Maltese Falcon, The (1941)
Release Date: October 18th, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Huston Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond
n 1539, a tribute was sent to Charles V of Spain. It was a golden falcon figurine encrusted with the rarest of jewels, later stolen by pirates and lost for centuries. In the present day in San Francisco, private investigator Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart) takes on a case from Mrs. Wonderly (Mary Astor), who claims that a bullying Englishman named Floyd Thursby is detaining her sister. Spade’s partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) agrees to tail Thursby that night. When Miles is found dead, Wonderly can’t be reached at her hotel, and Thursby is discovered shot in the back four times, Spade realizes the whole scenario is a cover for something much more devious.
The sleuth doesn’t seem too broken up about the death of his partner, and it’s largely because Archer’s wife Iva (Gladys George) is in love with him. But Sam is too crafty to get attached to just any woman. The police think Thursby shot Archer and that Spade shot Thursby. And as the lone detective starts gathering clues, he discovers that Wonderly is really Brigid O’Shaughnessy – just one of her many falsities, though Spade claims he never believed her story anyway. This corresponds to the elusive motives, fake monikers, and constant lies shrouding every person Spade comes into contact with. He’s approached by a wispy-voiced little man by the name of Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who offers him $5000 for the recovery of a black bird statue, which Thursby was expected to possess and likely hid before he was knocked off. O’Shaughnessy is also after the falcon, as is another man, the rather large and aptly named Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) – revealing a glimpse of the causative of multiple homicides.
The dialogue is refreshingly unique, using hardboiled quips and deadpan sarcasm for humor, manipulation, and playing mind games. It’s a nonstop verbal joust between each of the severe, slippery characters, all of whom wear unyielding masks to conceal intentions. Paranoia, fear, and distrust cloud judgment and action – except when they concern Spade, who confidently proceeds with a closelipped master plan that is gradually revealed to the audience. Facts are either withheld or distorted, while wordy conversations are tossed about like gangster poetry. Sam always comes out on top, while cheap crooks are forced to swallow brazen insults.
“You always have a smooth explanation ready,” complains Cairo. Bogart has never been better than in his embodiment of gumshoe Spade, spouting wisecracks at a breakneck pace, in perfect design with quintessential film noir. Greenstreet is also hilariously striking, prattling on about the history of the falcon with distinctive relish. Lorre too is unforgettable, with his peculiar, fretful delivery; and Astor revels in a role in which every line obnubilates truths. The mystery of the statuette takes a backseat to the acting and amusement of the scripting, led by Bogart’s calculating assuredness, culminating in the realization that corruption, greed, and revenge trump any sort of loyalty – especially the romantic kind.
– Mike Massie