The Maltese Falcon


Reviewed by: Robert Munro

The Maltese Falcon
"The Maltese Falcon provides us with one of the earliest, and undoubtedly one of the best, examples of Hollywood Noir." | Photo: BFI

“You always have a smooth explanation,” says Cairo. Without missing a beat Spade replies, “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” Who could deliver that line but Bogart. His mouth barely moving, the words spat out as if through shattered glass with his devious sneer finishing the sentence.

The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s directorial debut, gives us our first proper taste of the Bogart who would define Hollywood masculinity in classics such as The Big Sleep, Casablanca and The Treasure Of Sierra Madre.

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Huston’s direction is as lean and mean as Hammett’s original prose, which had already been adapted sloppily ten years previously. Bogart, as expected, steals the show in every scene but he’s more than ably assisted by a terrific supporting cast: Peter Lorre as the slippery, feline Egyptian Cairo; Mary Astor as O’Shaughnessy who spins the tallest of tales while fawning over Spade’s every word; and Sydney Greenstreet as the eloquent, bulbous figure of Gutman who is the money man of the operation.

Like all the best films noirs there are more twists and turns than you could shake several sticks at. Huston chooses exactly the right moments to snip from Hammett’s book yet faithfully retains that brilliant dialogue which snaps, crackles and pops more than a bathtub full of dynamite. Unlike most contemporary Hollywood product the film treats its characters and dialogue with respect. The camera work is elegant and subtle as scenes are allowed to play out with the minimum of interference, enabling the actors to arrow their lines at each other with the malice and precision of a scorpion striking a dung beetle.

Let us not bother with a detailed plot description. In short: several shady characters seek out the sarcastic sleuth Sam Spade to solve the mystery of The Maltese Falcon – an apparently worthy statuette that’ll make them all rich and drive them all to stab each other in the back. Astor plays the devious femme fatale figure nicely. While not having the sultry fizz of Lauren Becall, who'd entrap Bogie in similar ways - Astor has the elegance and experience to go with the devilish grin and twinkling pair of peepers that ensures she gives Spade a run for his money.

No amount of twinkling eyes will distract Spade for long, however, as he untangles the knotted web of the story of the titular Falcon to send O’Shaughnessy to the big house by the end of the picture: “I hope they don’t hang you precious by that sweet neck.” Like the best of Noir anti-heroes Spade’s morals and ethics are his own and entirely incorruptible. He may be a fool for a dame but will always ensure that everyone will get what’s coming to them in the end.

The Maltese Falcon provides us with one of the earliest, and undoubtedly one of the best, examples of Hollywood Noir. Bogie attacks Lorre with the triple face slap, that staple of good Noir, and announces: “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” Characters are always talking in rapid riddles, as if the world’s about to come crashing down around them and they’ve got the meaning of life to get off their chest.

The plot’s as complicated and unwieldy as an Ikea flatpack: criminals sit around explaining it to you while drugging your drink with one hand and swiping a hundred dollar bill from you with the other. Nightmarish shadows streak across the walls of offices and apartments: the fatalism all encompassing. By the end you realise that it’s completely true.

They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Reviewed on: 19 Aug 2011
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The Maltese Falcon packshot
A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.
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Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet

Year: 1941

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance


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If you like this, try:

The Big Sleep
Double Indemnity