d. John Huston / USA / 101 mins.
If this were another film, I'd say the actors of The Maltese Falcon all shine in their roles. But "shine" is the wrong word to describe this moody, edgy, and terrifically dark debut film from the legendary John Huston. Instead, allow me to say they flicker, like the hot dancing flame on a Zippo wick, and it's thrilling to watch them all burn.
Many consider The Maltese Falcon the birth of film noir, although that's not entirely accurate. Fritz Lang had been directing films in America before World War II that included all the essential elements of noir, and the film widely recognized as the first official noir was Stranger on the Third Floor, released one year earlier in 1940. Considering the pent-up energy The Maltese Falcon balls into an entertaining ferocity though, I can see why it would be tempting to want to bestow it the title of numero uno noir. Still, even if it's not the first technical noir, it's easily the first real success of the genre. After this adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel was brought to the screen, the careers of Huston and Humphrey Bogart were never the same, to the say the least.
Bogart stars as the steely Sam Spade, the private detective to end all private detectives. He's cold, sharp, fiercely intelligent. Spade stands in the center of an orbiting cast of oddballs, played by the likes of Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Lee Patrick. I mentioned before how great the performances are, and they're all certainly worth mentioning again for their conniving, slimy self-interest, particularly Astor's now-infamous femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy.
Huston had been writing films for Warner Bros. for nearly a decade before he won the right to direct one of his own. His version of The Maltese Falcon was the third version made. A Pre-Code 1931 version was prohibited from re-release and a 1936 version, called Satan Met a Lady, was a comedy that co-starred Bette Davis. Given the green light for this film, Huston combined the advanced footwork of Alfred Hitchcock (he storyboarded extensively) with the burgeoning experimental styles of filmmaking that allowed for liberal use of shadow and conservative use of light. In addition to directing, Huston penned the script, too, wisely adhering closely to Hammett's original text. The film has an unmistakably icy bite in its screenplay (it's source of that famous line "the stuff that dreams are made of"). Consider these words from Spade, spoken with Bogart's rugged slur:
Well, if you get a good break, you'll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.The film is not without weaknesses, particularly its convoluted plot which is essentially a hollow framework where the characters can wander around and bounce off each other's fists. They're all in pursuit of a famed black bird – that much we know – and they're all willing to muzzle and elbow one another to get it. I can say that once you've watched the film and tried to understand what's going on, you'll realize how futile it is to follow; subsequent viewings improve when you're free to focus on the performers and the technical aspects. Huston and his cinematographer, the famed Arthur Edeson, helped formulate so much of what would be endlessly imitated in the rest of the golden era of noir. The Maltese Falcon may not have been the first noir, but it's certainly among the best.