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.)
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.