The Maltese Falcon - Peter Fitzgerald Reviews
We all have our favorite films in various genres, and a certain all-time-favorite to boot. Like anyone, I’ve developed a fondness for special titles in both “classic” and post-1960 eras. I have favorite silent films too, but that’s a deep-library matter for another time.
Let’s begin with Film Noir, which is often overly-lauded due to the modern trend toward pessimism. In this category, my faves are: (alphabetically) Caged, Detour, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Blvd., Sweet Smell of Success, They Drive By Night and White Heat (for their solid, dark stories, gritty honesty and pathos.) I’m not fully enamored with A Touch of Evil, Double Indemnity, Lady From Shanghai or The Postman Always Rings Twice due to dated expositional elements that bog them down. But…
My favorite Film Noir is John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, hands down. Here is Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart. Both sinner and saint with aces in almost every hole, Spade encounters the screen’s greatest compulsive liar of all time, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (all hail Mary Astor!) Under the guise of finding her sister, she hires Spade and partner Miles Archer to track down a man connected to the whereabouts of a bejeweled falcon worth untold riches. When Archer is murdered on the job, Spade assumes the role of Orpheus in the underworld; seeking out the perp who killed his partner, dodging the police and uncovering the object of O’Shaughnessy’s desire — that certain Falcon. But there are others who seek it as well, and what a cast of ruthless miscreants he encounters in Hades!
The film introduces noir’s first homosexual character, Joel Cairo played with smarmy disdain by goo-goo-eyed Peter Lorre. Crafty and savage, Cairo conceals his desire for, and then demands information leading to the title object, even pulling a tiny gun on Spade - to no avail. But when Sydney Greenstreet enters as the scheming snake-oil-dripping Kasper Gutman, all bets are off. Here, Bogie faces off with the formidable Greenstreet in a game of cat and mouse that requires such exacting guile that the actor exceeds the boundaries of his role and connects to the audience with electric charm.
Bogart’s Spade deftly plays each character against the other while reluctantly falling in love with Mary Astor’s O’Shaughessy - a grifter of the first order who morphs from ladylike demure to overwrought victim to lovelorn pawn like a snake shedding its skins. As he peels back her laters of deceit, he resembles a master chef peeling an obstinate, slippery onion. What fun to see them spar!
Finally, when he manages to obtain the falcon, Spade wheedles, cajoles and reasons with his treacherous adversaries only to uncover the truth about their cruel natures. In the end, every character’s worst fears are realized, including Spade, who is left with the painful truth about how and whom he loves. Only Humphrey Bogart could have conveyed the gut-wrenching sting that results when holding fast to one’s values in spite of his desires. As Bogart ponders his plight with a mixture of grit and tears, he secures his place in the Pantheon of great film actors. And this was a few years before he doubled down and brought forth his greatest performance in Casablanca.
I implore newbies to the film to watch it from beginning to end, without breaks, and on the big screen (as I had many times in NYC’s revival cinemas in the 1980’s. Check your local listings.) It is the finest noir film bar none, and deserves one’s full attention.