I cannot go through Noirvember and not write about one of my favourite films. Not just noir films, but films in general. So here goes!
A guy without a conscience! A dame without a heart!
It is tough to summarize the plot of “The Maltese Falcon”. The film’s protagonist is a private detective, Sam Spade. He is hired to handle a simple case for a Miss Wonderly. He quickly finds himself in the middle of a complicated intrigue, full of betrayal and murders perpetrated by adventurers obsessed with finding a legendary precious figurine.
Released in 1941, “The Maltese Falcon” was not the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The novel, which to this day is a hard-boiled classic, originally appeared in parts in pulp magazine “Black Mask” in 1929. Hammett’s style of writing was an influence for many other crime writers, such as Raymond Chandler, John Le Carré or Sara Paretsky. Hammett was one of the first to take the “crime” part of whodunit novels and place it on the streets. Gone were the closed spaces, train compartments, drawing rooms of Agatha Christie stories. Due to its popularity, the novel was quickly adapted into a movie in 1931, which achieved moderate success. The second, more comedic adaptation (“Satan Met A Lady”, 1936) received even poorer reviews despite having Bette Davies in it. But the third time’s a charm! At first the 1941 film was planned simply as a remake of the first adaptation. Soon after its release, this version became the most popular one, thanks to great casting and production.
The stuff that dreams are made of
“The Maltese Falcon” was the movie that put writer-director John Huston on the Hollywood map. It showcased Humphrey Bogart’s talent and proved he could be a successful leading man. Although it’s clearly Bogart’s feature, the supporting cast is wonderful as well. Mary Astor is convincing as the innocent but dangerous Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Peter Lorre plays the sleazy, effeminate Joel Cairo. The others – Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, Jerome Cowan, Gladys George – are great too. They brilliantly transferred their novel characters to the silver screen. In fact, the chemistry between Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet was so impressive that they appeared together in two more movies (“Casablanca” and “Passage to Marseille”).
The influence of “The Maltese Falcon” on the following movies is undeniable. The archetype of private detective was forever changed with the antiheroic, cynical Sam Spade. Bogart’s delivery of the dialogue became iconic. The visual style was a result of Huston combining elements of German expressionism with classic Hollywood techniques. The interplay of light and shadows matches the dark plots and shady characters.
What I really, really like about this movie is how seamless it seems. There are no unnecessary shots, no extra scenes. This is impressive, considering it was Huston’s first full-length film. The story is that he prepared for it meticulously, planning the shoots with sketches and instructions for camera setup. As a result, the final version of the movie retains almost all dialogue from the original shots. Of course, some elements from the original novel had to be removed due to the restrictions of the Hays Code. Nevertheless, it’s really no wonder that, like “Double Indemnity”, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the movie “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and thus selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989.
Should you watch it?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Since it’s my first time participating in Noirvember, all the movies I’m recommending are real classics, so if you are unfamiliar with film noir, I highly recommend you watch the ones I’m going to write about this month. And don’t forget that you can watch “The Maltese Falcon” on Netflix!