“The Maltese Falcon” shares a few similarities with “Citizen Kane,” which I reviewed last week. Both were released in 1941 and were the first films their directors made. John Huston would go on to make many more excellent films after “The Maltese Falcon,” but few would be as entertaining and influential.
“The Maltese Falcon” centers on a private detective named Sam Spade. When his partner and the man his partner was following turn up dead, Spade has to solve their murders. Their deaths connect to a mysterious and expensive statue of a falcon, which links one of Spade’s clients to some colorful criminals.
One of the things I love about this film is that it is commonly credited with introducing many elements of film noir. Film noir is a genre of film made in Hollywood from the 1940s to the late 1950s. These films often featured morally ambiguous detectives and criminals as vivid as Dickens characters.
Both elements are visible in “The Maltese Falcon.” Humphrey Bogart, in one of his breakthrough lead roles, plays Spade. He doesn’t shy away from some of the more amoral parts of Spade’s character, yet he also makes Spade a sympathetic lead and a complexly decent protagonist.
Two of the main antagonists in this film, Joel Cairo and Kasper Gutman, are a good combination of funny and mysterious. They’re the physical, villainous equivalent of catchy music, since you find yourself unable to stop thinking about them.
Cairo is played by Peter Lorre, and I point this out because if you see this film you’ll realize voice actors in cartoons have been poking fun at his voice for years.
“The Maltese Falcon” has a somewhat antiquated and complex relationship with women. Like most film noirs, this film features a “femme fatale,” a mysterious woman who is a love interest/foe of the protagonist. At its best, this role can subvert gender stereotypes and present strong women who are unapologetic about their desires.
The femme fatale character in “The Maltese Falcon” is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She is very skittish and not as complex as some of the femme fatales who would come after her, like Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity.” Mary Astor, who plays O’Shaughnessy, still delivers a solid performance.
Spade calls women “precious” and “angel” throughout the movie, but he means these condescending terms as loving nicknames. The only person with whom he seems truly comfortable is his secretary Effie. She can stand up to him, even though it’s made clear that Spade is somewhat cooler under fire than she is.
I love film noir because it has influenced some excellent movies of the modern era, including “Looper” and “The Dark Knight.” Film noir as a style is distinct and, when done well, unforgettable. “The Maltese Falcon” remains alive and compelling because of all the works it has influenced.