Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon – Classic Film Noir Starts Here

Written by Dashiell Hammett and John Huston
Directed by John Huston

In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels —– but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day —-

Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade. He’s a detective who’s short on cases when he’s hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (portrayed by Mary Astor) who claims she’s looking for her missing sister and her married lover, a man by the name of Floyd Thursby. Shortly afterward, Sam’s partner, Miles Archer (portrayed by Jerome Cowan) is shot and killed while following Thursby. Soon Thursby turns up dead as well and the police are looking hard at Sam as the killer of the two men, especially since Sam’s been having an affair with Miles’ wife, Iva (portrayed by Gladys George).

Sam knows there’s more to Brigid’s story and hunts her down. Slowly a story of intrigue and possible riches all surrounding a mythical Maltese Falcon emerges. There are twists galore in the plot that bring Sam into great peril as he must cope with pressure being put on him by the local police as well as the criminals who are after Brigid and the Falcon.

I hadn’t seen The Maltese Falcon until recently, although I had seen plenty of homages to it without realizing it. It’s a story that’s been copied everywhere and lampooned as well, from the old Warner Brothers cartoons with Bugs Bunny to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and more. The Maltese Falcon marked John Huston’s directorial debut and although he would go on to be a Hollywood legend with a fine repertoire of work, perhaps none of those other films have transcended our culture as much as this one did.

Huston was also responsible for adapting the novel by Dashiell Hammett to the silver screen and did a terrific job with that as well. It’s rare for an individual to be able to carry through in both these areas and it’s a tremendous credit to his abilities that The Maltese Falcon is pretty much flawless.

The performances he evokes from his cast are marvelous. Bogart is every inch Sam Spade, a tough detective who has a soft spot for the ladies under a tough exterior. Sam is not perfect, but then none of the so-called “good guys” in the film are, either. He’s sleeping with his partner’s wife and not the least bit sorry for it, and doesn’t seem to show any remorse at tossing her aside once she’s available and another pretty face has entered the picture. Perhaps the only woman he truly respects is his outspoken secretary, Effie (portrayed by Lee Patrick). It’s precisely Spade’s flaws that endear him to all as Sam is a human being, struggling to do the right thing in a world where doing so isn’t easy. He’s got weak moments and the film is a tale of his struggle against one of them as he’s preyed upon by a woman who seems to know he’s ripe for seduction.

That woman would be Mary Astor. Astor was a Hollywood darling who gave a great performance here as well. Brigid is deceptive and innocent at the same time, able to turn on the tears like a faucet when she thinks it’s to her advantage. It’s easy to see why men would fall for her story and I didn’t feel like shouting at the screen about how stupid they were being. She reveals her story slowly, and it seems perfectly natural that she’s doing so, which is how Sam gets drawn into her web and her world. The two share chemistry although it’s not overt and steamy.

The villains are terrific as well. I was happy to finally see a performance I’d seen celebrated and lampooned elsewhere; the character of Joel Cairo as portrayed by Peter Lorre. If you’ve never seen The Maltese Falcon, I guarantee you have seen take-offs of this character in movies, television, and cartoons. Lorre is terrific as is the rest of the supporting cast of villains, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr.

Huston hits on the perfect pacing to the film, revealing clues to the mystery slowly and creating a thriller without all of the explosions and gunplay currently the norm for so-called thrillers in Hollywood. Instead, the mystery deepens even as part of it is solved, taking viewers on a roller-coaster to the end of it. I didn’t feel like I knew throughout the film how the situation was going to be resolved, which took away the element of predictability. Huston also managed to evoke such terrific performances from the cast as they recited biting dialogue lifted almost verbatim from Hammett’s novel.

What I liked most, however, was the fact that the characters seemed real. Sam Spade wasn’t a cardboard-cutout hero, perfect in every way. Brigid was not so innocent and used her womanly wiles to try and convince others differently. The villains had an element of danger to them and at the same time were oddly out of place, especially for their time.

It was hard in some ways to look at The Maltese Falcon and be objective with all that’s come since. It just takes remembering that much of the film noir happened because of this movie. Open your mind and enjoy classic film-making and a wonderful thriller.


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10 replies »

  1. I have The Maltese Falcon; it’s one of the four titles in a “The Best of Bogart Collection” box set that I bought when I still lived in Miami. (The other three are Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen.

    Interestingly, Huston’s TMF was the third attempt to bring Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel. The first version bore the same title and was released in 1931 before the Hays Code was in effect. It flopped. In 1936, Warner Bros. released Satan Met a Lady, a comedic take on the plot that not only changed the title and tone. but also, the characters’ names. It, too, flopped.

    Another cool fact: George Raft was offered the role of Sam Spade, but he turned it down. A year later, Raft was offered the role of Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Again, he turned it down.

  2. Actually, after doing a bit more digging into the subject of George “Who?” Raft, the bit about Casablanca might (or might not) be apocryphal. However….

    1. He turned down High Sierra. Bogart got the part.
    2. He turned down The Maltese Falcon. Bogart got the part.
    3. He turned down All Through the Night. Bogart got the part.

    No wonder he was considered to be a difficult actor.

  3. He did make lots of movies, but not surprisingly, he never rose to the level of James Cagney, James Stewart, William Holden, or Humphrey Bogart. He also had some shady associations with the underworld. One of his friends was Bugsy Siegel.