Weekly Classics: The Maltese Falcon
The film noir category generally refers to highly stylised Hollywood crime-dramas, which emerged during the 40’s and 50’s. The films are dark (“noir” means “black” in French), mysterious, and dramatic. They are often shot in black and white, with an emphasis on stylish acting and shots that indulge the viewers’ senses with mystery and charm.
Many Noir films take their inspiration from crime fiction novels that were popular in the US during the days of the Great Depression and wartime – these tough, gritty stories seemed to capture the nation’s imagination in a brooding, magical way. After John Huston directed this pioneering masterpiece, the celebrated genre gathered speed, inspiring great directors like Hitchcock, Scorsese, and David Lynch to create Noir films of their own. The genre inspired movies like “Casablanca” and “Double Indemnity” in its earlier decades, and also continued to effect film culture for many years to come.
The Maltese Falcon too, was originally a 1930 novel written by Dashiell Hammett, a book which had already inspired two other films before this one was made.
The movie is about a private detective, played by Humphrey Bogart (of course) who runs his own agency called “Spade and Archer” in San Francisco. Miles Archer is Spade’s partner in the agency, and is murdered at the beginning of the film. The crime takes place after a visit from a beautiful client, who goes by the name of Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor).
As the investigation begins, Spade is quickly pulled into a mystery that clearly involves this mysterious lady, but also a series of eccentric criminal characters, and an ancient artifact called “The Maltese Falcon”.
After the murder we learn that Spade himself is a suspect in the investigation. The authorities have no evidence against him however, and he quickly realises that the best way to prove his innocence is to find out who Wonderly really is, what she is involved in, and how she is related to the murder.
This is where a series of quirky “criminals” are introduced into the story. These shady characters provide some of the most entertaining highlights in the film. One of them is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a suited, shifty, effeminate character who carries lavender scented business cards and speaks in a whispery voice and a heavy accent. Cairo approaches Spade on his own, and offers to pay him handsomely if he can retrieve a figurine of a black bird that has recently arrived in San Francisco. Lorre is an iconic actor who plays this character ingeniously, and every moment he spends on screen is full of humor and amusement.
Another important character is the “fat man”, or Kasper Gutman, (played by Sydney Greenstreet). Gutman is a talkative, British man, whose storytelling and calculated statements make him a very engaging character. You will find yourself watching him as closely as Spade does himself. Gutman too, offers to reward him handsomely for retrieving the Falcon.
Spade finds himself tangled in between these characters and their tussle for the Falcon. Each is keeping something from him, and they are all obviously desperate to have this seemingly priceless artifact. What ensues is a complex, entangled plot that is best understood by watching the film.
Roger Ebert, who has dubbed this one of the best films ever made, talks about this aspect in his own review: “To describe the plot in a linear and logical fashion is almost impossible. That doesn’t matter. The movie is essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It’s all style.”
Spade’s intricate interactions with these characters (both verbal and physical) are very engaging. They fight a battle of wits – now passive, now aggressive. They circle each other throughout the film in a dance that charms the audience and keeps them on the edge of their seats – always delivering a quick-witted, loaded dialogue that is a well loved characteristic of films of the time.
Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade too, is iconic and definitive on its own right. Spade is a hardened hero, he is unmoved by both physical and emotional assaults, and keeps his wits as sharp as his looks. He delivers his blows with minimum mercy, and seems to care little for others – but somehow still manages to do the right thing. The uncompromising, jaded attitude of Spade was difficult for the studios to swallow, because they feared the audience would react badly to such ambiguous qualities in a “hero”. But the Bogart’s cold portrayal only makes him more fascinating, and adds to the suspense – leaving us to constantly wonder not only about the murderer, but even about who the “good-guy” in the film really is.
For many of us, this movie looks and feels like the quintessential “classic” – it practically represents a way of making movies that is unique to its era. This “Noir” style is firmly embedded in our collective memories as the dreamy, stylish drama that the silver-screen used to be. Even if we haven’t seen any of these films, we have seen references to them in pop-culture:
In modern times, films have come a long way; they have evolved, and so has their emphasis; everything from gender roles, to the treatment of suspense, action, dialogue and style have changed – so watching films like the Maltese Falcon is not just entertaining, but also a wonderful journey into the old styles and sensibilities that we simply can’t see today.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.