THE MALTESE FALCON, 1941
Directed by John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet
Review by Kitt McKenzie
Nominated for 3 OSCARS:
Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Sydney Greenstreet
Best Screenplay, John Huston
A mysterious young woman, Brigid O’Shaunessey, enters the office of Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer. She needs them to find her sister who has apparently disappeared with a violent man named Floyd Thursby. Brigid is obviously afraid, and although Sam knows that she’s lying, Spade and Archer take the case. That night Miles is murdered and Sam appears to have the perfect motive – he was having an affair with his wife. With the cops on his back Sam is keen to get the real killer before he’s fingered for the crime. Hours later Thursby’s body turns up as well.
Eventually tracking down Brigid she demands Sam’s protection from the low-life’s who are threatening her. Sam being Sam takes the case and whatever payment, in cash or in kind, he can get. He knows he’s in deep when Joe Cairo tosses the Spade & Archer offices holding Sam at gunpoint and it’s at this point that Sam finds out about the Maltese Falcon for the first time. Cairo is working on behalf of Kasper Gutman and his odd little henchman Wilmer and Sam finds himself caught in the middle of a very dangerous game. Move provokes counter move and Sam finally finds himself in possession of the legendary solid gold bird but with the cops not far behind he has no time to waste. He still needs to find the person responsible for killing Miles.
‘The Maltese Falcon’ epitomises the best of film noir. It was the first film directed by the now legendary John Huston who also wrote the screenplay, for which he won an Oscar. In a world ruled by the morally ambiguous where no one is as innocent as they seem and everyone has something to hide. This film, like its source material, rubs our noses in the dirty underbelly of the world. An adulterer, a thief, a few more thieves, an unhinged psychopath and a megalomaniac should not make you feel this good but it does. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ takes you on ride that is thrilling and dangerous and intrinsically satisfying.
Humphrey Bogart embodies Sam Spade so well that this has become the definitive version of ‘The Maltese Falcon’. Few people realise that it was a remake of a film made ten years earlier. Bogart dominates this movie. It is his movie. Sam Spade is motivated by money and by self protection, he is incredibly selfish and yet as an audience we are carried along by him when it would be so easy to feel alienated by such a guy. This is wholly thanks to Bogart who with a small vocal inflection or glint in the eye makes us believe that there is a beating heart inside Sam Spade. It was an archetype that Bogart would return to time and again through out his career.
Mary Astor plays the woman. It is a performance that is by turns tearful and pathetic then manipulative and catty. In 1941 she would have been the worst kind of woman so it is interesting to note that Mary Astor went on to play the epitome of motherhood in the 1949 version of ‘Little Women’. Astor and Bogart play off each other perfectly driving the action forward through the love-hate relationship and the desperate need they both have to survive.
The rest of the supporting cast are just as good as Bogart. A young Peter Lorre and the marvellously rotund Sydney Greenstreet are a joy to watch as they ooze malicious greed.
Inevitably the film edges too far towards hysteria sometimes but it always recovers and this is a minor point within a film that otherwise is excellent.