The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same title. It certainly makes for good entertainment but there’s more to it than that:
Sam Spade (Bogart) gets hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor) to find her sister who is seeing some shady character named Thursby. Spade’s partner Archer (Jerome Cowan) jumps in to shadow Thursby but by early morning they both turn up dead. As it turns out, Spade was seeing Archer’s wife on the side and thus becomes the police’s no. 1 suspect. But Spade isn’t a killer, he’s clever enough to find out that the whole plot of the damsel in distress is a decoy and everything really revolves around a black statuette of a falcon which is supposed to be of great value. Several parties want it but it turns up on Spade’s doorstep in the hands of a dying man. Plot is spun and the main players – besides Spade and O’Shaughnessy there are Joel Cairo (Lorre) and Gutman (Greenstreet) – finally meet in Spade’s apartment where they’re waiting for the falcon to arrive via Sam’s assistant Effie (Lee Patrick). It turns out the statuette is a fake and the parties part ways. But Spade is not one to be played with – as his new lady love has yet to discover.
This is not exactly film noir. Yes, the plot lends itself to the genre but the finesse of the later murder mysteries is missing here. This is a solid story, the men talk tough, the women lie through their teeth but there’s no playing in the shadows. Bogart’s Spade is almost too upfront a character who does the detective work the old fashioned way: by foot and brain. He’s certainly not fancy but, as Gutman assures him repeatedly, he is a character.
I love old movies, yes, but this one is a rare pearl. It is very fast paced, changes location often and the dialogue is just as fast-paced as the plot. You have to pay attention to what is being said or you miss a point, miss what is happening. The acting is spot on and the direction brings everything together for a surprising but necessary end. Yes, it is a character study of Spade, but the other characters don’t have to hide behind this larger-than-life figure and the plot just helps everything along nicely. It is a truly magnificent film to watch, never boring, never not entertaining. Go, watch.