The Maltese Falconrecommended viewing

Delightfully dubious morality
★★★★★
Released: 
1941
Director: 
John Huston
Starring: 
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick
The Setup: 
A detective and three criminals all try to get their hands on a valuable bird statue.
Discussion: 

This is one of those movies that is all classic and old and stars Humphrey Bogart and, if you're under 40, you may say "Oh God, why would I want to see that? It's all old and probably stupid and soooo boring and the sort of thing only crusty old septuagenarians like," and then you see it and say "Holy shit! That was TOTAL GENIUS! I guess there's a reason some of these things are considered classics!"

I was not unwilling to see it when my friend first brought it over for movie tonight, and ended up enjoying it thoroughly and respecting how well it was put together. But recently I've been on this detective fiction kick which has seen me reading Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler and this novel by Dashiell Hammett, which turned out to be one of the best things I've read in a while. He's a very sensual writer, vividly describing the curls of smoke and feel of fists, as well as creating wonderfully complex characters of delightfully dubious morality and placing them in fascinatingly intricate situations—and I am happy to report that this version of the book brings all of them to the screen virtually intact.

Sam Spade and his partner are visited by a beautiful woman who wants them to follow someone. Spade's partner does, and is killed. Spade himself is a suspect, because he was having an affair with his partner's wife, who also had a motive. The client, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, reveals that she lied about the original reason for the stakeout. In fact, she lies about pretty much everything. She turns out to be the first of the many wonderful characters in the book, a woman who has grown used to manipulating any man she encounters by batting her eyelashes, seeming to cry, telling him must trust her, she has no one else to turn to, she's at the end of her rope, how she loves him, etc. She soon emerges as virtually psychotic, seemingly unable to tell the truth at all, as when caught in one lie she simply starts up another, then another, then another. Spade, delightfully, sees through all this, reacting in one instance by saying "You're good. It's that little tremble you get in your voice." Brigid acknowledges that she's been caught—and promptly starts up another line of lies. She will try anything, and it can get very funny. One of my favorite examples from the book, which is unfortunately not in the film, is when some money has gone missing and Spade is making her strip, and she bullshits: "I'll do it… but something between us will die."

Soon another incredible character shows up, Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre. I didn't understand on my first viewing of the film that they are trying to signal us that Cairo is homosexual. First, he is introduced by his card, which Bogart sniffs and his secretary significantly announces as "Gardenia." When we hear this, there is a little flourish of harp on the soundtrack. Then he appears, small, with a curly perm, an affected feminine tone of voice and mincing manner, and soon is holding the handle of his cane to his mouth in a suggestive way. And later, macho man Spade slaps Cairo [as opposed to punching him], and says "When you're slapped, you'll take it and you'll like it!" To the film's credit, however, Cairo has plenty of other traits and is a wonderful character in his own right, and it doesn't let his coded homosexuality become his entire character. For example, in his first appearance, he hires Spade to find the falcon. He pulls a gun on Spade and demands to search the office. Spade takes the gun from him, knocks him out, and searches him. When Cairo awakens, he makes to leave, and asks for his gun back—then holds it again on Spade and demands to search the office.

The third major character is Kasper Gutman, wonderfully played by Broadway actor Sydney Greenstreet, cast when they couldn't find anyone large enough among Hollywood actors. Gutman has the wonderful characteristic of constantly telling everyone he loves them and is endlessly devoted to them, in grand formal language, even as he is double-crossing them. In the book, Gutman is referred to as Mr. G, but here they call him "the Fat Man," which, incidentally, is where the name of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki came from.

Gutman is accompanied by his young, inexperienced henchman, Wilmer. He is also supposed to be homosexual, at one point referred to as Cairo's "boyfriend." It is also noticeable that his name, when said aloud, sounds like "Wilma." He is a young, inexperienced thug, and Spade takes a particular dislike to him, leading to a breathtakingly forthright act of cruelty to him right at the end. In the film it comes off that Spade hates him primarily because he's such an arrogant yet inexperienced putz. The book is a little different, however, as in the novel Spade has a deep, seething hatred for Wilmer and goes out of his way to torment him. When the final twist comes it becomes clear that Spade's hatred is based almost entirely on his revulsion at Wilmer being homosexual, making his final punishment extremely nasty, and casting an ugly pall over the entire novel. It seems, unfortunately, that homophobia is a standard element of classic hard-boiled detective fiction.

The final amazingly appealing character is Spade himself. Reading the novel, I can't believe that this is the only work [barring a few short stories] in which he appears, because he is SUCH a kick. Unflappable, he isn't so much a crusader for truth and justice as a smart guy who is out for himself, much closer to criminal than cop. He becomes involved in the case as a fourth party who muscles into what might be a huge payday, for the sole purpose of getting rich—not because he cares so much about putting offending parties behind bars. He's appealing because he is usually five paces ahead of everyone else, he's funny, and he doesn't take any guff. He's very funny in the way he sees straight through Brigid and constantly tells her so—or deceives her by letting her think that he's falling for her when he's not. Spade is as dark as anyone else in the story—it tells you something that in the novel, one is never sure that he DIDN'T kill his partner up until the last moments—and has a mean streak of pure hate and misanthropy running through him. This is where Bogart is about as perfect as he could possibly be for this character, because he remains unflappable, but we can often see the hate and revulsion he is barely concealing behind his toothy smiles. Look at how he sneers at his dead partner's wife at 14:38 as she's getting all sentimental and he just wants her to settle down and go home. He really gets the mixture of sentimentality and hatred for humanity that really works for Spade's character.

The movie is, in many other ways, the most perfect adaptation of this novel there could possibly be—and the closest adaptation on any novel I've ever seen. Lorre, Astor and Greenstreet are all absolutely perfectly cast, and spring to life precisely as one imagined them in the novel. Ditto the look, settings and locations. The script sticks very closely to the dialogue of the book, just removing large chunks of complications in the middle—and surprisingly they come out remarkably easily. This was director John Huston's first film, and began a fruitful partnership with Bogart. Anyway, this is one of those classic films that turns out to be really clever and enjoyable, and it's unlikely too much of anyone will be disappointed with it. And if you decide, before or after, to read the novel, you've got an extremely pleasant experience ahead of you.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Totally enjoyable, very clever classic.