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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

by on 2011/03/01

“What else is there I can buy you with?”

* * *

The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon is the third and most familiar adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. It’s known as a turning point for actor Humphrey Bogart, who transitioned here between bit player and leading man. It’s also known for being director John Huston’s first production.

However, that’s not why I’m giving it the old once over. The Maltese Falcon is one of a handful of contenders commonly cited as the first ever work of film noir.

(Well, that . . . and I don’t have a copy of 1940‘s Stranger on the Third Floor at hand.)

Falcon concerns the investigation by Sam Spade (Bogart) of a missing woman. Her whereabouts lead him in unexpected directions. He becomes drawn into the race to locate a “mislaid ornament”, a foot-high statue of jewel-encrusted gold, called the Maltese Falcon.

Working both with and against him are four rivals, played by Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby), and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (both would appear with Bogart again in Casablanca). His association with them draws the suspicion of once-friendly San Francisco police officers (Ward Bond and Burton MacLane).

Though the twisting, turning intricacies of plotting are interesting enough, something felt wrong to me, toothless. The lead’s cynical lip should’ve tipped me off nearly from the start, but the inkling became obvious when one character comments, “Come, Mr. Spade, you can’t expect us to believe at this late date that you’re afraid of the police.” Not only is he unafraid, he lies to them all outright, cops and robbers alike.

The very spirit of mystery is lost because Spade is rarely out of control. Waylaid, drugged, or beaten, he’s never scared or even much uncertain of anything or anyone. While he may be wrong, he either doesn’t know it, or doesn’t care. His partner’s wife tells him, “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good.” How compelling is a protagonist when he already knows he’ll win?

If anything, his greatest measure of success is the money he earns, extorts, or steals. Despite Spade’s protest to the contrary, I found Falcon to be unusually fixated on specific dollar values. One client gives him $200, and later offers $500. One of the statue’s seekers offers $5,000. Our “hero” shortly picks his pockets, then demands $200 more. Another party counters with $25,000 or a share of the statue’s resale value, an estimated $250,000. In the end, he settles for a portion of $10,000.

Thus the Falcon might be “the stuff that dreams are made of” and yet cold hard cash seems to be Spade’s greatest motivation. The title object itself being little other than a narrative device, I’d have preferred it didn’t show up at all. A murderous convergence of desperate treasure hunters could have been infinitely more entertaining than their anticlimactic withdrawal.

In short, the film didn’t feel very noir to me. It’s light and mannered, with a charismatic confidence, and only the breeziest hints of cynicism drifting past its mystery. Still, my disappointment can’t undo all I enjoyed about The Maltese Falcon. If it’s not emotionally involving it is, at least, thought-provoking. It’s the stuff that puzzles and politics are made of.

* * *

Not rated

100 minutes

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