MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Film Noir/ Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook Jr., James Burke, Murray Alper, John Hamilton, Walter Huston/ Runtime: 100 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by saying that in regards to the history of cinema there is one very important decade that definitely deserves mention and that is the 1940’s. This is because this was the decade where Hollywood finally came to the realization that the mystery genre also deserved the opportunity to be given the big-budget, big-star treatment that you would normally see comedies, musicals, or the “latest” Cecil B. DeMille epic be given. From then on the 1940’s became known as the glory years that really helped to set up the private investigator and their various misadventures as an all-time favorite in the mystery genre for years to come. Indeed there were so many choices at that time for the story to go, and so many actors were wanting the opportunity to play in this fresh sandbox that it really becomes hard to establish just where the memories of the films I have watched from that time should just stop and yell “Cut!”
It is with that in mind then that although 70+ years have come and gone since, but I still feel that out of all those early PI films that the suspense and the thrills provided to audiences by The Maltese Falcon still manage to reign supreme. Indeed this is a film which, despite being in black & white, that has the appearance of proving to be both striking yet refreshing for the benefit of the human sight and the human mind. Yet although, for some, this film is also known quite fondly for being the directorial debut for eventual film legend John Huston who manages to bring such a marvelous world full of suspicion, and uncertainty that even Alfred Hitchcock would feel right at home, I feel that it should also be noted that this is also the movie that managed to have a pivotal part in establishing Film Noir as a genre all its own. Oh and this is also the film which managed to give an actor by the name of Humphrey Bogart the, rightfully earned, super-stardom that, until the release of this movie, had tragically eluded him and his magnetic acting talent. Indeed The Maltese Falcon is a genuine classic which should hopefully please anyone who considers themselves either a fan of detective stories, film noir, or both and which also comes equipped with a gallery of complicated yet three dimensional characters who are all then wonderfully and devotedly brought to life by a truly fantastic and wonderful cast for your viewing pleasure.
The plot is as follows: Sam Spade is a private detective of dubious ethics, but brilliant skill who runs an agency with his partner Miles. One day a seemingly naive lady by the name of Miss Wanderly comes into the office, and requests the 2 detectives’ help with a job. This job involves them pursuing a man by the name of Floyd Thursby, who has allegedly run off with the woman’s younger sister and won’t let her return home and talking some sense into him. Yet while the seemingly simplicity of the job does arise in Sam a suspicious gut feeling, the lucrative payment upon completion makes this dynamic duo overlook it initially and take the assignment. Shortly thereafter things begin to go south however when first Miles is killed during the pursuit, but then not only do the police find Thursby dead as well and suspect Spade for killing him in an act of revenge for bumping off his late partner, but also Miles’s widow shows up at Spade’s office and makes insinuations that she and Spade have been secretly romantically involved since before Archer was killed, and when Sam shows her the door, the police begin suspecting Sam for the death of Miles as well. Just when you thought this plot couldn’t get any twistier however, Sam then proceeds to have run-ins with a pair of slimy characters named Joel Cairo and Kasper Gutman who happen to be very familiar with Sam’s client and who, it is eventually revealed, are on the prowl for an antique yet extremely precious falcon statue of some renown. Thus with all the players in place, we as an audience now become witness to these various parties all becoming active participants in one of the most exciting games of cat and mouse ever put to celluloid, and one which, as the stakes continue to be raised, becomes more and more deadly than Sam Spade could ever truly have anticipated…..
Now I think it is not exactly hard to say this, but it still must be said that Humphrey Bogart managed to not only play the role of Sam Spade, the sleek and sharp sleuth at the heart of this riveting mystery, perfectly, but he also did the phenomenal job of making the role all his in a way that few actors could ever truly hope to achieve. Indeed it goes without saying, but Bogart is in absolute tip-top form in this film from beginning to end, and in the process nearly managing to steal the spotlight in almost every single scene that he gets the chance to be a part of. A fact that which becomes even more phenomenal when you realize that for a long time, Mr. Bogart was only able to showcase talent in extremely small bursts during a long period of time where Bogart found himself severely typecast as a gangster. Suffice it to say then that The Maltese Falcon was Bogart’s big chance to show he had what it took to lead a movie, after years of people desperately wanting to see if he had what it took, and trust me when I say then that he did not disappoint. Not one bit. Indeed with this performance, Bogart manages to showcase a degree of not only class and authority, but also a phenomenal sense of quick-wit thanks in no small part to a sublime skill at being articulate as well as a talent for repartee that seems truly unparalleled. Indeed it goes without saying, but the seemingly inherent sense of cynicism that the character manages to possess in copious amounts as well as the morally dubious grey area in which he operates soon became Bogart’s trademark for all his future performances and also catapulted him instantly into the acting stratosphere. Indeed while many a film-goer still, and understandably so, look at Bogart’s turn in the also-classic Casablanca as his absolute best, I definitely think that his turn as Spade comes in an extremely-close second. Indeed it really is high-quality work from an actor who managed to take the craft of acting to hitherto heights that had, up until that point in time, been accomplished by very few fellow thespians.
Now although everyone in the supporting cast does contribute a memorable and engaging performance, I do feel that there are some people who stand out just a little bit more than the rest. This of course starts with Mary Astor who manages to pull off an absolutely stunning dual threat of both feminine deceit and betrayal into one heck of a performance. Indeed not only is her character actually able to shed tears on command, but she is also a pathological liar who is both deadly and beautiful in equal measure. Indeed this is a woman who has no qualms about passionately loving our main hero yet if her plan called for it she would not hesitate for even a millisecond to bump him off. Indeed it goes without saying, but Astor delivers a truly three-dimensional turn that has most assuredly, and rightfully so, gone into the books as one of cinema’s most brilliant portrayals of duplicity covered up by attraction. Also of note is the phenomenal turn, and in his cinematic debut no less, done by one Sydney Greenstreet as a mountain of a man named Kasper Gutman who is also one of the key figures in the hunt for the titular bird that is at the heart of the matter. Indeed not only is he possessing of a degree of both cunning and determination, this is a character who also legitimately seemed to increase both in his degree of politeness as well as the amount of peril he could cause our hero. Yet in addition to all of that, Greenstreet also manages to do a brilliant showcase of a man who if it had to be this way would actually devote his entire life to the quest for the titular bird. Indeed it really truly is one of the finer screen debuts in a detective story in the history of cinema. Finally we also get dependably great work from beloved actor Peter Lorre who delivers a typically great performance. Indeed as portrayed by Lorre, Joel Cairo is an absolutely fantastic portrait of just what good ol’ fashioned slimy villainy truly looks and acts like right down to his curled hair and impeccably clean dress. Yet although Cairo is an unpredictable accomplice/rival of Greenstreet’s, he still finds himself having to reluctantly deal with Sam Spade who sees him as nothing more than a dangerous nuisance if not a thorn in his side and his attempts to try to solve the case. Indeed Lorre manages to just play it all absolutely beautifully and ironically similar to how Joe Pesci would later-on play his character of Leo in the Lethal Weapon films in a sense.
Now a defining peculiarity of the genre that is film noir seems to be the aspect that takes the form of an overwhelming sense that pretty much everything you see within the film is rarely if ever what it seems to appear to be at first glance. Indeed this is a concept which is also showcased in literally every single aspect of a film in the noir genre from the story that the film contains all the way down the line to how the film in question is shot. Suffice it to say then that The Maltese Falcon, as one of the films at the forefront of all of this, really truly is no different. Yet although the visual style contained within this particular film itself is extremely compelling to view, I do feel that the truly disarming element contained within this film is in all actuality both the complexity as well as the ambiguity that is seemingly inherent to both this film’s distinct narrative as well as with all the characters in said narrative themselves. Indeed this is primarily because this film has an amazingly constructed narrative which has managed to be constructed by utilizing layer upon layer of both lies as well as hidden truths, and then using these layers to add in equal measure higher stakes for our protagonist as well as more suspense with each sequence from the word go right to the end of the film where we witness the reveal of what has all been going down during the movie as it is seemingly being yanked right out of the very mouths of the people who have been involved in this quite particular caper by our stoic yet cynical protagonist.
All in all though and at the end of the day, The Maltese Falcon is a film that I honestly cannot recommend enough to you dear reader. Indeed it doesn’t matter how well-written this review is, I still feel that whatever I have ultimately written about this movie for all of you is still nowhere near enough to do this iconic slice of cinema the justice it so rightfully deserves. Indeed for this movie to be able to work it’s magic proper all you really can do is simple: you have to see this movie to know what I am talking about. Yet it doesn’t matter if you have even seen this movie any amount from one to 999 times then you still owe it to yourself to see this movie again. Indeed The Maltese Falcon is more than just pure and genuine movie magic; it’s also really and truly the stuff dreams are made of. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Maltese Falcon a solid 5 out of 5.