4.5 out of 5 stars

At first glance, The Maltese Falcon might seem like just another hardboiled, wisecracking tale of a gumshoe and a femme fatale, but John Huston’s directorial debut is so much more than that. And not only because it was the first major film noir, at least in some accounts of that tricky-to-define style’s development, as The Maltese Falcon is daring and original on so many levels.

It’s a film about discovering the truth which leaves truth unresolved and imprecise (resembling its even more famous predecessor from the same year, Citizen Kane). It’s startingly meta, frequently drawing attention to its own theatricality, its characters frequently discussing the way they’re all engaged in fiction. It’s a film where the romance between the leading man and the leading lady is almost overshadowed by the presence, extraordinary for 1941, of so many gay men; Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is, in fact, the only heterosexual male amongst the main characters. 

British critic John Russell Taylor later described it as “undoubtedly, a masterpiece of a sort”, before adding “…the sort [that’s] puzzling, unrepeatable—even if John Huston had ever wanted to repeat it. The film’s special quality comes from its extreme tightness: everything follows unhesitatingly from what has gone before, there are no gaps, no pauses, no chance to dwell on atmosphere or character as something apart from the story.”

However, in another of The Maltese Falcon’s seeming contradictions, while the main narrative is indeed non-stop and superficially appears to be the point of the movie, it’s also only an excuse for Huston to bring forward character interactions, dialogue exchanges, and themes. Spade is dragged into the schemes and counter-schemes to gain possession of the legendary, jewel-encrusted Maltese Falcon of the title when Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) first appears—under a false name—in the San Francisco office of his detective agency. But the Falcon is little more than a MacGuffin, and both Spade’s and the audience’s knowledge of it remains shaky to the end of the film.

One has to wonder, indeed, if there is even a Falcon at all; Brigid is certain of it, so are her covetous rivals Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), but it’s quite apparent from The Maltese Falcon that greed is a powerful force in itself, not necessarily connected to reality. People desire the Falcon because others do, not just for its supposed inherent worth, and Gutman at one point explicitly distinguishes between sums of money talked about (fantasised values) and actual sums of currency (true value). Does the bird, “the dingus” as Spade calls it, perhaps fall into the former category?

Surely Spade and Gutman, at least, wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case, as they seem aware the facts of the film they’re in are unreliable. The two frankly discuss the keeping and sharing of knowledge and secrets; when Spade says “it might be better all-around if we put our cards on the table” or Gutman declares “here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding”, they’re acknowledging that there has been little but deception so far.

The reflexiveness of The Maltese Falcon goes even further than that, to a remarkable degree that infuses the film with a sense of artifice even when it looks like realism. When Spade muses on “the trick from my angle” he’s overtly describing himself as a character, with motivation, in a plot; his sarcastic jab at the gunsel Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) “the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter” could almost be an observation on 1940s scriptwriting (though to be fair to the generally hard-done-by Wilmer, it’s actually Spade who has the most ornate slang with phrases like “birds crackin’ foxy”). And when Spade rattles off a speech to the district attorney, only to then ask the stenographer if he’s going too fast, we’re very close to a fictional character commenting on the performance of the actor who plays him.

The people of The Maltese Falcon are aware of their own situations, then, and the film’s theatricality makes equally clear the audience’s situation as viewers of a performance (or indeed performances within performances, because the characters of Brigid and Gutman, in particular, are clearly putting on certain behaviours rather than showing themselves in full). This is most obvious in one highly, blatantly posed shot where two detectives flank Brigid and Cairo, the four of them standing in front of an alcove that looks for all the world like a proscenium arch.

But film academic Lesley Brill (writing in John Huston’s Filmmaking, 1997) has pointed out how this motif is in fact extended through the movie, with window frames, curtains, and the like, repeatedly enclosing the characters to suggest that they are on-stage. And The Maltese Falcon’s theatrical qualities (as well as other touches like the often waggish score from Adolph Deutsch, so at odds with the film’s pretence that its events are serious and realistic) led Susan Sontag to describe it as “among the greatest camp movies ever made”. Indeed, although Taylor thought that Huston as director “excludes himself”, the reality is the opposite—there’s careful direction everywhere, but of a kind that doesn’t instantly reveal itself in the way that a more flashy filmmaker’s work might. (Huston prepared closely, for example sketching sets and camera positions, but was happy to leave some things to chance on the day of shooting. “It is important,” he opined, “to say things on the screen with ingenuity, but never to belabour the audience with images that say, ‘Look at this!’)

Much in The Maltese Falcon defies expectations, even though the film sticks closely to Hammett’s storyline (it “was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent”, Huston told Film Quarterly many years later). And for 1940s audiences, this started with the casting of Bogart himself. The actor was not the hoodlum he’d so often played in the 1930s: he came from a comfortable middle-class background and began his career on the stage before Hollywood stereotyped him as a criminal. So The Maltese Falcon marked a significant step for him in transitioning to more sympathetic and less aggressive roles (as had the same year’s High Sierra, also written by Huston). The film writer Alan Woolfolk, indeed, considers the filmic Spade a “dandy”.

Spade is certainly a ladies’ man, at home with women and treating them as equals (at least by the standards of the early-’40s) who seems to be simultaneously carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife Iva (Gladys George) and developing a relationship with Brigid. “You’re too slick for your own good,” his secretary Effie (Lee Patrick in the best female performance of the film) tells him, and she at least seems to have no illusions; she asks if he’ll marry Iva even while Spade is flirting with her.

His mood is unchanging and slightly aloof. He’s not afraid to get involved, with criminality as much as with women, but he’s always a little detached—when we very first see Spade, he’s clearly more interested in the cigarette he’s rolling than in his conversation with Effie—and the famous Bogart wolfish grin occasionally betrays his amusement at the foolishness of others. He’s not quite passive, but he’s an opportunist rather than an instigator; it’s not Spade who drives the narrative at all.

He’s cold, too, ordering the signage on his office to be repainted almost immediately after his partner’s death. (And heavy early visual emphasis on this—seen backwards through a window, then in shadow on the floor—once again underlines how crucial people’s presentation of themselves is to The Maltese Falcon. For Spade, the change in the office sign seems almost more important than his partner’s murder.)

Perhaps, though, Huston could (from the perspective of the ’40s) afford for his leading man to be a little preening, a little dandyish, precisely because he seems to be the only straight man among the leads. He doesn’t need to be aggressively macho to get the girl(s); there’s no competition from Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer. Their homosexuality (to use the term a polite viewer might have then) is of course not stated outright, but it’s unmissable.

There’s Cairo’s expression of excitement as he prepares to frisk Spade from behind, his comment that discretion is more important than legality, Spade’s own teasing of Cairo: “when you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!”. There are Gutman’s proclamations of his love for Wilmer (“I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another.”). There’s the way that Wilmer disappears into the bedroom when Spade visits Gutman. And then there’s Wilmer’s name, easily interpreted as a woman’s (Wilma) in a context where the names Hammett gave his characters are so descriptive: Gutman is immensely fat (and Huston obliges by foregrounding his gut), Cairo is exotic, the detective Spade digs for truth, and the fake identities of Wonderley and LeBlanc used by Brigid imply goodness and innocence.

All of the performers excel, most notably the superb Greenstreet in his screen debut at the age of 61, his chuckles seeming to reflect delight at his own scene-stealing as much as Gutman’s pleasure in plotting. Even more memorable is Lorre’s Cairo; you can smell his gardenia-scented card, and when Brigid describes the Falcon as “smooth and shiny” she might as well be talking about Cairo with his striped bowtie and silver-handled cane.

Today, Cairo would be an offensive Orientalist caricature of the untrustworthy Middle Easterner, of course, and indeed despite his Hungarian Jewish origins, Lorre had lately been playing the Japanese detective Mr Moto in a series of B Movies for 20th Century Fox. The Maltese Falcon was his first movie after moving to Warner Bros., and the first of many he’d make with Greenstreet.

Patrick, meanwhile, makes the secretary Effie a strong, intelligent woman. Astor’s Brigid is palpably fake and manipulative; the role helped to put Astor, whose career had faded first as a result of the arrival of sound and then in an adultery scandal, back in the limelight. Huston’s father Walter, himself a fine actor (and never so fine as co-starring with Bogart in his son’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre seven years later), plays a small uncredited role as Jacobi the sea captain.

Huston crowds all these characters into a small number of claustrophobic sets— all the key scenes are interiors, ceilings often seem to nearly touch heads, and the few exteriors are mostly set at night, robbing them of any sense of wider space. This, as well as cinematographic touches like the famously symbolic near-final shot of Brigid behind the bars of an elevator, have helped to earn The Maltese Falcon’s reputation as one of the first noirs (indeed, the Golden Age of the style is sometimes said to extend from Falcon to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil in 1958). And certainly, Spade, with his mixed motives, is much closer to a noir protagonist than a conventional valiant hero.

Less remarked upon but equally interesting are The Maltese Falcon’s resemblances to two of the most legendary films of the period, Welles’s Citizen Kane, and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca the following year. It shares a producer (Hal Wallis), a director of photography (Arthur Edeson), and of course Bogart with Casablanca, and the actor’s shift toward more noble roles with The Maltese Falcon may well have suggested his suitability for the film adaptation of an unknown play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The Rick Blaine of Casablanca is, after all, not far at all from the Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon—the same tough guy with an underlying sense of honour—and the final scene in Falcon between Bogart and Astor is almost an inversion of the famous concluding airport scene in Casablanca. In Falcon, after all, Spade muses over what the couple might have had in the future, while Blaine recalls what they did have in the past; it is Brigid, not Blaine, who leaves with the police, not for a beautiful friendship.

If this is intriguing speculation, the influence on Falcon of Gregg Toland’s photography for Citizen Kane is there for all to see. Indeed, William Stull wrote in American Cinematographer that very year that it was “one of the first films to point the way to a successful adaptation of the Citizen Kane photographic technique to more routine production. Much of the Kane technique has been retained: There is strikingly similar depth and crispness, the use of wide-angle lenses and roofed-in sets, not done just occasionally, when somebody thought of it, but throughout the picture, as an integral part of the production…

“The note of realism dominates. There is far less of the conventionally melodramatic effect lighting of the usual ‘whodunit,’ and a surprising lot of the realism of a documentary.” (He also observes, correctly, that Huston and Edeson do point the camera up towards the ceiling a little too often.)

The Maltese Falcon was hailed critically from the moment of its release (“a young newcomer, John Huston, made the most interesting film of the season”, wrote Herman G. Weinberg in Sight and Sound) and its reputation has never declined; it took 23rd place in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies, for example—a roster topped by Kane and Casablanca. Casino tycoon Steve Wynn paid $4.1M in 2013 for a statuette that supposedly was the Falcon itself, although theories persist that others are or were in existence.

By contrast, two earlier versions (under the same name in 1931 and then reworked as a comedy for Satan Met a Lady in 1936) are virtually forgotten today, their main contribution to film history perhaps being in dissuading George Raft from taking the Spade role in 1941; the studio’s plans for a 1942 sequel were abandoned, and a 1975 parody The Black Bird found few fans.

“It is always disastrous to start your career with a masterpiece,” Taylor said of The Maltese Falcon, and though Huston downplayed the notion of himself as auteur (as did many later critics), it surely was his masterpiece—The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the only other serious contender. It’s a Huston film through and through, meticulously thought-out but never parading its artfulness too much; putting an adapted story first but ensuring that everything else in the film serves or casts new light on that story; and, like so many of his films from Sierra Madre to The Man Who Would Be King (1975), dealing with huge ambitions that end in nothing.

The rabbit hole into which greed leads the characters of these films is perfectly illustrated by the very last line of The Maltese Falcon, almost always overlooked but surely intended as significant by Huston, even if it was Bogart who thought of it. (Huston had evidently thought about the ending hard— in this version of the script, for example, it’s very different from the released product.)

A cop asks Spade about this Falcon that’s led to so much murder and skullduggery; what is it? Spade replies, “the, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.” But though that’s the one usually quoted, it’s not in fact the final utterance in the film, for the cop replies “huh?”. Plodding, lacking in imagination, he doesn’t get it: neither the Shakespeare reference from the (cultured!) Spade, nor the idea that people would go to such lengths for a dream.

And in a movie so self-aware, it’s not a stretch to think that Spade here also stands for the audience that has accompanied him over these crazy last hundred minutes. He’s felt the allure of the fabulous Falcon, and so have we; like Spade, Brigid, Gutman, Cairo, we have been so lost in the fantasy that, for a while, we could barely distinguish truth from fiction. But the quest has been compelling and continues to be 80 years later. 

USA | 1941 | 100 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: John Huston.
writer: John Huston (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett).
starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond & Elisha Cook Jr.