23 April 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

How Can You Not Love The Maltese Falcon?
By Kristin Battestella

Generally, one should always begin any form of article or essay with an introduction. Unfortunately, this may be my shortest introduction ever-for there’s film noir and then there’s Humphrey Bogart and The Maltese Falcon.

Detective Sam Spade (Bogart) finds himself in plenty of hot water after the death of his investigative partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan, Blondie, Miracle on 34th Street). Mrs. Archer (Gladys George) was hoping to leave her husband for Spade anyway, but the lovely and misunderstood Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) traps spade in a search for the legendary Maltese Falcon. Unfortunately, Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) are also after the treasured bird. Each offers to buy the statue from Spade, but Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane) and Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) are sniffing around, too. Will Spade find the Falcon, ditch the coppers, and save the dame?

The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Special Edition)First time director but longtime screenwriter John Huston (Sergeant York, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen) helms his own 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel with mystery, suspense, and all the staples of film noir. At face value, The Maltese Falcon should be stereotypical and obvious- not only does it have one of our most famous detectives, but also the silver screen’s original MacGuffin. However, fine performances and complex mystery twists keep this film above the imitators. The script is witty and tight-we don’t know who to trust yet we like-or love to hate- each of the players involved. The Maltese Falcon is global-with talk of the Orient and historical treasures-yet it’s a relatively talkative piece with not a lot of action. Huston keeps us tugging at our collar with claustrophobic double crossings and high priced, deadly debates. Though confusing to some and a little tough to follow thanks to some old school fast talking, The Maltese Falcon is an intelligent ride that takes every ounce of cat and mouse to tell its tale.

Of his many exceptional films, Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest, Casablanca, The Desperate Hours, The African Queen) some swear by The Maltese Falcon above others. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, Bogart’s infamous Sam Spade walks the walk and talks the talk. He is fast, slick, and just as coy as all the folks meddling in his business. This is not a film to be viewed casually, thanks to Bogart’s complex dialogue, double duty deals, and shear visual presence. We think we know Spade and what he’s going to do, but Bogart keeps us guessing right up to the end. Though a little subservient and ‘in their place’, the dames in The Maltese Falcon add to the spice and mystery. Oscar winner Mary Astor (The Great Lie, The Prisoner of Zenda, Little Women) is perfection as the quintessential femme fatal who wavers between playing the helpless damsel and using her pretty face to get what she wants. Likewise, Gladys George’s (Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, Best Years of Our Lives) Widow Archer would be the typical faux grieving woman in black if it weren’t for her beautiful charm and deceptive grace. Lee Patrick (Topper, Mildred Pierce) is also great fun as the wise secretary who knows how to handle Spade.

The Maltese Falcon is a star-making vehicle there’s no doubt, but the ensemble is also masterful in the onscreen wit and deception. I swear Peter Lorre (Mr. Moto, Casablanca, The Raven) plays the same part in the same style over and over, and yet he’s always so juicy and captivating onscreen. Maybe it’s those Bette Davis eyes or that nasal little voice, but his Joel Cairo is delightful to watch. ‘The Fat Man’ says so much about Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, The Flamingo Road) and yet he is so much more. This debuting Supporting Actor nominee would steal the show-if every other performance in The Maltese Falcon wasn’t a scene stealer, too. Ward Bond (Wagon Train, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, The Quiet Man-somebody stop me!) and Barton MacLane (I Dream of Jeannie) are also delightful as the cops who like Spade, but are also trying to solve two murders. Who is going to best whom-Spade, the cops, the gals, or the ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’?

I must say, The Maltese Falcon isn’t without controversy. The 1931 edition has been edited and censored over the years thanks to clashes with the uptight Hollywood Code, but comparisons between the versions could be a lot of fun. Thankfully, the 1931 version and the 1936 comedy adaptation Satan Met A Lady- are restored and packaged with the 1941 feature on its special 3 Disc Special Edition DVD. If you’re looking for some of the novel’s supposedly scandalous gay subtext, you can find it here. However, to the mature film student or young classic fan, there isn’t anything shocking. No, what’s worse is that The Maltese Falcon has the dubious distinction of a few dastardly colorizations attempts. The horror!

Oh, but for the cigarettes that are real cigarettes, clutches and pillbox hats, the fedoras and the trench coats- any fashionista of post Depression styles will be in heaven watching The Maltese Falcon. The colloquialisms and mannerisms may be dated and stereotypical, yes, but they are also a great freeze frame of the times. Some of the music is also as over the top as the acting, but other times the crescendos are perfectly timed with those moments that make you gasp. Even though we’ve had seventy years to memorize The Maltese Falcon and every other cheap film noir imitation, the clich├ęs aren’t even that bad. Even if we expect something to happen, there’s still plenty of juice in how it’s all going to play out. In this day of constant updates, reboots, and sequels, I’m surprised someone hasn’t attempted to make another big screen The Maltese Falcon. Thankfully, there is one very good reason why this tale hasn’t been done since. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon simply can’t be beat.

Classic fans who know the ending of The Maltese Falcon can still enjoy this timeless noir again and again due to critical suspense and fine performance. If you are lucky enough to find someone who is a completely clueless virgin about this film, God bless you as you tie him to a chair and make him watch. Trust me; he will thank you for the experience. Young folks might be deterred by the black and white, sadly, but you can’t be classic film lover or scholar of film without knowing and loving The Maltese Falcon. As the Fat Man says, ‘if you loose a son, it’s possible to get another. But there is only one Maltese Falcon!’

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