1 Year, 100 Movies: #31 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

There are two, possibly three, performances that are defining moments in Humphrey Bogart’s career, and his role as Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” is one of those performances. In addition to being a standout role for Bogart, it also opened the door to later opportunities for him. So Bogart, as we know him, may never have existed had it not been for “The Maltese Falcon.” But the importance of this film doesn’t begin and end with Humphrey Bogart. “The Maltese Falcon” may not be the first Film Noir, a genre defined by deep shadow and slashes of light, ambiguous even unlikable protagonists, and strong-willed dangerous women, but it was an early and important example of Noir. It was also the first film directed by John Houston, who would continue his off and on collaboration with Bogart which, would result in two other films on the top 100 list, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen.

The Maltese Falcon,” like many Noirs, is almost exclusively about tone and style, but there is still a plot to it. Spade is a no-nonsense character concerned with the bottom line- he knows how to work others to get answers. After the death of his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cown), Spade questions his client, Bridid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a classic femme fatale. She turns on the charm, but Spade isn’t having any of it, he just asks her for money for his services- which use some of the same tactics as the criminals he pursues. His tactics become more aggressive and questionable when Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) comes to Spade’s office looking for a small black statue of a falcon. Once he has Cairo disarmed, he strikes him unconscious, rifles through his pocket and even takes inventory of the money in his wallet.

Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) appears as the main pursuer of the falcon, and offers Spade a sizable reward for securing it. At this point all of the villains are in play, and you can see that each one is a distinct character type. Cairo is weak, effeminate and simpering. Gutman is arrogant and self-imporant; with Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) as his lackey. Finally we have Brigid. Her emotional makeup is a shifting mix of sincerity and sinister intent. We never know how much of her story we can believe. Effie (Lee Patrick), Spade’s secretary is a perfect female character actress. She’s charming, and makes Bogart shine. I feel like she knows more about what’s going on than Spade.

The good guys are almost indistinguishable from the bad. Brigid killed Spade’s partner, but Spade seems to revel in his speech and his intent to turn Brigid over to the police. Even when discussing the possibility of Brigid getting the death sentence, Spade is controlled and callous. He won’t let a little thing like feelings get in the way of his survival. A mushy guy he is not. This is noir. “The Maltese Falcon” gives us a protagonist that’s built entirely out of flaws. The hard cop on the mean streets of the city may feel like a cliché now, but “The Maltese Falcon” still feels fresh and exciting. Here we can see the origins of cliché, not the cliché itself.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:

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One response to “1 Year, 100 Movies: #31 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  1. Pingback: 1 Year, 100 Movies: #21 Chinatown (1974) | thegreentreeischirping

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