The Maltese Falcon (1941)
“A story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING automatics!”
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George
Synopsis: A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.
Humphrey Bogart (The Roaring Twenties, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) finally cast off the shackles of Hollywood villainy and established his identity as a tough but honest hero with his portrayal of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The movie boasts a couple of firsts other than Bogart’s career-defining role: the first studio Noir, and the first movie directed by John Huston, whose father, Walter, makes a brief cameo appearance as a dying sea captain. The Maltese Falcon is so densely plotted it’s unlikely that a mainstream, financially-conscious studio like Warners would touch it today…
The movie opens with Sam Spade receiving a visit from Miss Wanderley, who employs him and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan — The Great Lie) to track down her missing younger sister, who has run off with a man called Floyd Thursby. Archer takes the job, but is shot dead while tracking Thursby. When Thursby’s bullet-riddled body is then discovered, the police lean on Spade, believing he committed the murder in revenge for his dead partner. Spade then learns that Miss Wanderley is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor — The Great Lie), and that she has no younger sister, but that she was betrayed by Thursby, who was once her partner. Spade is then visited by the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre — M, Casablanca), who offers him $5,000 if he can deliver to him a figurine of a black bird known as the Maltese Falcon. Spade then proceeds to coolly play Cairo and Shaughnessy off one another in order to find out who was responsible for the murder of his partner.
Like many 1940s crime dramas, The Maltese Falcon seems a little convoluted at times, but Huston keeps the pace at a high enough tempo to allow him to gloss over any confusion until the plot is explained. Bogart makes a convincing Spade: tough but principled, handsome in an ugly sort of way, he provided the template for a whole roster of tough guy private eyes played by the likes of Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell and Robert Montgomery. They all gave good accounts of themselves, but none of them could hold a candle to Bogie in terms of charisma and style. The rest of the cast is pretty spectacular: when you see Bogart, Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor and Elisha Cook Jr. sharing a scene — with other names like Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, Gladys George and Lee Patrick waiting in the wings — you know you’re watching something special. Only Astor, despite her colourful private life, seems curiously miscast — too prim and proper to be truly believable — although perhaps that’s what makes true femme fatales so, well, fatale.
(Reviewed 27th October 2012)