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The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is considered by some to be the starting point for the film noir movement. I'd recently watched Fritz Lang's classic thriller entitled M (1931), which has plenty of dim scenes and imbues a sense of foreboding, which are characteristics of noir as well. Peter Lorre is in both films, as a serial killer in M and an implied homosexual baddie in The Maltese Falcon. I'd seen Lorre in Casablanca (1942) years ago but only vaguely remember his performance. I wanted to watch The Maltese Falcon to see him in another Hollywood role (M is in German). That, plus I'd read this was the film which gave Humphrey Bogart megastar status.

Directed by John Huston and based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930), and with Bogart, Mary Astor in the role of femme fatale, and Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (in Casablanca too), The Maltese Falcon holds more intrigue for a modern-day audience that is aware of how important it is in film history. I knew it was highly regarded but didn't know why really: that the onscreen detective would forever be changed, that hard-boiled, morally-flawed characters including dangerous women would take center stage, that noir would burst onto the scene and come to be regarded as a genre.

When I watched it yesterday, I expected to see something new, not realizing it has been so influential that countless other films to some degree echo this groundbreaker. The same old cynical gumshoe, sultry seductress, and rapidly spoken, frequently risqué lines—I'd seen it all before in other movies, not knowing the impact The Maltese Falcon had had on them, and particularly on film noir, the attributes of which have arguably spread into every other film genre.

It's like when you're reading Shakespeare and a line sounds trite, even though the Bard himself came up with it first, or at least first put it on paper (e.g., wild-goose chase, it was Greek to me, seen better days, green-eyed monster, good riddance, love is blind, break the ice, and so forth). Actually, the final line in The Maltese Falcon, spoken by Bogart, is: The . . . uh . . . stuff that dreams are made of—a misquotation of The Tempest's Propero: We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.

But without knowing anything about the film's significance, it's still entertaining, and also seamless. This was Huston's directorial debut, and in each scene it's clear how painstakingly careful he was with every shot and detail. There's also a seven-minute take, remarkable for the way the camera subtly follows characters down a corridor and into a room and around the space, and (most conspicuously) pans from left to right to catch Elisha Cook Jr. exiting the room.

I wouldn't dare attempt to summarize the plot; it's labyrinthine, and I'm sure I didn't grasp all its ins and outs. Roger Ebert wrote: To describe the plot in a linear and logical fashion is almost impossible. That doesn't matter. The movie is essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It's all style.

And boy did Bogey have style. I was astounded by how effortlessly he pulled off long, long, long lines without a hint of coming close to faltering. That was the main ingredient of his charisma.

Finally, I doubt enough credit has gone to the novelists who were writing "noir" stories during the depression and world wars. Writers like Hammett, Graham Greene, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich, whose thrillers and detective stories were steeped in disillusionment, urban woe, and realism, were telling these dark tales before conservative Hollywood was putting them on screen. War and poverty had left idealism lame, in either sense of the word, and realism and disillusionment had been seeping into literature since the Victorian era, with Kafka, Zola, and lots more. Naturalism and realism in literature surely in part gave rise to film noir and, in this sense, to some of the best movies ever made.

Humphrey Bogart and Elisha Cook Jr. in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart and Elisha Cook Jr. in The Maltese Falcon (1941)


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