The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Directed by John Huston


I’m not sure where to begin with The Maltese Falcon.  It is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, perhaps in the top 50, and it’s most well-known for how influential it is.  It may be one of if not the first film noir, inspiring a series of movies with their own Sam Spade-ish jaded hero as well as the genre tropes including the femme fatale and the ending which forces the hero to give up something, likely the girl.

I’ll choose “phone a friend” here and refer to Roger Ebert’s review of the film for some background information.  This is what he offers:

(1) The movie defined Humphrey Bogart’s performances for the rest of his life; his hard-boiled Sam Spade rescued him from a decade of middling roles in B gangster movies and positioned him for “Casablanca,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen” and his other classics.

(2) It was the first film directed by John Huston, who for more than 40 years would be a prolific maker of movies that were muscular, stylish and daring.

(5) And some film histories consider “The Maltese Falcon” the first film noir. It put down the foundations for that native American genre of mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames.

So The Maltese Falcon, like Citizen Kane is so famous because of what it started.  So much of this film feels ripe for parody because it’s so damn familiar.  I think I’ve mentioned this before in another review, but I took a college course on music in film, and when we watched the famous Psycho shower scene, a student in the class (I swear it wasn’t me) remarked that Bernard Herrmann’s cutting score felt cliche.  As the teacher pointed out, this scene invented that cliche, and I got the same impression from The Maltese Falcon.

Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a heavy smoker and drinker, he’s sleeping with his partner’s wife, he’s always armed and ready for a fight, if he’s surprisingly adept at disarming a foe, he always knows when he’s being followed, and that hat of his, it’s always right above eye level, like he’s peering out at the world from behind some kind of mask.

He’s the film noir detective hero that has been recreated in many, many films since and which was purposefully undercut in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), a reaction against movies so influenced by this one.  The film noir detective is one all too familiar with the underbelly of our culture.  He works mostly at night, he never seems to sleep in fact, and he’s like a soldier returning from the front lines, disenchanted but hardened.

This character wants to do good, but not necessarily for the sake of doing good.  Spade gets involved with a client whom he knows to be lying because, as he tells her, he wanted her money.  He’s a character you might not call greedy, but he follows the money, almost like a predator following a scent.  This isn’t really a decision so much as an instinct.  He has trained himself to abide by certain rules because he sees this world as a jungle where no one can be trusted and no one is safe.  The only thing certain in this life, he might reason, is money.  Those who have it have some sense of security.

Spade’s decision-making is only ever in service of himself, of his own survival, and that seems to be the guideline for every noir detective character since.

In The Maltese Falcon, Spade and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), receive a visit from a woman (Mary Astor) who lies about her name and what she needs.  She claims to have a sister in town, there in San Francisco, who ran away with an unsavory man.  That night, while on the case, Archer is shot and killed, without even unholstering his weapon, a clue that sticks out to Spade.

The man Archer was following turns up dead as well, and when a couple other characters enter the scene, all in search of the same thing, the mystery begins to unravel.  The woman who paid Spade and Archer a visit is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and she and Spade begin a romantic affair.  When she pointedly asks Spade what she can buy him with if she doesn’t have enough money, he kisses her.  Everything in the detective’s life is transactional or, in another way, everything is black and white.

O’Shaugnessy, along with a couple other characters, are all in search of the Maltese Falcon, an ancient artifact that is only as important as the people looking for it make it.  It’s a MacGuffin, in other words, an item that could be anything and which drives the story forward, like briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the ‘infinity stones’ in The Avengers.

Spade seems to develop feelings for Brigid, but, being familiar with the genre, you know he will learn something about her to keep them apart.  In the end, in a long final sequence that all takes place in Spade’s apartment, a deal is made to net Spade $10,000 in exchange for the Maltese Falcon, which a dying man brought to him.  When the artifact turns out to be a fake, the people looking for it take off in search of the real artifact, their journey ongoing. Spade phones the police, who have been suspicious of him for his partner’s murder, and pins the murder of the man he and Archer were originally tasked with.  When they show up, he even offers them the $1,000 he kept from the $10,000 first offered for the falcon, claiming it was an attempted bribe which he now rejects.

Then Spade offers them Brigid, the person who killed his partner.  Before they arrive he tells her that he’s going to give her up to the police because, whether or not he liked his partner, there’s a code that a man has the responsibility to not let his partner’s murder go unpunished.  When he turns her into the police, in addition to giving them the $1,000 he could have kept for himself, Spade is essence clears his conscience and proves himself to be a man with a code, even if his ethics are in question.

The Sam Spade archetype seems to be one many fantasize about becoming.  I’m sure a lot of people out there wish they were as cool, calm and collected as Spade.  He’s never fooled, he’s not a sucker for love, and he’s always in control.  He’s more like a robot than a human, or a strict marine perhaps.  His archetype is iconic, as the person who you can count on to escort you through the muck and return unscathed.  To quote The Dark Knight, he’s “the hero [we] deserve.”

The film noir genre and it’s traditional hero seems to suggest a grim reality in America at this time or at least the perception of grimness.  This film was released two years after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, though two months before Pearl Harbor and the United States’ involvement.  Maybe there’s something there that influenced the tone of this movie.  Maybe not.

This film was made only about 15 or so years after sound was introduced to film.  From my somewhat limited knowledge, I imagine that every film pre-1930 was more Charlie Chaplin-esque than Citizen Kane-esque.  Movies were performances, or escapist realities.  They were meant to entertain, and the “Hollywood ending” wasn’t a cliche, it was just part of the experience, something to make you feel good leaving the theater.  So I wonder if The Maltese Falcon had anything to say about that trope or if its style, tone and grim ending was unrelated to the movies released at the same time.

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