The Maltese Falcon (1941)



(director/writer: John Huston; screenwriter: from the novel by Dashiell Hammett; cinematographer: Arthur Edeson; editor: Thomas Richards; music: Adolph Deutsch; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Barton MacLane (Det. Lt. Dundy), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer), Ward Bond (Det. Tom Polhaus), Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), John Hamilton (Bryan, DA); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Blanke; Warner Bros.; 1941)

“It’s rare when you get everything to work so well as it does in this pic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Huston directs in his debut film a crime story adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Humphrey Bogart plays hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade and elevates his career to stardom, at that point he was mired in B film crime stories. It was legendary character actor Sydney Greenstreet’s first film role, and the first of nine pairings he had with Peter Lorre. Lorre plays a pansy criminal who carries on him a gardenia-scented hanky. The snarling Bogart character slaps him and belittles him further saying “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!” Greenstreet is nicknamed the Fat Man, who has a chortling demeanor that belies how menacing the jocular criminal boss is. He’s also in the habit of patronizing Bogart with the remark “By gad, sir, you are a character.” Elisha Cook Jr. also stands out as Greenstreet’s ineffective gunman, who becomes increasingly frustrated at the way Bogart pushes him around and finally stares off in disbelief as Greenstreet sells him out after saying how much like a son he is to him.

It was one of the early film noirs (some claim the first), a genre that grew in reputation over the years, and The Maltese Falcon became one of its best representatives and established itself as an icon of pop culture. The public has made it one of its favorite films and many film critics consider it beyond criticism. I find myself falling into that camp, as I was thrilled with the magical performances, the sparkling dialogue, and the incredibly delicious way it makes the most of its superficial story by allowing it to flourish. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson provides the b/w film with textbook dark film noir camerawork, which sets the despairing mood among the cynical detective and the greedy criminals.

One of the all-time classic film lines is uttered by the cold-hearted Sam Spade, when he turns his attractive female client over to the police for murder. In his ‘reason why he had to do it’ speech to the Mary Astor character, it goes like this: my partner had many faults and wasn’t that likable…but “When your partner gets killed, you gotta do something about it.” He also adds to that speech the film’s coldest lines ”I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. . . . The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Attractive Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor) hires the San Francisco private eye team of Sam Spade and Miles Archer under false pretenses and name. Miles is killed at close range while tailing a mysterious man named Thursby who was supposedly threatening Brigid, as she was posing for the detectives as Miss Ruth Wonderly. Later that evening the police discover Thursby has also been killed.

For money and because he finds Brigid sexy, Spade agrees to protect the scared woman from the danger that she still feels threatened by even though he can’t get a straight story out of her. But that soon changes when Joel Cairo (Lorre) enters his office and wishes to hire him. After much mistrust between them, Spade learns that Cairo is connected with a gunman named Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) and the trio’s boss is named Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet). They are rivals of Brigid, after having a falling out in Hong Kong over the Maltese Falcon. It’s a valuable black bird (encrusted in gold and jewels) that they are all chasing. The history behind it involves a wealthy order of Crusaders who gave it as a gift to the king of Spain in 1539 for securing the island of Malta for them, but it never reached the king as pirates stole it. In modern times it was discovered, and these greedy criminals will do anything to get their hands on it.

It takes Spade awhile, but he soon learns that Brigid is a compulsive liar and no better than the rival foppish trio. When a captain of a ship coming from Hong Kong, who has been shot by Wilmer, delivers before he dies the Maltese Falcon to Spade, he cunningly works out a deal with all the parties concerned to meet in his apartment to make a deal.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Before unveiling the black bird, which turns out to be a fake, Spade learns the truth about how valuable it is and who killed the three men and why. Spade has no compunction turning over the trio to the cops when they depart his premises and while still in his pad he turns over his lady friend to the cops. It was an odd scene that has Bogart telling Brigid that she’s no good, that she murdered his partner and if he gave in to his instincts to forget that and pretend that he loved her, that he would probably pay for that some day as she would always have something on him and might even plug him because he would be the only one who knew she was a murderer. She has already told him that she killed Archer because she wanted the private eye to knock off her partner Thursby and thereby have the black bird all for herself. When that didn’t work, she used Thursby’s English gun to frame him for the murder. But Wilmer on orders from the Fat Man killed Thursby, as the boss thought he possessed the statuette.

The many plot twists and the tight script that doesn’t veer from the book’s intentions and the crisp direction, keep it lively. But the reason The Maltese Falcon flies so high has more to do with its bizarre characterizations and the ear bending conversations of the lead characters and how the film brings everything together in such a dazzling way. Sam Spade might not be the most likable guy and might be just as dark and crafty as the criminals, but there is also a strong code he lives by that supersedes his amoral character. Maybe the ones he treats with contempt — the police, his partner and his adulterous wife Ivy (Gladys George), and the criminals don’t deserve his respect; but, when he finds a good person like his loyal secretary Effie (Lee Patrick), who looks past his faults and sees his good side, then he trusts and treats her with as much respect as such a forlorn person like himself can. That’s the side the viewer may also wish to see of him, where despite his amoral nature he still operates without compromising himself by sticking to what he believes it takes to be a good private dick. It’s rare when you get everything to work so well as it does in this pic, and for that alone it deserves all the high praise heaped upon it.