Film noir is tough to do in color. Luckily, in the 30’s to 50’s color wasn’t a viable option so film noir could thrive. The writing and acting styles matched the genre too. The characters don’t talk like normal people. They use more words than usual and they’re so brave in the face of the law or a gun that you’re sure they’re crazy. They’re indestructible. You can beat ‘em up pretty good, but they don’t break. If you can relax your cynicism, I promise you’ll love it. And The Maltese Falcon (1941), while not the best, is a classic.
The Knights Templar paid tribute to Charles V by sending a golden falcon encrusted in jewels. Pirates took the ship and the location of the Maltese Falcon has been a mystery ever since. Ms. Wonderly (Mary Astor) is in San Francisco to find her sister who has run away with a man called Thursby. She’s gone to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to help track her down. Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), Sam’s partner, is eager to help such a pretty lady. It doesn’t go well for Archer. He’s killed. A half hour later, Thursby’s dead and the cops like Sam for a revenge killing. Iva (Gladys George), the widow turns up, gives Sam a kiss, and accuses him of murder. His assistant, Effie (Lee Patrick) likes Iva for killing Miles. Then things get a little muddy. Because Ms. Wonderly, I mean La Plante, I mean O’Shaughnessy. In comes Mr. Cairo (Peter Lorre) who is looking for a black figure of a bird and he’s willing to pay $5,000. The cops are all over him, but he’s going to get to the bottom of things. Apparently the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet) is involved and the kid (Elisha Cook Jr.).
Sam Spade isn’t that good a man. He’s got a brute sense of justice and a sharp sense of humor. “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” Everybody’s playing him, so he plays everyone. His motivations aren’t always clear. If he found himself with the loot, the dame, or whatever, who’s to say how he’d move. Sometimes you do the right thing, sometimes you don’t, sometimes it just helps to look bent. Don’t think you know him, because you don’t.
What a story. Well, actually no. It’s not that much of a story. If you break it down to actual plot points, there’s one little story and Sam’s just going around shuffling the pieces until they make sense. In that way, character and plot are one and the same. Happily, the characters are pretty good and very well performed. The characters are also complicated and makes the plot very thick. Paired with the rapid-fire dialogue delivery, you’ve got to be on your toes so you don’t miss anything. The very start and the ending are especially hard to follow. Since plot falls into a secondary interest on further viewings, it’s important to nail it on the first go-through.
Lorre I liked especially after I saw M (1931) and saw him as more than a weird voice. The Fat Man’s character, Gutman, is the best written in cleverness. Spade/Bogart is exactly what you expect. They’re the gold standard of film noir detectives, so I have no original comment. All that I’ll say is that if you have a nostalgic bone in your body, you’ll enjoy Spade and the movie.
This isn’t a flawless piece of filmmaking. Some of the cuts are rough where Bogart is talking with someone and there’s a shudder and the conversation goes on. The clothes don’t change or anything, but clearly it’s two takes cut together without changing perspective. The movie was directed and adapted by John Huston (adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett). I don’t like commenting on the direction in old movies because it feels more pretentious than usual to do so. But the writing is solid. I will say that it’s a bit on the slow side—as compared to Casablanca (1942) for example—but the dialogue is full and interesting. If only Bogart would slow down just a touch, I would be both impressed and amused.
So long as you approach it with respect and keep your focus, you won’t be disappointed. Too cheap not to buy at $12.50 with The Big Sleep (1946), Dial M for Murder (1954) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).