Saturday, March 22, 2014

Goons, Guns, And Smoking On Screen: The Maltese Falcon (1941) Is Classic Noir!

The Good: Engaging story, Interesting characters, Decent direction
The Bad: Some moments of melodramatic acting, Light on character development
The Basics: Humphrey Bogart’s version of The Maltese Falcon is a clever, classic mystery that starts as a hunt for a missing person, turns into a murder investigation that leads to a hunt for a priceless artifact!

As I did the legwork to watch the film version of Veronica Mars, I discovered I have an appreciation for eccentric characters in the noir genre. In rewatching the television series Veronica Mars (reviewed here!), there were several allusions I caught that I had not the first time through the series. One of the films that was alluded to was The Maltese Falcon and I realized that it was one of the allusions whose source material I was not immediately familiar with. The Maltese Falcon has become a fairly common reference in pop culture and from simple context clues, I know it’s a reference to an impossible-to-find object of great value. So, I figured it was time to get more than context clues and I sat down to watch the 1941 Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon.

The Maltese Falcon is very much a classic film noir detective story. Filled with feisty dames, trench coats, fedoras, and a decent number of cast members from Casablanca (reviewed here!), The Maltese Falcon is a convoluted story that takes its time building up to the revelation of the title object. With an opening scroll that details the backstory of the lost gold falcon that was commissioned in the late 1500s, The Maltese Falcon has an extending beginning before the object becomes the object of desire for the primary characters.

The San Francisco office of Sam Spade and Miles Archer is visited by a mysterious client, Miss Wanderly. Wanderly is looking for her sister and sets Sam and Miles on the case of finding Floyd Thursby, who Wanderly’s sister is mixed up with. When Miles goes to tail Thursby, he ends up dead and Spade returns home to find two police officers investigating him for the murder of Thursby, who was shot four times. The murders of Archer and Thursby make Sam a suspect to the local police and it doesn’t help when Spade removes his partner’s name from the business. Sam meets up with Wanderly, who is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, where she admits that she lied about having a long-lost sister. Spade is accommodating, though, and while Brigid does not reveal what she and Thursby were mixed up in, it quickly becomes clear to Sam that she is in danger.

Spade is visited by Joel Cairo, who wants to hire Spade to get back an ornament of a bird that he believes Spade has access to. Offering Spade $5,000 for the safe return of the ornament, Cairo insists on searching Spade’s office and proves himself to be treacherous. Followed from his office by a mysterious stranger, Spade returns to O’Shaughnessy’s apartment to learn that she believes she can get the falcon ornament within a week. Thursby supposedly had the falcon ornament and while O’Shaughnessy thinks she can get it back, it puts Spade in the crosshairs of Cairo, the detectives, and Kasper Gutman (and his cronies), all of whom want the falcon and continue to assert greater value to the falcon. The search for the Maltese Falcon and the attempt to clear his name from his partner’s murder makes Spade a constant target and he works to piece together the various pieces of an elaborate conspiracy.

The Maltese Falcon does quite a bit to establish many of the conceits of the film noir genre. Packed with red herrings, eccentric characters and convoluted plotlines, the film is much more about the plot than actual character development. Sam Spade is a brilliant detective, but he is limited by the knowledge he is given at each step. While he is smart and does not blindly trust Cairo, O’Shaughnessy or Gutman. In fact, the only one he is truly loyal to is his employee, Effie Perine. As a result, Spade loses time throughout the movie following bad leads. Spade does not really grow of develop; he simply gets more information. The romantic subplot between Spade and the widow Archer is unnecessary, but gets the police involved in the entire caper.

Despite some fast-talking and a few moments of melodrama (including one of the worst female screams in classic cinema), the acting in The Maltese Falcon is generally good. Humphrey Bogart is credible as a private detective Sam Spade, but like his later role as Rick, he presents Spade with a coldness and professionalism that makes him an archetype of masculinity. Mary Astor is good as Brigid, so good as the cold dame who hires Spade and Archer that her eventual emotional scene after the film’s plot climaxes is largely unnecessary and somewhat ridiculous. There is not a strong enough love story between Brigid and Spade to make Brigid’s rant at the end ring true; even Astor can’t sell it.

I was psyched to see so many other great actors playing their monolithic characters well. Sydney Greenstreet is wonderful with delivering so much of the film’s exposition as Gutman and Peter Lorre is delightfully slimy as Cairo. As a genre fan, Elisha Cook Jr. looked so familiar to me as Wilmer Cook; his role as a heavy in The Maltese Falcon is nowhere near as substantial as his guest shot in the Star Trek episode “Court-Martial” (reviewed here!) was, but he still has screen presence.

The Maltese Falcon has an intriguing beginning, a solid middle, and a painfully awkward ending. After most of the characters are dismissed with an extended bit of exposition, The Maltese Falcon conjures a romance between two of the film’s protagonists that was not supported by the rest of the movie . . . unless it is so buries in 1940s subtext that it would be missed by anyone watching the film today. The result is a film that might establish the conceits of the film noir, but does not embody them – or truly great, well-developed, cinematic storytelling – flawlessly. I’m glad to cross The Maltese Falcon off the “to watch” list; it wasn’t a waste of time, but it is hardly the essential film some would have us believe it to be.

For other mystery films, please visit my reviews of:
L.A. Confidential
The Big Lebowski


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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