Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on October 18, 1941
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)