film is very adept at explaining the who, what, when and whys through its lead character. Bogart plays the archetypal noir lead, a lone figure, solving a mystery, surrounded by danger on all sides. With Mary Astor’s femme fetale at his side, dramatic lighting and moody plot The Maltese Falcon has all the ingredients of a classic film noir and is one of the first recognised examples of the film noir genre.
Bogart is very good in the lead. I believed in his character but was always half expecting a twist. The way in which the movie set up the first murder was very effective in hiding the truth until the very end. Some of Bogarts’s lines, such as “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it” and “He’s dead, now don’t get excited” sound a little dated and there are moments when his actions seem dated too but on the whole he is great. Mary Astor plays a great femme fetale although her character’s traits and desires are a little too obvious. Nevertheless she carries off the sweet and innocent with the vicious and was great in a little scrap in the second act. Alongside the two central characters there are several really well cast character actors who add a lot to the proceedings. Peter Lorre (M) is fantastic as Cairo and although in his typecast role as the creepy foreign villain, he is terrific. I also thought that Elisha Cook Jr. was brilliant as a small time crook for hire. Sydney Greenstreet, Gladys George and Lee Patrick all also deliver notably accomplished performances.
When I really think about it, there isn’t an awful lot that I disliked about The Maltese Falcon. Had I never heard of the film before, I expect I would be writing pages and pages about how great it was but unfortunately it comes with the ‘classic’ moniker and as such you come to expect a lot from it. Overall I’d have to say that the film delivered. It was well made and the story was good but it just didn’t grab me from start to finish as I hoped it would. The romance feels a little bit forced but there’s no doubting that the film deserves its place as a classic.
- This is the third film version of the novel The Maltese Falcon. Movies based on the same story were also released in 1931 and 1936. This version is the closest to the source novel.
- Henry Warner disliked smoking on screen so Bogart and Lorre decided to smoke as much as possible as a joke. Other actors also joined in on the joke and Warner evetually threatened to fire the director because of it.
- John Huston asked Mary Astor to run around the set before takes to give her a breathless and nervous quality to her performance.