The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 film which represents the directorial debut of John Huston, who at that point had already made a name for himself as a screenwriter. The protagonists are none other than Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, supported by a series of other phenomenal actors such as Peter Lorre (he would return to work with Bogart the following year in Casablanca) and the great Sidney Greenstreet, who until then had worked mainly in theater. The film is based on the book of the same title written by Dashiell Hammett.
The Maltese Falcon is a classic film noir that is a black and white crime drama in which most of the time the characters move in dark environments, in which intrigue reigns supreme from start to finish, and everyone smokes all the time. Bogart plays private investigator Sam Spade (hence the name of Peter Falk’s character in Murder By Death, 1976: Sam Diamond). Sam is a no-bullshit type of man and he’s not afraid to confront anyone, whether it’s the police or a thug armed with a pistol (Sam doesn’t like guns himself).
Mary Astor is the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the one who sets the whole thing in motion and who falls in love with the handsome Spade. Greenstreet plays the underworld boss Gutman served by two violent henchmen who are easily overwhelmed by Spade on multiple occasions: Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.). To complete the picture, there are also a couple of policemen (Burton MacLane and Ward Bond) and two other girls: Spade’s shrewd secretary (Lee Patrick) and the wife of Spade’s partner (Gladys George) with whom Spade has an affair. .
The plot would be too complicated to report here and it wouldn’t be worth it anyway. It’s full of twists and turns which are mostly independent of the actions of the characters who are mostly at the mercy of the events. They either fight against each other or try to fool one another all the time. Basically, everyone lies, or at least bluffs, with the aim of getting money and framing the others for crimes they didn’t commit… In short, there are very few friends in this movie!
The action coming out of this is hilarious as most of these characters are almost caricatural: Spade is always calm and cool, firmly in control of every situation; Gutman always feels in charge, even when he’s not; Wilmer wants to look tough but looks ridiculous; Cairo is always very nervous; Brigid lies all the time; the cops are tough who get to the point without losing time in small talk… It’s easy to understand why each scene comes out as highly entertaining!
Like Casablanca (1942), the world depicted in The Maltese Falcon is almost legendary and filled with ancient treasures, unscrupulous people, cold-blooded murders, and dizzying sums of money in a turn-of-the-century San Francisco that doesn’t even try to look realistic. And, exactly like Casablanca, I find this film irresistibly charming: it’s a great Hollywood production straight from the golden age of the great studios with gorgeous sets and very few scenes exterior shots. Personally, I’m never tired of rewatching this movie, it’s poetic and it hypnotizes me every single time. Ciao!
PS: Bogart apparently loved playing the character of Sam Spade and also enjoyed working with John Huston, who quickly became his drinking buddy during the shooting of the movie!