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Saturday, January 30, 2016

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) -- Movie Review by Porfle



The first great "film noir", 1941's THE MALTESE FALCON, set the standard both storywise and in its impeccably exquisite visuals.  First-time director John Huston does a masterful job orchestrating his actors and crew to create a visual experience which is consistently involving and often dazzling. 

The film, shot mostly on interior sets, was brought in on budget and ahead of schedule despite Huston requesting an extra day of rehearsal for the film's climactic sequence, which takes place entirely within a single hotel room with almost all members of the main cast.  The complex character interactions and the way the tangled plot is meticulously resolved during this scene makes for some of the most breathlessly riveting cinema ever filmed.

Huston uses clever direction and camera movements to keep things from getting claustrophobic, and never once lets the pace drag.  His screenplay follows Dashiell Hammett's novel almost to the letter (the two earlier, inferior adaptations, 1931's "Dangerous Female" and the comedic "Satan Met a Lady" in 1936, didn't), and crackles with scintillating dialogue, intriguing plot twists, and relentlessly building suspense. 


Hammett's celebrated anti-hero Sam Spade is the perfect noir detective--brash, resourceful, self-assured, keenly intelligent, streetwise, tough but not infallible, and opportunistic.  He does have a moral code, one not easily compromised, and a motto that is rigidly enforced: "Never play the sap for anyone." 

The first person to try and use him is quintessential femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (exquisitely  played by Mary Astor), who hires San Francisco private detective Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to locate her missing sister along with a mystery man named Floyd Thursby.  When both Archer and Thursby turn up dead, it appears there's more to Brigid's story than she's letting on. 

Before long Spade discovers that she's after a priceless treasure known as the Maltese Falcon, for which she's in fierce competition against  "the Fat Man" Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and the wily, effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre).  Spade must spar with these conniving characters while fending off police detectives Dundy and Polhaus (Barton MacLane, Ward Bond), who suspect him in the murders although the more genial Polhaus tends to side with Sam.  All in all, these actors comprise one of the finest casts ever assembled for a film.  (Look for John Huston's father Walter in a quick cameo as a fatally wounded ship's captain.)


Huston delights in working with these masterful performers as any artist deftly employs his chosen medium.  The dialogue scenes between Bogart and Greenstreet are a verbal delight (Gutman constantly admits his glowing admiration for the crafty Spade), while the utter dishonesty underlying Spade's love affair with Brigid gives it an air of perversion. 

Lorre's Joel Cairo, both dangerously scheming and amusingly fussy, is always fun to watch.  I love the scene in which Spade disarms and manhandles Cairo, whose main concern is expressed with the heated accusation: "Look what you did to my shirt!"

Even young character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. gets to shine in the plum role of Gutman's "gunsel" Wilmer Cook, a callow trench-coated hood hiding his cowardice behind guns and tough talk.  (Dwight Frye played the part in the 1931 version.)  The ever-sharper Spade delights in yanking Wilmer's chain, and in one incredible closeup we see fat, glistening tears suspended in each of the young killer's eyes as he's overcome with burning frustration and impotent rage (another bravura touch by Huston).


But it's Bogart's show, and his performance is a pure delight.  We know Spade's a stand-up guy, yet the moment his partner's murdered he has the signs around the office changed from "Spade and Archer" to "Samuel Spade."  He's even having an affair with Archer's wife, Iva (Gladys George), but loses interest once he meets Miss O'Shaughnessy.  Yet we know he's an okay guy as long as his faithful gal Friday, Effie (Lee Patrick), still secretly loves him. 

In one delightful moment, after storming out of a tense encounter with Gutman and Wilmer in the Fat Man's swanky hotel room, Spade smiles when he realizes that his hand is shaking and his palms sweating.  Spade may be brave, but he still gets scared, a fact which both amuses and excites him.

This vintage detective yarn sizzles with suspense and excitement for viewers who are able to plug themselves into its high-voltage current.  For me, it took several viewings before I finally began to appreciate just what a finely-rendered thing of beauty it truly is.  Others (as some IMDb comments would indicate) seem to take a strange kind of pride in remaining immune to its charms, believing that such classics are revered by many simply because they're "old." 

But if it doesn't hit you right away, just keep watching and remain open to it.  Chances are that sooner or later, THE MALTESE FALCON will weave its magic spell over you.  Like the rare and unique artifact of the title, it's "the stuff dreams are made of.

Read our review of the BEST OF BOGART COLLECTION


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