“If you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” – The Maltese Falcon – Best Pictures of 1941 (#4)

Humphery Bogart and Mary Astor toy with each other in "The Maltese Falcon"

The Maltese Falcon is a movie that should have been just another low budget B-flick based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, but director John Huston proved that the trashiest material can be made into great art. (Billy Wilder would do something similar with Double Indemnity in 1944). Huston’s writing and directing are sharp and confident, full of the youthful exuberance of an ambitious artist finally able to execute his vision after years of laboring in the Hollywood system. Huston seems all to eager to show up the establishment that had hampered him for so many years with a sharp visual language and witty dialogue.

The film is all about pretense, artifice – a fitting subject for an art form that thrives on the subversion of reality. Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, a hardboiled San Francisco detective who gets caught up in an intricate web of deception and conniving. Hired by a mysterious woman, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to get her sister away from the man who corrupted her, Spade soon realizes nothing is as it seems. His partner is murdered (along with the man they were hired to follow) and unimaginative police detectives assume Spade had something to do with it. So Spade sets out to find out who killed his partner – not so much because he had so much affection for the man, but because, as he says, it would be bad for business for a private detective to have a partner’s murder go unsolved.

From there he uncovers a sort of international scavenger hunt for a gem encrusted medieval figurine known as the Maltese Falcon.  O’Shaughnessy is one of several individuals looking for the bird including the foppish Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the jovial fat man (Sydney Greenstreet), and an insecure, moody henchman (Elijah Cook, Jr.)

The major players eye the prize

Neither Spade nor the audience ever truly know who’s telling the truth and who isn’t – or if everyone is lying at all times, as often seems the case. These people lie for the fun of it, like when Gutman palms a $1000 bill to make it look like O’Shaughnessy stole it. When Spade calls him out, Gutman smirks and readily admits trying to stir up trouble. He loves the game.

We’re not even sure how seriously we should take Spade. He fits well into this perfidious world without ever officially joining it. In a scene with Gutman, Spade loses his temper, shouting and stomping around to great effect. He storms out of the room, pauses for a moment, and grins. It was an act and, though his hand shakes from the adrenaline, he was never out of control. We see that Spade can turn on the adrenaline to act the part he thinks will be most effective, though this knowledge also makes us in the audience aware that even our protagonist isn’t always (or ever) reliable. There is just no one for us to trust.

The most ambiguous relationship in the film is between Spade and  O’Shaughnessy. There appears to be a romance kindling between them, but there is so much lying going on that we can’t tell if either of them are serious, or if they are just using each other. I suspect they are falling in love, but their lies make the romance impossible. The first time Spade kisses her, he holds her head in his hands and pushes his thumbs into her cheeks, distorting her face. He is playing with her as much as she is with him, but they are still falling in love.

The Maltese Falcon is a rich, multi-layered film that works as a straight film noir, or as a deeper comment on the blurry line between truth and reality. By some point we don’t really care about the mystery; we just love seeing these characters toy with one another. Huston’s vision is scrupulously realized in one of the early films that sparked the film noir genre, complete with stark cinematographic contrasts populated by characters of questionable morals. It’s remembered as a Bogart film, but there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Bogart shines because everyone is allowed to steal a scene at one point or another, including director John Huston. The film is a genuinely collaborative effort and a richer movie-going experience because of it. It’s entertaining and thoughtful, intriguing and fantastic, all traits of a great movie.

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11 Comments

Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Pictures

11 responses to ““If you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” – The Maltese Falcon – Best Pictures of 1941 (#4)

  1. It’s a cinematic landmark in every sense, and a film that has transcended the term “American classic.” But one can’t take this benchmark film noir for granted, nor the performances of Bogart, Greenstreet, Astor, Lorre, et al, nor the Dasshell Hammet source material. It’s one of two John Huston films (the other is of course TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE) that has become legendary, and no consideration of 1941 should have it in any less than top tirer.

    Wonderful supporting essay as always!

    • It certainly is a classic, one that I appreciate more and more each time I see it. I originally had it higher on the list. But like I said in another comment thread, the five or six movies under the top choice could really go in any order. They are all incredibly strong movies.

  2. Excellent writeup on one of the best movies of 1941 and my favorite classic noir (of the few few few I’ve seen), I love Bogart and everyone in this movie, it has to be one of the best ensemble casts in the history of movies, and it also manages to be fun at all times, something that’s hard for a movie this good and perfect and serious in its tone, but playful with its plot.

    • I think you put your finger on why this movie is so great: it never takes itself seriously. Bogart’s Spade seems to be having fun among all these dangerous liars. He’s smart enough to know how to handle them — he’s probably smarter than all of them, even Gutman, and he’s having a grand time outsmarting them.

  3. Jon

    Jason, this one is probably in my top 2 from 1941. It’s the first great touchstone of the classic film noir period and really set a lot of the archetypes for film noir as we know it. There is a dip kinship between this film and Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Both films deal with the trivialities of riches/grandeur and the existential quandaries brought about due to these pursuits. The Maltese Falcon is also filled, as mentioned, with great and colorful supporting characters. It’s one of the all-time greats.

    • Jon

      Sorry typo- I meant “deep kinship”.

    • It certainly is a great film. I originally had it at number 2, but as I wrote the essays I realized there are a couple of movies that I personally like better, but only by slight degrees. My rankings often change as I write, but it isn’t as though there is any major distinction between numbers 2 and 3, 4, or 5 on this list.

  4. Great review – this is definitely one of my favourite noirs too and a great performance by Bogart, but, as you say, everybody is allowed to shine and that makes the film all the richer. A movie that seems to offer something new every time you watch it. I’ll be interested to see what you have above this in your countdown – it was another wonderful year and, of course, there are one or two very famous films still to come…

    • There are some great movies to come, one of which should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about movies. This is an all-time classic, but as I said to Jon, there are a couple of movies that I personally like a smidge better, though it gets somewhat arbitrary when there are several great movies from the same year. Once the list is complete I will be curious, as always, to see what you think I should have included.

  5. I was thinking about the Sam Spade/Brigid O’Shaughnessy relationship just the other day — my thinking is that in the beginning, they’re using each other but as the movie plays out, they begin to see each other as mirror images of their own reptilian natures. They’re kindred spirits, soul mates — which, given just how devious and amoral they both are, should scare the pants off them. Which is probably why Sam sends her over at the end, not so much a case of “He’s your partner and you’re supposed to do something,” but more like “If she’s as much like me as I think she is, I know I can’t trust her.”

    • I think you are pretty much right, though I’m not sure Bogart’s Spade is as amoral as you make him out to be. I do love your interpretation of the end. Perhaps he’s sending her to prison because, as you say, he knows he can’t trust her. He also can’t trust himself with her, recognizing that he was ready to fall for one too many of her lies even after he knew he couldn’t trust her. Sending her to prison saved him from getting roped in even further.

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