The Maltese Falcon (1941)
4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. One of the finest motion pictures ever made, with one of the best casts ever assembled. An unforgettable and groundbreaking masterpiece.
by S. Draper
The Maltese Falcon is one of the most immortal films ever made for many reasons. It is the film that is most responsible for bringing Film noir to the masses. It is the cinematic foundation of the private eye, much as Hammett’s novel was for literature eleven years prior. It is the film that cemented Bogart as the immortal star. But key amongst these is the film’s adherence to the literary source material by a first-time director hell bent on making not only a successful career as a director but the best possible film version of one of the finest novels ever written.
In doing so John Huston helped to usher in film noir, a term so thrown around today that one forgets the true meaning of noir as a dreamier reality that accurately reflected the fears and desires of the immediate war and postwar America, bathing them in such shadowy darkness that it became a sort of comfort to audiences dealing with many of the same instances in their own lives. This is another point that the film shares with Dashiell Hammett’s novel, in that it was the first work to truly take a realistic outlook on murder by giving “it back to the people who commit murder for reasons”. (Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”)
Additionally, Falcon builds upon all of the wonderfully gritty qualities of classic era 1930’s Warner Bros. gangster pictures, maintaining the down and dirty atmosphere but with a more expressionistic feel and outlook that was later tied down to being derived from German Expressionism in everyone’s writing on noir. What is missed usually is the strength of Warners production. Warners had maintained themselves as a production unit throughout the Depression by making these down and dirty gritty pictures about real characters and situations. They may have not been the most prestige of the big studios, but they had won the hearts of the people many times over in addition to having one the most impressive rosters of talent both on and off the screen.
Of course the reason why most of us know the film so well is that it is the picture that finally brought Bogie to stardom, building upon all the years of frustration in small bit parts and roles as Gangster no. 2 deferring and always being killed off in the final reels by Cagney, Robinson and Raft. The role of Sam Spade takes the breakout performance Bogie gave as sympathetic aging ex-con Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941, written by Huston) and molds it it into the complete and superior version as Spade who straddles both sides of the law.
Spade is tough by any standard. In the book, he is as cold as they come, a seemingly nasty example of a man first described as resembling a “blond satan”. The way Bogart plays him is suggestive of Hammett’s description and characterization, yet a man who is seemingly older and wiser than Hammett’s creation. This Spade has seen the underbelly of society and armed himself against it. His use of cynicism as both a defense mechanism and a way of cutting through the ice is tied to Bogie’s personality and his intrinsic rueful cynicism that has made him such a striking figure to so many endearing fans. Roy Earle finally showed through on Bogie’s promise as an actor and displayed that through all the hard boiled armor that he was a big softie underneath. With Falcon, the Bogart character is complete with fully functioning armor that not only provides for one of cinema’s toughest tough guys but also presents a kind of ideal man, incapable of straying from his code.
The rest of the cast is absolutely perfect, arguably the finest ever put together for a motion picture. Each so fulfills their respective role with perfect nuance and passion that it becomes impossible to not perceive the narrative as reality, even down to the smallest of bit parts. As the nefarious Kasper Gutman, the physically massive Sydney Greenstreet made his first entry into motion pictures after decades on the stage. The performance is so imposing, so charming, so dominating that it is impossible to believe this was his screen debut, and makes Gutman a far more involving character than the novel’s iteration in addition to providing for one of cinema’s greatest loveable villains.
Falcon was Peter Lorre’s favorite film and his favorite performance out of his entire career. As the eerie perfumed Joel Cairo, he succeeded in making a name for himself as the resident creepy foreigner. Lorre provides a greater deal of characterization than that of the novel, succeeding in turning a despicable nasty little man into an overly charming, scheming, prissy articulated man who would be pleased to carry on an extremely polite conversation while about to shoot you. The novel explains Cairo as a homosexual, something of course forbidden by the Production Code. Huston more than adequately gets this point across, merely by letting Lorre inflect the character with little mannerisms and the addition of perfumed accessories.
Mary Astor was a famed silent actress who had been rocked with various scandals involving her sexual life, and was in all honesty a perfect choice for the role of the duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Her passion for the role of this devious woman, constantly performing at every turn to fully manipulate any man in her path, is fully evident in every scene. She shifts between strength and weakness, between will and submission so effortlessly that the performance is almost invisible-even to those who knows of her treachery. This is a beautiful woman, fully cultivated and with all the mannerisms of a true lady of culture, while truly a devastating lure for any man. Brigid is the model and foundation of the femme fatale.
Then there’s the gunsel, Wilmer Cook. Gutman needs an extension of himself, and Wilmer is merely the physical long arm of Gutman. He is cold, emotionless and empty as can be. Most of his thinking is done with the two .45’s bulging from his coat pockets. Of course, this role founded the career of Elisha Cook Jr. who played tough and weak variations of this character for the entire of his career. Wilmer is both an imposing yet weak figure because he is all action and no brains. He is as cheap a crook as they come, with the gaudiest of patters.
The police are reflected in the film as obstinate and abrasive towards Spade and the whole of private investigation, as it is in the real world. For once, the cops are portrayed in a more accurate light as grumpy bulldogs more than perfect one-dimensional upholders of the law. The first cop shown on-screen accosts our hero as if he were nothing. The two detectives, Tom Pollhaus (Ward Bond) and Lt. Dundy (Barton MacLaine) are both friendly and antagonistic towards Sam. They fulfill both sides of the coin when it comes to typical police response, cooperation and suspicion.
Then there is Spade himself, as which Bogart defines his entire career whilst portraying one of the screen’s first true antiheroes. Hammett’s Spade was a cold, empty man one who was defined by his actions and not his thoughts. Bogart’s Spade is a passionate man who has learned to survive by burying his passions underneath layers and layers of thick hard boiled shell. He is man of wisdom and restraint who has the rare ability to move through any given situation by manipulating others, using their preconceived notions of himself against them like Brigid. However, out of the entire cast of characters, Spade alone has the ability to step back from events and look at underlying motives. His mind is always a dozen steps ahead of the others, a necessary precaution in order to simply stay alive. Here, Bogart is not merely the antihero, or the unlikely protagonist to root for, as in High Sierra. This is a wonderfully dark character that just happens to be on the right side of the law. Spade is a cool customer, belying all kinds of buried humanity deep beneath the thick hard boiled shell. In essence, he is not merely just another tough guy, but truly an idealized version of what a tough guy can be. Spade is to be idolized and related to, a world-weary traveler of the most sordid aspects of humanity. A man who lives to a personal standard all of his own and no one else’s, a self-made man who refuses to dirty possibly the only thing any of us has left, integrity.
It must be mentioned that the cameo role of the untimely Captain Jacobi is portrayed by the legendary Walter Huston, who wonderfully played his single scene as a good luck charm for his son.
Comparing this to Hammett’s original 1930 novel is essential to understanding the importance and greatness of the film adaptation. The novel is extremely direct, as was Hammett’s style. The characters within however do not have the same panache, the same life force that are in the Huston version. In direct comparison, the novel feels a bit underdeveloped a bit too realistic and without the wonderful character development. We never associate as closely with any of the characters. The literary Spade is merely cold and distant rather than cold and cynical. The script axes a very few scenes form the novel for economical and censorship reasons, but this was also done in a way to tighten and strengthen the original narrative. The compression of events to fit into the time frame of a 1940’s movie is almost always harmful to any narrative but in maintaining virtually 99% of the story, Huston actually evolves Hammett’s prose into a higher realm. This combined with the censorship concedes allow for development of character, visuals belaying meanings, and arguably the finest ever literary adaptation ever produced due to Huston’s insistence.
Additionally, the film version incorporates mythical aspects surrounding the black bird, by the blending in of history and adventure. The long lost treasure lore as evidenced by Gutman’s recounting of the Falcon’s history and the opening prologue add a sense of excitement and enchantment to surround the figure with an actual interest to the audience. Instead of merely being a MacGuffin to the characters it now becomes a fabled object to the audience who want to see it revealed just as badly as those willing to kill for it.
As mentioned previously, this is the third time that Warners adapted The Maltese Falcon into a film. The previous two inferior versions are absolute oddities that were once merely trivia answers. When seen today, the Pre-Code 1931 film version is a temporarily exciting mix of sex, Hammett and sex. But the film turns all too quickly from Hammett’s timeless story and becomes more of the seductress and a detective. It isn’t a bad film but is so inferior to the kind of storytelling in eith the novel or the Huston version. The second film, 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, strayed so far away from Hammett that it seems impossible to be credited as a Falcon adaptation. This is to be avoided, as they turned the entire story into a disgustingly silly comedy that has no wit, no use for being and no idea what the source material actually is. Both prior versions are painful to sit through for their respective reasons, but especially in light of one of the greatest films ever made.
The score by Adolph Deutsch is something so rarely mentioned, yet so extremely vital to the film’s success. The music is so sparse, yet so perfectly effective at conveying mystery, wonder, suspense, tension and excitement that is impossible to imagine the film without it. The film immediately begins with the unforgettable awe-inspiring Warner logo of the 40’s, but in a drastically lower tone which immediately cues the audience in that this is a different kind of movie. Then that crescendo fades into the opening titles, perfectly setting up the film’s signature main theme motif that accurately reflects the smoky, duplicitous world of greedy amoral men and women all scheming, double crossing, conniving and murdering to get their hands on the Maltese Falcon.
The cinematography by Arthur Edison shows a stunning innovative use of low and sometimes tilted angles, use of high contrast between light and dark, shadows and light and perhaps most impressive is the usage of depth in every single frame. This allows for a new visual style to emerge and make the film stand out from its brethren even more. Not only is this a film with shadowy morals, but so are the visuals. The usage of depth provides a visual context for each scene and respective character, for example Gutman is photographed with his massive bulk filling the screen thus showing his domination and imposing figure as oppressive over all. The sets are designed to perfectly work with this stylistic choice and allows for a heavy usage of foreground and background which is unthinkable for a film of the time. These decisions also provide for a greater sense of reality, a greater connection with the audience in order to make the story seem real in addition to sounding real.
The Maltese Falcon shares some of these visual traits with another film released in 1941. Perhaps most obvious is the fact that visible ceilings appear just as in Citizen Kane. The relationship of Kane and Falcon go beyond merely looking alike. They formed a new breed of motion picture, packed with new ideas, fresh enthusiasm for the medium and supreme technical craftsmanship. These two films were so ahead of their time and so daring that it makes 1941 a standout year in cinema, ousting the so-called golden year of 1939 in this opinion, as these two films are so fully formed and modern that they still seem fresh and relevant to this day.
The true secret to the film’s success is Huston being so prepared and so primed for his first direction job. His intense design of every scene; the working out of all camera movements, blocking, storyboards and working intensely with the actors makes the result more than a film but gives the feeling of a lived-in universe. His strict adherence to the source material (something he maintained throughout his career) keeps the author’s and story’s meaning intact, thus avoiding the typical monotonous Hollywood adaptation. Huston rehearsed his actors and additionally built relationships with them in order to maintain a friendly and understanding work environment so that everyone from the stars to the lowest assistant could and would do their utmost for the film. This led to Huston finding a lifelong friend and comrade in Bogie. The shooting of the picture was done entirely in sequence to better allow the performers to work in the story’s nuances. All of these are examples of Huston’s tight and taut working of the story into the film which is still a breathless wonder.
The symbolism of the black bird is directly tied to its overall meaninglessness, the pursuit of desire and greed to obtain it, because the symbol that it represents is that of the grand lore of humanity. This is the ultimate MacGuffin, because though meaningless, it represents both the meaning of life and the utter degradation of humanity personified in the small “black figure of a bird”.
The film’s final denouement balances completely on how the playing of the scene adds so much to the meaning; Bogie reveals all of Spade by implying and detailing Spade’s personal feelings deep beneath the surface. The all-important moral code is not what Spade lives by, it IS HIS IDENTITY. Without it he is nothing, he has so devoted his existence to this code as a means of living that it gives him both purpose and a meaning to living. This is what is so attractive to audiences, that the character is an antihero, a person who can work both ends of the law yet somehow remain pure and even have a heart underneath all the hardboiled shell. Spade is an idealized version of the detective, in contrast to the more defined and human Phillip Marlowe. (This even arises in Bogart’s differing portrayal of both characters) The central theme of Spade’s life is the phrase that is most repeated. “I won’t play the sap for you.” This one line means more to Spade than anything in the world. It is his code in one sentence, his personal mission to be true to his own soul or whatever is left of it.
The immortality of the film is unquestionable. Firstly, The Maltese Falcon’s importance as the first true film noir alone grants it a place in the annals of history. But it was in reducing Falcon to its barest elements and adhering strictly to the source material, John Huston effectively created the textbook for Film noir. Falcon creates everything central to noir, and still has an identity all of its own. This the largest of connections shared between novel and film. The novel was the first breakthrough work of hard boiled detective fiction and everything afterwards built upon it. The same goes for all of noir and this film version.
Bogie finally made the jump onto the A-list as Spade, and the film’s surprise hit success with the public truly cemented his stardom. Perhaps it was an unconscious reaction to the film, but audiences were finally being given something akin to reality-exactly as did Hammett’s novel had done originally. The Huston film is so richly textured and detailed that its superiority to one of the greatest novels ever written is remarkable for a picture that had neither large budget nor any real studio confidence. There is a magic rapture it forever holds audiences in, and that last line which elevates everything to a whole other level. Improvised by Bogie on-set, borrowing from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when asked what the bird is he both describes the pursuit of all mankind and inadvertently the entire meaning of the movies themselves. Never has anything more true been said about the silver screen.
“The uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”
And of course cop Tom Pollhaus gives the film’s last line in response.
That my friends, is the story of life.
EDITIONS: Released countless times on VHS and LD, the first DVD was stunning in its better handling of the B&W cinematography and use of contrast. The 2006 three disc edition improves on that transfer remarkably with a new HD master that allows the viewer to experience the film visually. The latest Blu-ray incarnation uses the same master but is better able to handle the black levels due to the increased size and bitrate and is thus fully accurate of what the film looks like theatrically. The mono soundtrack was in a surprisingly effective compressed Dolby Digital track on the DVDs, and this is bumped to a lossless 1.0 DTS-HD presentation that accurately retains dynamic range and even some intrinsic inherent noise that faintly occurs. All extras have been ported over, save for the drastically inferior 1931 and 1936 film versions which remain only on the 3 disc DVD special edition. The TCM featurette on Bogart’s rise to stardom as catalogued through his film trailers is essential to understanding his career.
This film is as essential to any library as Kane.