The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Rewatching some films that are on my shelf, that I haven’t seen for years.

Cast, crew, etc.


A cyncial San Fancisco PI gets pulled into an electrifying case. Hired by an attractive woman to track down her missing business partner, he is soon the chief suspect in a double homicide. As he unravels the mystery he uncovers a band of rival treasure hunters, at each other’s throats as they chase a fantastical artefact.

John Huston’s directorial debut is simply: one of the greatest films ever made. Based on a dime store novel by Dashiell Hammett, it imports all of that writer’s trademarks; a jaded anti hero, an alluring femme fatale, a convoluted plot, and enough hard bitten lingo to fill its own dictionary. But while there had been detective films before (two other versions of ‘Falcon’ had even been made already), no one had ever done it quite like this.

Huston’s approach held back none of the novel’s world weary tone. Written in 1930, the book captures an America that had been battered by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and, by the time the film was released, about to enter WWII. The sprightly optimisim of the first part of the century was long faded. Hammmett’s characters face a tough, hard scrabble fight for survival; they expect no favours from anyone, nor offer any. And Huston brought this to the screen, serviced by a wonderful troup of actors.

Humphrey Bogart had been in Hollywood for more than a decade already, mostly playing bit parts and heavies. He and Huston were friends and when George Raft, the studio’s first choice, passed, Huston had no hestitation in offering Bogart the role. A defining moment: not just for Bogart’s career, but for all of popular culture. When most people think of Humphrey Bogart they probably think of him as he is here: the trenchcoat, the hat, the pistol, the wisecracks, the tough but still vulnerable soul. All of these became synonymous with Bogey, and have been so endlessly imitated and riffed on, it is impossible to imagine what it would have been like to see them when they were fresh.

But that has not diminished anything of their cache.

Mary Astor is perfect as the pretty face with a dark soul, who cannot be straight about even the most basic of truths, but who is never less than sympathetic. This is a male dominated world, and you understand why she has to cheat and hustle: it’s the only chance she’s got. The rest of the cast are rounded out by brilliant character actors doing great work; Peter Lorre as one of his indelible slimeballs, Sydney Greenstreet as a wealthy crook with a refined manner, Elisha Cook jr unforgettable as angry gunsel Wilmer.

And this movie MOVES. The opening scene, the opening minute, Bogart’s secretary comes in to tell him a woman wants to see him, three minutes later he is on the case. In an era where a plotless comedy about a New Jersey misfit lasts 140 minutes, this seems almost shockingly radical. If this film were made today, the actual case wouldn’t start till minute 20, and somewhere along the way we would get a lengthy flashback about some incident that tilted Bogart’s character towards cynicism.

Message to modern film makers: LESS IS MORE. Movies used to be great at suggesting things, and not laboriously explaning them: a skill that has been largely lost.

Made with stylish economy, and chock full of memorable lines and characters, this is one for the ages; 80 years old, aging beautifully. The stuff that dreams are made of, indeed.

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