Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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

44 Comments

  1. I hardly dare say it but I never became fond of Bogart, however good an actor he was, I just ended up not liking his characters, and him because of it, unfair, I know, as I only saw this old stuff when I was a kid, but he left an indelible impression of ‘yuck’ upon my tender soul.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You need to refresh yourself! Bogart is something of a legend, and I won’t hear anything less! This wouldn’t be a bad place to start…

      Tender soul? What happened? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Haha! That’s always a good excuse.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I like how you’ve written this review in the style of Sam Spade’s dialogue or a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe short story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Means a lot. And all intentional, of course!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Alex Good says:

    Desert-island disc for me. I put it in my top five or even three. Doesn’t get any better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Impressive – hope I did it justice! May I inquire as to what’s in and around The Maltese Falcon? What else would you take to the desert island?

      Like

      1. Alex Good says:

        I’ve been considering a post on my favourites but it keeps getting put off. I’ll try and put it together sometime. It’s an eclectic mix. Going to be Citizen Kane for sure, but also Deep Red . . .

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s a must! Would love to read it. And Deep Red! You should have done my last quiz…

          Like

        2. Alex Good says:

          I thought I did do the mirror one! I remember seeing Deep Red in there. Damn. I always pass on the ones I would have won . . .

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Yeah, I think you would have had a chance! People missed out on some easier ones.

          Like

  4. balladeer says:

    One of my all-time favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    Bogart as Spade left an indelible imprint on our social subconscious – he became an archetype without even trying 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, it’s Bogie. What else do you expect? The man, the legend. He’s so good here, and you’re absolutely right.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great deep dive into The Maltese Falcon. I love how you compare and contrast it to China Town. Funny, I’ve never really thought about the similarities and, yet, it’s so obvious–John Houston notwithstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yeah, it’s only when you put them side by side when you can see so many similarities. It’s no wonder that Towne’s script is so brilliant, because it’s pretty much using the same template and story as The Maltese Falcon. Despite that, I still prefer Chinatown, mainly because of the darker ending which makes the perfectly constructed build up all the more satisfying, unlike The Maltese Falcon, where the ‘good’ guy kind of wins – or more, the bad guys lose.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, no doubt. Chinatown is in my top 20 favorite movies of all time.
        So, this might upset you…I appreciate Philip Marlow/Sam Spade/Humphrey Bogart more that I really like them. Like, I’m more intrigued/delighted with Peter Lorre when I watch The Maltese Falcon than I am with Bogart. I suppose it’s all the dialogue the constant quips…it’s dizzying. I can’t keep up! Ha!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh no, I completely understand what you mean. In some older films, I think you can only really appreciate them, rather than truly enjoy them – although that isn’t the case for myself here, at least. Peter Lorre is just a wonderful, incredibly charismatic character actor who plays his part to perfection, so I can’t fault you for that!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Bookstooge says:

    Dude, when you were listing great movies with Bogie, you forgot Sabrina. Now THAT was a great movie….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I miss out about half of them! Sabrina, To Have and Have Not, The Caine Mutiny, Dark Passage… but I’m sure I’m boring you, so I’ll stop there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bookstooge says:

        I only care about Sabrina. Hepburn, you know….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Did you know what Hepburn’s favourite type of chocolate was? Dark. FAcT!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Bookstooge says:

          I don’t believe you. Such a wonderful woman could never stoop to such things.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. The fACts speak for themselves…

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Bookstooge says:

          Phhhttt, lies. Nothing but terrible lies. I’m surprised her ghost doesn’t rise up and strike you dead for such lies.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. Hey, I thought you were against murder?

          Liked by 1 person

        6. Bookstooge says:

          It doesn’t count as murder if it’s by a ghost….

          Liked by 1 person

        7. God, so many rules I didn’t know about! But perhaps it was a trick by the devil to send Hepburn down to REAL hell after she said she’d kill me…

          Liked by 1 person

        8. Bookstooge says:

          She might consider it worth it once she hears the lies you’ve been spreading about her and dark chocolate!

          Rules are the lifeblood of Bookshevikism. As the founder I’m surprised you didn’t know that already.

          Liked by 1 person

        9. The exact opposite, Comrade! Anarchy is the lifeblood of Bookshevikism!

          Liked by 1 person

        10. Bookstooge says:

          There you go, NOW you are acting like a leading Bookshevikist.

          Now we can have a proper civil war.

          Liked by 1 person

        11. Bring it on, Comrade. I just shaved my head…

          Liked by 1 person

        12. Bookstooge says:

          Then we need to sell the comb and buy something. Either brass knuckles, or M&M’s
          😉

          Liked by 1 person

        13. Eh… Neither of them seem that tempting all of a sudden…

          Liked by 1 person

        14. Bookstooge says:

          We could always buy blue paint and go on a rampage at Dix’s….

          Liked by 1 person

        15. Sounds like a plan! He’ll never see us coming – quite literally.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Maltese Falcon easily sits in my top 10 Noir films of all time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. One of the first of it’s kind, and still on the best.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Simon! An honour!

      Like

  9. Love, LOVE this analysis of The Maltese Falcon. Like you said, this film is perfectly cast, and perfectly directed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry for the incredible amount of time I have taken to reply on this – I was on a little hiatus and have only discovered some older comments now. Thanks anyhow though, I’m glad you liked it! It’s an incredible film…

      Liked by 2 people

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