THE MALTESE FALCON
It’s the most baffling mystery story in years!
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet THE MALTESE FALCON is a 1941 American film noir/mystery/thriller scripted and directed by John Huston. The movie is based on a novel of the same name written by Dashiell Hammett – who helped create and define the entire hard-boiled detective genre.
In part one of this review we met the cast, talked about the director John Huston, and took a look at the basic plot – with some spoilers. There are also spoilers here so be warned.
This is the film debut of Sydney Greenstreet. He had been a stage actor for forty years before this. Nevertheless he was nervous about making his first movie and asked Mary Astor to hold his hand during his very first scene. He was 61 years old when he made this movie. He went on to appear in more than 20 more films.
This was the first pairing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. The two of them would go on to make nine more films together becoming one of the more endearing screen teams.
George Raft was originally cast as Sam Spade. He turned it down because he didn’t want to trust himself to a first time director. Boy did he make a mistake.
During production the cast and crew all had the feeling that they were involved in something special. For this reason they tried to discourage any unwanted visitors on the set. Nevertheless the publicity people brought a group of priests to the set. Before shooting a scene Mary Astor looked down at her legs and said, “Hold it a minute, I’ve got a goddamn run in my stocking.” The publicity man quickly moved the priests off the set. John Huston and his cast and crew developed a system to deal with unwanted visitors. For the benefit of visiting social club women, Humphrey Bogart got into a faked violent argument with Sydney Greenstreet at which point Huston jumped in and the disillusioned and mortified ladies quickly headed for the exit. Or the time Peter Lorre came out of Mary Astor’s dressing at just the right moment adjusting his fly and saying, “See you later, Mary.”
Sam Spade refers to Wilmer as a “gunsel” a term most people believed meant he was a gunman. The Yiddish term “gunsel” refers to a person who is a stool pigeon or a fall guy – in which case Spade is actually foreshadowing Wilmer’s ultimate fate.
This was Peter Lorre’s favorite film.
THE MALTESE FALCON earned $967,000 in domestic sales and $805,000 in foreign sales. It
went on to great recognition.
- It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in 1989 in the first year of voting.
- Roger Ebert included it in his list of great movies.
As for the American Film Institute:
- 1998 – #23 in AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Movies
- 2001 – #26 in AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Thrills
- 2005 – #14 in AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Movie Quotes (“The stuff that dreams are made of”)
- 2007 – #31 in AFI’s 100 years . . . 100 movies (10th Anniversary Edition)
- 2008 – #6 (mystery film) in AFI’s 10 Top 10
Film Noir is a style of filmmaking characterized by cynical heroes, stark lighting, intricate plots, sexual motivations, and an underlining dark attitude. The name itself means “dark film” in French. It became very popular in the crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s. THE MALTESE FALCON is considered one of the first and best examples of film noir.
Sam Spade is the protagonist of THE MALTESE FALCON. Please note that I said protagonist and not hero. Sam Spade was a new character created by Dashiell Hammett especially for that story. In the introduction to the 1934 edition of THE MALTESE FALCON, Hammett says this about his character Sam Spade. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not – or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague – want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.”
Sam Spade is not the first of the hard-boiled fictional detectives. That distinction I believe goes to another Dashiell Hammett creation known as the Continental Op – so called because he is never named, his stories told in the first person, but he worked as an operative for the Continental Detective Agency. However, Sam Spade is the more famous character and set the scene for all the other tough guy detectives that followed. Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Michael Shayne and all the others owe a debt to Sam Spade.
Sam Spade is not a nice man. He doesn’t get paid to be. He gets paid to do the dirty jobs other people won’t touch – or can’t. He gets paid to snoop into other people’s business. He gets paid to lie. He gets paid to cheat. He might even steal if he can get away with it. And if he has to he won’t hesitate to use his fists or a gun.
Perhaps the best way to highlight what I mean about Sam Spade and the other hard-boiled detectives is to show an excerpt from the novel THE DAIN CURSE also written by Dashiell Hammett. The protagonist (the story is told in first person and the private detective has no name) has a female client whom he has already saved three times, not to mention curing her of morphine addiction. And this is what she says to him:
“You came in just now, and then I saw –“
“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and – what’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”
A monster – nice to have around when you’re in trouble – but a monster. I guess that sums up Sam Spade as well.
Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade. He went on to play other tough guy detectives like Philip Marlowe. But his Sam Spade was the best.
I love this movie so much that over the years I have watched it over and over again. Like most great films it only gets better with repeat performances and you find something new each time you watch. For example – I never before realized how disciplined and in control of himself was Sam Spade. In dealing with the police, in dealing with the district attorney, in dealing with Gutman, we think he is angry but it is all an act to get them to believe what he wants them to believe. It was a nice discovery and made me love the movie even more. I fully recommend this movie to anyone who likes film noir, mysteries, and great filmmaking. You cannot call yourself a movie lover without having seen this film. I give this movie Five Gray Geeks. I think it is perfect!
That is it for now my brothers and sisters. I have enjoyed sharing this great film with you and I hope you enjoyed visiting with me. I’ve got the best job in the world. Not because I get to watch great movies but because I get to share them with you. I am blessed and I thank you for it. Stay safe my friends the danger isn’t past. Keep on wearing that mask and be the super-hero you were always meant to be.