The Maltese Falcon (1941) is back in cinemas from 17th September to celebrate its 80th anniversary as part of the BFI’s Watching the Detectives season. Adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel it sees John Houston take his directional debut in this black and white film noir classic.
Private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are asked to find a woman’s missing sister and Sam’s partner is quickly bumped off in the process. A straight forward missing person case quickly turns into a double homicide, in which Sam himself has become a suspect as we find out he has been having an affair with Mile’s wife. All this has happened without even a mention of the golden falcon described so dramatically in the opening credits. So ensues the investigation to find the murderer and also discover the whereabouts of this valuable bird that another visitor to the detective offices, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), has sought the services of Sam Spade.
This is a Humphrey Bogart film through and through as he plays the tough wise-cracking San Francisco private dic, Sam Spade, whose only scruples are to get to the bottom of the case. A street smart detective on pally terms with the police who is able to mix it with the gangsters and still finds time to play hard and fast with the ladies. But Bogart is more than ably assisted throughout by a supporting cast that includes Mary Astor as the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who switches between the fragile and needy to the manipulative and even violent in a heartbeat. Sydney Greensheet (appearing in his first film at the ripe old age of 61 years old) plays Kasper Gutman “the fat man” gangster head behind the search for the Maltese Falcon. He is like a cross between Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock all rolled into one with his gentrified but underhanded negotiations. Then there is Peter Lorre who puts in a fantastically kooky performance as Joel Cairo setting the bar high for the devious, conniving villain.
The film’s quirkiness, with some laughable scenes and sometimes dark dialogue, make you wonder if it is in spite of these or in lieu of these that it is considered such a classic. When Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo first appears in the Private Eye’s offices you immediately know you’re in for a film noir treat with his shifty mannerisms; his subsequent disarmament and rearmament is risibly entertaining. At the beginning the mythical story introducing the Maltese Falcon, a long lost treasure of a golden, jewel-encrusted bird gifted by the Knights Templar, turns up much later as a “black figure of a bird” and looks not much more than a lump of lead. But it’s these kinds of things the audience are asked to acquiesce and indulge in as part of the storytelling process and have become archetypal components of film.
Widely considered a masterpiece and one of the earliest examples of film noir it is often placed at the top of film polls and was part of the first group of films to be put in the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and whilst now largely resigned to the black and white vaults for movie buffs to discover, its caricature performances will no doubt continue to massively influence filmmakers.
As for the Maltese Falcon, it got the last laugh. Several of the falcon props made for the film are considered some of the most expensive film props in the world valued at well over $1 million each, much much more than what the movie cost to make.
Film: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director: John Houston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Film Noir
Run time: 1hr 40min