The movie, of course, follows detective Sam Spade as he attempts to navigate his way through a “swell lot of thieves” while searching for a priceless artifact known as the Maltese falcon. While the convolutions of the story multiply like heads on the Hydra, the storytelling is simple and uncluttered. At any given point in the movie we may not know exactly what is going on with the plot, but we know what’s happening in the present scene. Since every scene is entertaining, the plot doesn’t have to be perfectly clear.
The Maltese Falcon might just be the preeminent specimen of studio system perfection. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson had been lensing films since the teens, yet his look for the film would help to define noir for the next seventy years. The set design of Spade’s sparsely decorated office and apartment, set against the transitory opulence of the various hotel rooms of his adversaries, is a testament to the art design of Robert M. Haas. And Adolph Deutsch’s score for the film is a nimble combination of the playful and the brooding. The epic swell of his orchestra during the iconic last shot of Spade is my favorite moment in cinematic music.
Of course, much of the credit for the film goes to its first time director, John Huston. The son of legendary character actor Walter Huston, by 1940 he had already established himself as a fine screenwriter, but with this film he gave notice that a major directorial career had begun. He transcribed much of the dialog straight from Dashiell Hammet’s original novel (itself an unsurpassed masterpiece), but he never goes for a boring camera set-up. The majority of the film, for instance, is shot from a low angle that seems to throw everything off balance. Huston’s camera stays in motion like it’s trying to keep pace with the plot. Only after watching the film a few times do you realize that the thing is mostly comprised of scenes of people talking. (Watch an extract from the film.)
But what people! You don’t get better casting than this movie. Sidney Greenstreet, in his first screen performance, makes the evil kingpin Kasper Gutman the most likable person in the movie. Peter Lorre takes an offensive stereotype, the effete gay villain, and makes him such a specific creation that Joel Cairo becomes both lovable and dangerous. And as the psycho goon Wilmer, the great Elisha Cook is all saucer-eyes and whispered threats.
Then there is the mother of all femme fatales, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, played by Mary Astor. There was a time in my viewing of this film when I thought Astor was miscast. Not pretty enough. Too old. What can I say? I was young and misguided. If Astor doesn’t bring the sexpot quality of Joan Bennett or Rita Hayworth (both of whom were considered for the part) she has a self-contained quality that would be even more beguiling for a man like Spade. Mary Astor is always looking out on the world, an essential characteristic for an actress playing Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She’s a closed book, a woman who, even at the end, never really seems to come clean. Spade can’t be bought with money or sex, but he is nearly done in by his desire to crack the code on Brigid’s mystery.
The Maltese Falcon is a further testament to the brilliance of a man who most people today have never heard of: producer Hal B. Wallis, the head of production at Warner Brothers. It was Wallis who initially felt that the two previous versions of the film (in 1931 and 1936) had fundamentally erred in their approach to the material. He picked Huston to write and direct, but as his biographer Bernard F. Dick put it, Wallis hovered over projects “like a spectral presence.” During filming of Falcon, for instance, he instructed Huston to pick up of the pace of scenes, to have actors speak their lines faster, to have Astor be less coy and ladylike, to have Greenstreet enunciate more clearly.
And if nothing else, Wallis had the good sense to listen to Huston when the director argued for Humphrey Bogart to play the role of Sam Spade (Wallis had originally wanted George Raft). With one role, Bogart turned around a career that just a few years before seemed to have stalled at playing gangsters and henchmen. What he brings to the role of Sam Spade is a complexity born of dueling natures. In real life, Bogart had a mean streak, and here he lends it to Spade. In fact, Spade’s pretty much a son of a bitch. He’s sleeping with his partner’s wife. He’s slapping people around (“When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it”). He’s playing all the angles. And why? Because, at the end of the day, nothing matters except the thrill of the hunt. If The Maltese Falcon is about anything it’s about the meaninglessness of life. These vipers are all trying desperately to get their hands on a little statue of a bird, and when they finally get it what does it mean? Nothing. Bogart’s performance here is a companion piece to his work as Philip Marlowe in that other private eye masterpiece, The Big Sleep. But it’s not the same performance. Not at all. Marlowe (like most of Bogart’s protagonists) is actually a hero. Spade puts the anti in antihero. He’s leering, greedy, and mean. But, at the end of the day, he is the best man in a bad world. This guy, The Maltese Falcon seems to be saying, is as close as the real world comes to heroes.
Go to the Film Noir feature section for more on the art of chiaroscuro cinema.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor