Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconCinema Monolith: 10/10 This film is part of the Cinema Monolith collection!Film Reel
IMDb: 8.1/10
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: **** out of 4

Released on October 18, 1941
Not rated
100 minutes

Directed by John Huston

Written by John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr, Gladys George, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, Murray Alper, John Hamilton, William Hopper, Charles Drake, Walter Huston

Though many consider Stranger on the Third Floor to be the first example of film noir, for my money the one that best exemplifies an introduction to the style would be The Maltese Falcon, a slick detective mystery from first-time director John Huston, based on the book by hard-boiled crime novelist Dashiell Hammett. It stars Humphrey Bogart in one of his benchmark roles, playing the hard-edged but deceptively sympathetic private investigator Sam Spade, who goes after the person responsible for his partner’s murder, and helps client Mary Astor chase down the elusive ‘black bird’.

The film opens in the San Francisco office of Spade and Archer, partners in a detective agency who are hired by a woman named Wonderly to find her sister, who’s gone missing after hooking up with a man named Thursby. That night, Spade is awakened by a phone call: Archer has been killed, and Thursby is knocked off shortly thereafter. Back at his office, Spade is visited by the mysterious Joel Cairo, who offers the detective a hefty sum in exchange for a black statuette of a falcon, which he assumes is in Spade’s possession. Someone known as the Fat Man soon joins the fray, and Spade finds himself caught in the middle of it all.

The pace was swift, the dialogue was smart and sharp, and the directing and acting were both first-rate, ranking The Maltese Falcon as one of the best from the noir canon. There wasn’t a lot of action per se, but the story, quotable lines, and Bogart’s cool demeanor more than made up for it. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre were just excellent in their secondary lead roles, and a young Elisha Cook Jr indirectly supplied the film with its occasional spots of humor, playing a punk thug whose constant needling by Spade nearly drives him apoplectic with rage.

All the best elements of noir were here as well, and the visuals were no exception. In addition to filling the frame with shadows and light, Huston often kept the camera in motion, moving it in and around the actors—and moving along with them—while long takes played out. I also noticed a lot of space in the frame, revealing large rooms, high ceilings, and clearance above the actors’ heads, allowing images in the background to be emphasized. The result was a different but satisfying look overall, and I’d recently read where Huston had planned everything—including storyboarding and step-by-step instructions for each shot—right down to the smallest detail, and the precision shows.

If you plan on cultivating an interest in noir films, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start here; a must-see not only for noir fans, but for anyone who enjoys watching well-done and entertaining movies. And one final note: to bypass censors, Huston—through Hammett—has Spade call Wilmer a ‘gunsel’, which everyone (myself included) assumed was a term to describe a person who carries a gun. However, the Yiddish definition actually means ‘a young man kept by an older man for sexual purposes’. Take that, Wilmer!  (10/10)

The Maltese Falcon

6 comments on “The Maltese Falcon

  1. My goodness you’ve been busy!! Great stuff!!


  2. Love this one. First saw it around 1980 when a local theater was having a Bogart film fest. Saw all his big ones that way and what a great way to discover his classics. For years I’ve told my boys the falcon is the one movie prop I would want to own. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.


    • Todd B

      Cool that you had a nearby cinema to see classics like this! And I know you can get replica Falcons on-line for $75 to $250, depending on how much your sons want to spend on you for Christmas.


      • Yeah, this one, Sierra Madre, Key Largo, Casablanca and I think Petrified Forest. What a way to see this for the first time as a movie loving youngster. I’ll pass on that hint to the boys. The vault needs one here to make the room complete. 🙂


      • Todd B

        And it might need a flux capacitor as well!

        Liked by 1 person

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