Dir. by John Huston - 1 hr. 40 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I swear this is relevant: the first time I sat down and watched "Citizen Kane," I was pretty underwhelmed. It was easy to intellectually see why it was considered an all-time classic film, but the problem that I had was that it had been so thoroughly spoofed over the years that anything that might even vaguely qualify as a twist or a surprise had been exposed before I could even get to see the film. It's hard to complain about spoiler alerts about a film that is now over seventy years old, but at least for me, the myriad parodies pretty much destroyed my ability to enjoy something that is considered to be on the short list for best films of all time.
"The Maltese Falcon" has been spoofed and parodied probably just about as much as "Citizen Kane" has, but for whatever reason, it seems to have been aimed less at plot points and more at Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade (and the line he closes the film with, "The stuff dreams are made of."). So, I haven't had the "Citizen Kane" problem with "The Maltese Falcon," thankfully.
Here's the nuts and bolts about "The Maltese Falcon:" a distraught, beautiful woman named... well, that's complicated. Her name ends up being Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), and she hires San Francisco private detectives Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to retrieve her sister, who is tied up in some business with unsavory characters. In the course of trying to find the sister, Archer is murdered in the street. While Spade himself isn't quite the upstanding character you might expect, he gets pulled further into matters by Brigid. More people die, all over the hunt for the Maltese Falcon (the history of which is explained in the film). To say the least, it's worth money, which means that more unsavory characters are trying to get their grubby hands on it. That's probably all you need to know about the set-up; I'm not going to "Citizen Kane" you and blow any of the surprises.
And I'll go ahead and get this out of the way: this movie deserves it's reputation. It's sharp, tight, and fun. It's a very, very good mystery, with iconic characters (and not just one or two of them), and a doozy of a final monologue by Bogart, which shows a morally-vague man finally doing the hard thing and taking a stand, regardless of what it costs him. The plot is timeless, as are the motives and actions of the characters. All in all, "The Maltese Falcon" belongs on whatever lists that "Citizen Kane" is on.
The first thing that really stands out in this film is Bogart's Sam Spade. He's a cad, he's a dick, and he's got undeniable swagger (and not in the current, cocky, show-offy meaning of the word, either. Watch the way Spade takes command of a room and plays people off of each other right to their faces). He's a wise-cracker of the first degree, and when he gets called on that, he asks if he should learn to stutter instead. It's impossible to not sit back and laugh at the sheer magnitude of the balls Spade displays. But it's the only way to deal with the sort of people who he deals with. As far as the supporting characters go, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) are first class foils. One is an effete foreigner (albeit with excellent timing - the scene where Cairo and Spade first meet is laugh-out-loud hilarious), the other is an obese Brit whose rather grandiose language and formal manners seem to be a put-on of sorts. Two complete opposites, but they work beautifully together. There's a suggestion that the two are in a relationship (suggestions being about as far as a film could go in portraying same-sex relationships in those days), along with their gunsel, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Spade rides Wilmer at every opportunity, which also plays into the culmination of the film.
As for the plot, the developments are interesting consistently. The mystery itself is a good one, but without the iconic performances by the cast, I don't believe that it would be enough to elevate the film beyond standard noir fair. But throughout the twists and turns, the question that has to be addressed is what of the burgeoning relationship between Brigid and Sam? It takes excruciating interrogations from Spade to get her to admit the truth about much of anything, but there's also clearly something between them. It's hard to believe that Spade would stick his neck out if there weren't. But once the dust has settled, the issue must be addressed, and it's done with in a fiery near-monologue by Bogart. He starts by telling her that he'll try to explain it to her once, and she still doesn't get it, she'll have plenty of time to think it through. It takes the entire film for anything to really break through Spade's shell of nonchalance and cleverness, and once we're all there, it feels like a raw nerve has been exposed.
I'm not even sure if this is my favorite Humphrey Bogart film (how do you choose just one?), but he's got a handful of movies that are pretty much flawless. And "The Maltese Falcon" belongs in that handful of films. I almost feel like that if you haven't seen this film, you can't really intelligently comment on film. To be certain, you couldn't really claim to have much knowledge of film noir. Maybe that's hyping it too much, but watch "The Maltese Falcon" and tell me I'm a liar.
5 / 5 - Theatre