Maltese Falcon, The (1941)


Not Peter Lorry, but not as cool a voice either
Not Peter Lorre, but not as cool a voice either

Genre: Mystery Film Noir

Starring: Humphrey Bogart (The Big SleepHigh Sierra), Mary Astor (DodsworthThe Palm Beach Story)

Directed By: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra MadreKey Largo)

Overview: When a woman hires private investigators Spade and Archer, murders, lies and shady henchmen lead Sam Spade to an ancient relic worth millions.

In 1946, French film critic Nino Frank wrote about an interesting observation he made with a new brand of detective films coming out of America.  After the Nazi occupation of France ended, a backlog of previously banned films were streaming through French theatres. Otto Preminger's Laura, Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet, Billy Wilder's Double IndemnityFritz Lang's The Woman in the Window and most notably John Huston's The Maltese Falcon were the films he used as examples when coining his term Film Noir

Quick, find the Patsy!

What that means then is, historically, The Maltese Falcon is definitive Noir. I love Film Noir because I love the look, the inherent darkness of the places that make up the settings of great Noir: the smokey speakeasies, the back alleys and warehouses across the tracks that lead to the dockyards, the smashed and blasted landscapes of war-torn Europe. Then there's the characters: shady crooks with vices, anti-heroes with psychological crutches. Even their looks are distinctly Noir whether bent-nosed hoods or sultry nightclub singers. The stories in these places with these people are bound to start badly and end worse.  In short I like the dramatic failures you often see in Noir, and when a happy ending does come, it's always bittersweet...

But to be quite honest, kids, I was thoroughly disappointed with The Maltese Falcon. When I compared this classic to my mental checklist of expectations, it certainly fit the Noir bill: contemporary 40s and 50s era starring staple of the genre Humphrey Bogart, low-key lighting, shady characters, a McGuffin more famous than any other and a scene where someone gets slapped.

When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it. - Sam Spade to Joel Cairo

But, as it was with The Big Sleep, it's obvious that this was a very close representation of the original novel because it's all dialogue, clever posturing, witty remarks and complex machinations... and very little movement. The suspense leaves much to be desired, the settings are not mood-inspiring with so much of it taking place in rooms, and though refreshing to see men and women who aren't Venuses and Adonises, I've grown accustomed to perfect women drawing their men into sticky webs of intrigue the way Angel Face did. Where's all the lookers? 

The lesson here is an old one: hype can spoil an experience and the first of a thing doesn't necessarily make it the best. I just wish there'd been more to look at.

"Was is so big that I passed out?"
Poor Peter Lorre, all knocked out and no place to go.

Overall Rating: 74% (Not The Gem-Encrusted Treasure I Was Expecting)

Let me share some of the observations made in Nino Frank's original article on these 'Films Noir'.  He said that they all shared rejection of “sentimental humanism,” the “social fantastic,” and the “dynamism of violent death” as being obsessive French noir themes and called attention to the American proclivity for criminal psychology and misogyny.

A slap by any other name...

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I found my second viewing of the film very similar to this experience, Squish. After having seen more films noir, I found it lacking in the qualities I had truly come to love in the genre. However, my third viewing of the film revealed just how efficient and well-crafted the film was. There are no scenes here only for character development. Every character is spelled out through his/her actions, allowing the film to speed by on its relatively straightforward plot.

I actually share your sentiments on The Big Sleep. I found its labyrinthine plot hard to sit through, and Bogie and Bacall lacked the spark that made To Have and Have Not so enjoyable. However, I will say that The Maltese Falcon is worth your time, if only for Bogie and Sydney Greenstreet, particularly the scene where they first meet. They have strong onscreen chemistry, and part of the fun is watching them square off. I think you should give The Maltese Falcon another shot at some point in the future.

The above is the kind of review I most dread writing, a declaration that I not-so-loved a film that is many a person's favorite.  I know for a fact that one day I'll see it again - I had this inherent knowledge that I was missing what made people like this - but it might be closer to when holo-vid technology's about...

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