In my Treasure of the Sierra Madre review, I remarked upon the incredible age of the classic, which, at the time of writing, clocked in at 73 senior, but still felt as contemporary as ever. Here, two of it’s cinematic legends in Humphrey Bogart and John Huston return with The Maltese Falcon, and can go seven further than Sierra Madre: the highly regarded noir is now 80-years-old – but which takes the crown?
The Maltese Falcon is the story of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), a sly, quick-witted private eye, who’s hired by damsel in distress Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to tail her sister’s husband – who’s presumed dangerous. When his partner turns up dead, Spade is quickly caught up in an eccentric cluster of criminals vying for the same jewel-encrusted statuette.
Now, that’s, of course, an incredibly simplified version of the plot because there’s so many twists and turns in a labyrinth plot that it’d take more than a couple hundred words to put it all into writing. It’s multiple layers of suspense, deceit, mystery and tension, each writhing against one and another to try and get to the surface, create a fascinating, constantly convulting, screenplay, always ten minutes ahead of the audience. Of course, Huston adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s book of the same name, and his devotion to its intricate content is truly impressive. You could learn something, Kubrick! But, at the end of the day, plot is not important here – only one man is.
And that’s Humphrey Bogart. He’s simply brilliant. Originally a labouring actor struggling to break through the scummy surface, Bogart is at an unrivalled best in The Maltese Falcon. Was he ever better than the intangible performance he musters up here? This film meant Casablanca; Casablanca meant The Big Sleep; The Big Sleep meant The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meant The African Queen; and by then, you’ve pretty much pinned yourself as one of the most iconic and glamorous Hollywood stars to ever appear on the Silver Screen. 64 years, 7 months, and 3 weeks after his death, he remains at the forefront of our minds as one of the greatest actors, and his larger-than-life, tantalisingly aloof, cigarette-in-mouth persona was there to match.
Of course, he managed to land the perfect role for himself in Sam Spade – the morally grey, cold private detective, never distracted by such trivialities as love or loyalty. As Succession‘s Logan Roy says: “money wins”. But while money corrupts in Succession, it’s just a simple statue of a falcon here, creating a swirl of lies and death that promises an ending that delivers like the satisfying punchline to the smouldering, serpentine set up.
When Spade’s partner is killed, he doesn’t bat an eyelid, only delving into an investigation because that’s what society demands – if you don’t, suspicions immediately arise that it’s you who may have squeezed the trigger. Brilliantly detailed by Huston, Spade is fascinating – he’s so quick-witted you feel yourself reaching for a glass of water, parched. Dreadfully ironic, sharp, and just insatiably cool.
People lose teeth talking like that. If you want to stick around, you’ll be polite.Sam Spade
Why is he so cool? Is it the clothes? The hat? The job? The slicked back hair? Or the way he saunters, an ever-present, smooth, duplicitous grin plastered across his lips? The way his clipped, wise-cracking, constantly cynical dialogue could pierce through any argument, any bloated scene – immediately able alter an atmosphere, immediately able foster a slick, mercurial presence? He’s like a salmon leaping from a cool lake: impossible to snatch, squirming from your grasp, and disguised among the shoal again before you can even glance twice. Everything is a game to him, and you might as well enjoy the game while you’re playing.
And the character of Sam Spade is quintessentially noir – in fact, the whole film is quintessentially noir. Perhaps it was the first of its type ever made, although the genre and its subsequently dark themes had been slithering around classic books for many years: Phillip Marlowe being such an example. Yet, it had never been translated to the screen, or so effectively anyway. Shadows mask faces, guns burrow deep in every pocket and any seductive woman who pops up is never to be trusted. What interests me is the lack of the seedy grittiness, the grime on the mean streets seen in so many noirs down the decade. We’re always in clean offices, or fashionable hotels – where you’d least suspect to find such immoral thuggishness; or, perhaps, in a film like this, where you’d most likely suspect it.
And even beyond the noir constraints, The Maltese Falcon has been one of the most influential films ever created. Faye Dunaway’s Mrs Mulwray is almost an exact replica of Mary Astor’s Ruth Wonderly, just less feeble and convincing in her deceptions. As Sydney Greenstreet’s Gutman feverishly scrapes away the enamel on his falcon, Marathon Man‘s Nazi scientist Szell runs down the metal steps into a pool of sparkling water for his invaluable diamonds. And there’s no doubt House of Card‘s Frank Underwood learnt a trick or two from Sam Spade, two men who relish in their deceit, manipulation and devilishness.
It is surprising that The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s first chance at direction – only because he seems quite so adept at it. In the same year Orson Welles also first positioned the cameras for Citizen Kane, Huston shows signs of inexperience – the constant screen wipes being one example – but to still be regarded not only as one of his best films, but as one of the best films ever made is one extraordinary feat.
Yet, it’s still the acting where the spoils belong. The film is – and this is no exaggeration – perfectly cast, an ensemble of some of the greatest character actors from the time. I’ve talked about Bogart, but everyone else is on top form too. The brilliant partnership between the great Peter Lorre, who steals every scene he’s in, and Greenstreet was born in The Maltese Falcon, and would later be reprised in many films in many different forms. The homosexual subtext is clear for all to see here, and interestingly handled by Huston. We all know what perfumed handkerchiefs and immaculate suits connote in the 1940s. Elisha Cook Jr. completes the triangle dynamic as the baby faced killer Wilmer Cook, labelled as a son by Greenstreet, only to be immediately thrown under the bus.
Mary Astor completes the final piece of the puzzle. Your archetypal femme fatale, my only gripe with her character is that we’re never really shown what’s beneath her ‘school girl’ act, but always told – but maybe that’s part of what makes it great. It’s no shock that in the final act, when all these characters are brought together in one room, the film produces its best scenes – with the biting dialogue and character of Sweet Smell of Success and plot twists of Chinatown, all perfectly complimented by Huston’s illustrious black and white and sublime cinematography, it’s a finale befitting the film.
So is The Maltese Falcon better than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? It’s a very tough call, with both films undeniably brilliant and genre defining with their quality. Both explore greed and selfishness, one revolving around gold, the other a small, but priceless, statue. Both are flawlessly cast and flawlessly acted, and both have superb characterisations that absorb the viewer. Yet, Sierra Madre still takes it for me – it’s just that little darker, that little bit quicker. They’ve aged well, but is it any surprise that Huston, seven years older, would just smoothen out the creases and add that extra drop of quality?
I don’t think so.
The Maltese Falcon – 8.5 out of 10