The Film: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Principles: John Huston (Screenwriter/Director). Humphrey Bogart. Mary Astor. Peter Lorre. Sydney Greenstreet.
The Premise: When his partner is murdered while chasing a case, Sam Spade (Bogart) finds himself up to his neck with a few slick criminals, a woman who’s more dangerous than she looks and a black bird statue that may or may not be worth a fortune.
Is It Good: Great! It’s a goddamned classic. The first noir movie, it (and director/screenwriter John Huston) gave birth to a style of cinema that to this day hasn’t grown stale. Hard-boiled characters in a hard-boiled city who live hard-boiled lives – hell it might as well have taken place at Easter, just with less bright colors and more dead bodies.
And Bogart’s Sam Spade is certainly a hard-edged man. He’s charming when he needs to be but he’s cold and he’s distant and he doesn’t seem to care about anything or anyone other than himself. He doesn’t bat an eye when he gets the call that his partner’s been shot dead and instead kisses the man’s widow the moment he finally sees her. The man’s a dick. Cold as ice and just as hard, and that’s certainly the way that he’s written (definitely by Huston, but I’ll admit I haven’t read the source novel written by Dashiell Hammett), but there’s just a hint, just a touch of SOMETHING underneath it all that Bogey brings to it that keeps us from just turning on him. He IS the hero, in a sense, after all and there’s a glimmer of humanity under all the fast talk and of-its-time misogyny that gives the impression that Spade maybe isn’t just LIKE this, that he’s been conditioned. It doesn’t make him any less of an ass, but it gives him a bit of nuance that keeps him an interesting (if not almost sympathetic) character beyond the sizzling dialogue and the pitch perfect delivery from the would-be Rick Blaine.
And speaking of, it’s this movie – this performance – that put Bogart into the spotlight and paved the way for his role in Casablanca and his long list of other monumental starring turns. Also noteworthy here was the screen debut of one Sydney Greenstreet who turns in a marvelously menacing-yet-oddly-jolly performance as Mr. Gutman, the criminal mastermind behind the whole kerfuffle and who would go on to have a long career sharing the screen with one Peter Lorre, who turned in excellent work here as well. “Also noteworthy here” is a phrase that applies to pretty much everything about the flick.
It’s remembered for its style and its remembered for what it godfathered in terms of a whole new genre of film (and it’s remembered for practically every word that came out of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth) but what actually ended up surprising me about it, when it was all said and done, was the fact that, as much of an ass as he was – Spade ended up being the good guy. He caught the bad guys and he sent them to jail – all of them. Including the one he supposedly* loved. He turned over the money he was given as part of the whole Falcon deal as evidence. He did it all by the book , which, on the surface, works in his favor – it paints him as upstanding and as a guy who’s driven by ethics and a sort of code and a sense of obligation (“When your partner is killed, you have to do SOMETHING“) but at the same time, it also works to reinforce the notion that Spade is cold and distant and, if not emotionless than damn-near expressionless. None of it adds any sort of final punctuation on the film or the sub textual elements at play, but it adds all this flavor and richness to a character that, had he been played by almost any other actor, would have been just a bunch of big words in a nice suit.
Is It Worth A Look: Yeah. Even if you’ve seen it, go watch it again.
Random Anecdotes: * – I say supposed because of the only actual problem I had with the film, in that I never once bought into the fact that Spade had anything other than a boner for Brigid, and even that could be debatable. When he gives her the speech at the end about whether she’d get life or be hung, it’s amazing and it’s a monologue that’s pitch perfect in every way, but it felt isolated from the rest of the movie.
Also, and I know it’s not a competition, but Team Marlowe!
Cinematc Soulmates: The Big Sleep. Chinatown. Laura. At least one episode of practically every TV show ever.