“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”—Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon
It is a recipe for disaster in the world of film noir to be incapable of formulating a good, old-fashioned threat. To have your adversary slight that ability is the most direct insult you could possibly be asked to face. So, when Sam Spade delivers that line to Wilmer Cook, who just leveled a threat at Mr. Spade’s liver, Spade does what he does best: he makes himself the alpha. No matter how many kicks and punches Cook can barrage Spade with, he’ll never be able to make up for that defamation. That is what The Maltese Falcon is all about really: in a world of those clamoring to be god, the man who does best with what he’s got is the man who wins out. It’s an appeal to character, however flawed or broken; whoever has the most of it, and knows how to use it well, makes it to the top of the food chain of masculinity that defines the world of noir. The way that The Maltese Falcon creates this alternate world is what makes it so great.
The Maltese Falcon has the unique prestige of being one of the most influential of all American films despite the fact that it was only the second-most influential film to come out in 1941. While Citizen Kane takes the cake ultimately, it is difficult to imagine where American cinema would have gone without the incredible strides taken by The Maltese Falcon and its creative team. Picking up where The Roaring Twenties left off, The Maltese Falcon took the antihero archetype and was the first to truly integrate the German Expressionism stylings that would become the hallmark of detective movies for the next twenty years.
Characters who worked in shadow needed a world of shadows. And that’s what we got in The Maltese Falcon.
For those of you concerned about yet another aberration of Spider-man in coming years, let’s look at the movie in question as an anchor of hope. The 1941 version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel was actually the third version that Warner Brothers Production studio put out in the course of a decade. The first two were both critically and publicly decried, making little money and giving us a dead end to the private eye genre. Surely, a match made in heaven had to happen. Perhaps Jon Watts and Tom Holland will be the modern-day equivalent of Humphrey Bogart and John Huston.
Huston was a screenwriter—a good one, too—in an era teeming with great screenwriters. Like Billy Wilder, he would eventually move from his fixture behind the pen and take a seat behind the camera. We’ll get to Billy Wilder in the next review. For Huston, though, his rookie attempt would be, quite likely, his greatest success. Few directors get to say that their first film was of the quality that The Maltese Falcon was and continues to be. Of course, another rookie director would lay a claim to fame in 1941, but, I digress.
While this was Huston’s first film, it certainly wasn’t Bogart’s. But, for all intents and purposes, it was Bogart’s first film as a superstar. Like LeBron James in Miami, Humphrey Bogart’s team-up with James Cagney for Angels With Dirty Faces, The Oklahoma Kid, and The Roaring Twenties was a rite of passage into megastardom. The man who was a fixture as a villain in gangster B-movies was about to become the ultimate A-lister. Together with his role in the following year’s Casablanca (often considered Hollywood’s truest masterpiece), Bogart was establishing himself as a new kind of protagonist in a way that no one else could.
I hate to be repetitive, but I have to re-address a point I made in my essay on acting in film. Bogart was type-cast, to be sure, but he was type-cast in that kind of way that works as an honor rather than a rebuke. The pejorative nature of the term certainly doesn’t apply in the case of Bogie: like I said, he was playing a type of role unheard of, and he made it work in a way that no one before or after ever could. It was a unique talent that created the likes of Sam Spade, immortalizing not only the name of the character, but also the character type itself. It’s in seeing him in these allegedly “type-cast” roles that we see the subtle marriage of 1940s character acting with a distinctive style that took control of the entire thrust of the picture, dictating its pace and playing just as important a role in its atmospheric feel as the photography did. Film noir would never have been without Humphrey Bogart’s being “typecast”.
, for reelreviews.net, said this about Bogart’s performance:
All these years later, it’s tough to imagine anyone but Bogart playing Spade, so watching either of the earlier versions is an odd experience. Bogart embodies Hammett’s detective: so calloused by life that he won’t become a “sap” even for love, yet hiding a core of humanity that occasionally peeks through via haunted eyes. Bogart’s clipped, rapid-fire delivery of Spade’s lines has become iconic. When we think of the actor, we most often envision Rick from Casablanca, but that character has more than a few echoes of Spade in him. Before The Maltese Falcon, Bogart was not a big star; this movie elevated him into the stratosphere. For the next fifteen years, he would dominate Hollywood both on and off the screen.
I would add another element to an analysis of Bogart’s performance. He acts the part so effortlessly that it seems an extension of himself, like a chef with his trusted knife. Imagine a contemporary star in the role; pick a star of your choosing. It’s almost assured that the role would be forced: the style would be there, but the ironic naturalism would not be. This is the beauty behind Bogart’s “type-casting”. It’s a phenomenal excursion into both the self-aware and the self-forsaking.
Meanwhile, Huston’s contribution to the film was just the sort that you would expect from a screenwriter-turned-director in the 1940s. Every piece of the film was designed to accentuate that special device of words that a script-writer like him loved so much. Huston was to his films like Bob Dylan was to his songs: where Dylan would write so every chord, every rhythm, and every melody was designed to point to the lyrics, Huston would use every camera angle, every bit of music, and every cut to bring life to the dialogue. The pair of Huston and Bogart would become quite the pair in this era of Great American Screenplays, making such films after this one as The African Queen, Key Largo, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Few scenes show Huston’s directorial ingenuity as a complex scene at movie’s end. A long-take moves slowly, back-and-forth, up-and-down for over seven minutes as we watch all the major characters interact in a climax. Fittingly, this is a climax of words and threats, not a climax of violence and gore. These long shots were vary complex in terms of technological requirements, and few directors were able, or allowed, to orchestrate them at all, let alone with the subtle precision that Huston exemplified in that key scene. Some, including Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards (whose podcast Out of the Past is highly recommended if you want to learn more of film noir), point out that Huston’s youthful inexperience in the Hollywood studio system played a role in the construction of this key scene: more wizened directors would not have even proposed such a take with studio bosses in the first place. It was this mix of youthful ambition and sage-like implementation of established Expressionist styles that gave life to the drama of Huston’s script, as well as Hammett’s story.
Where Huston, Bogart, and the rest of the creative team weren’t directly pointing out the dialogue, they were complimenting it with a shadowy chicness that matched the pace of the actors. I know I talked this point to death in my last post of film noir, but one short watching of The Maltese Falcon shows how a collaboration of actors, directors, and screenwriters created films so characterized by voguish fashion that they have survived through generations and decades of artistic evolution and consumer taste.
The story has just as much style as the film itself. Sam Spade is a successful private investigator, who does not hesitate to flirt, fight, or flee when things look inescapable. His partner, Miles Archer, agrees to take on an innocent tail job that Sam is reluctant to take on…and is killed in the process. Already, we are shown two distinctively Expressionist constructions: the way their office is skewed against the angles of light passing through their office door and windows invokes memories of Murnau’s Nosferatu, just as the sudden and shadowy demise of Miles Archer and its aftermath remind us of those layered shots The Last Laugh (also by F.W. Murnau).
Soon, Spade learns that the woman who employed Archer is a more complex, and even wretched, soul that he originally thought. He also learns that she is one of several people (masterfully played by Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, in particular) looking for a legendary and bejeweled statue of a Falcon that has shown up in town. Criminals from across the globe are descending on San Francisco, and the woman (named O’Shaugnessy and played by Mary Astor) is not only fighting for the statue, but supposedly for Spade’s heart. In this, she plays the femme fatale with whom the truest conflict is present in this film. Spade himself is letting passion get in the way of solving the mystery of the Maltese bird; a man like him is emotionally aloof, but now love and revenge are getting in the way. Only by embracing his true character can he win.
This is what makes the film noir genre so great. Most other films would see Spade reconciling his lust for vengeance and love, winning in the end, and ending the film a better person than he was when he started. But, in Falcon, he chalks up his love for brute sexuality, which is much easier to cast aside (after all, there’ll be some rotten nights, but that’ll pass). As for the revenge, he’s able to shred off that coil, too. Just chalk that up to professional courtesy (after all, it’s bad for detectives everywhere if you let one of your own go). In the end, he doesn’t do all the “human” stuff: he’s Sam Spade, and Sam Spade wins by being Sam Spade. That he doesn’t end up better than he was when the movie is over is a given. He may actually be worse.
Maybe that gives a little added meaning to the last line of the film (one of the greatest movie lines in history). If love, glory, vengeance, riches, and comfort are the motives that lead each of the characters to the Maltese Falcon, it could be the very things keeping them from it. Spade’s the one who can put all those to the side. The statue was “the stuff that dreams are made of”; obtaining it is not for dreamers, but pragmatists.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Maltese Falcon is not a story with a moral. Huston and Hammett didn’t set out to say “just be yourself”. No, they set out to make a character. And, if that character was going to live forever, permeate itself through all the noir films to follow, and create a mystique of eternal proportions, he could not change in an hour and a half. The story of change is one for dramas, comedies, and all those in between. The film noir genre was not in that spectrum. Dashiell Hammett’s character was the most important part of the story, and it’s the character that wins.
Humphrey Bogart and John Huston worked well to make Hammett’s character as immortal as he was intended to be. Through it all, they stuck to their guns. They made an unchangeable, immovable, hard-nosed, yet lovable anti-hero. They created a character with character, who would use it as a weapon rather than a gun. They created a character who would be come a character type. That character type would come to define the heroes of the noir genre.