The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Small in Scope, Big on Influence…


The Maltese Falcon‘s legacy is far greater than the film itself, and its influence is far and wide.  Without John Huston’s first feature, regarded as the original film noir, Blade Runner would look very different, and there would be no Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The third screen adaptation of Dashiel Hammett’s 1930 novel crystallized the themes and visual motifs of film noir that even the most casual viewer would recognize today.  There is the cynical, tough-talking private eye negotiating a treacherous urban jungle.  The femme fatale who tempts and misleads the hero for her own ends.  The low camera angles, single light sources, smoke and venetian blinds, and the tail watching the hero in plain sight from a doorway across the street.

Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a hired detective who shares an office with his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  Unknown to Archer, they also share a woman – Spade is having an affair with his wife.

The two detectives take a case from a mysterious woman, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who pays them to track down her sister.  Archer is shot dead, and Spade becomes a suspect.

Later, Spade receives a visit from the slippery, effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who offers the sleuth $5000 to find a statue of a black bird.  Meeting Wonderly again, who now calls herself O’Shaughnessy, Spade learns that a sinister “Fat Man” is also in San Francisco searching for the maltese falcon.

Bogart plays Spade as a shady, amoral presence, who delights in outsmarting the rank-and-file police officers dogging his footsteps, and outwitting the sinister characters descending on the treasure.  It’s a nuanced performance from Bogart, who keeps Spade’s motives shadowy.  Unlike the other great private eye Bogie played in the Forties, Philip Marlowe, you’re never completely sure Spade is the good guy.

Mary Astor convinces as the duplicitous Wonderly/O’Shaughnessy, a dangerous, avaricious woman who has spent her life learning how to manipulate men to achieve her rewards.  She looks rather plain compared to the actresses famous for playing femme fatales, such as Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice) or Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity).

Peter Lorre as Cairo, and the incomparable Sydney Greenstreet as the fat man, Kasper Gutman, round out the quartet of characters searching for the falcon.

Lorre’s Cairo is a sneaky little crook with a dandified appearance.  He is no physical threat to Spade, but is cunning and conniving.  Director Huston was careful to remove most of novel’s sex from the film, fearful of censorship from the Hays Office, but Lorre smuggled some references in.  Playing Cairo as homosexual, notice his slight fellating motion he makes to the handle of his cane during an interview with Spade.

Greenstreet, in his first screen appearance at the age of sixty-one, makes a memorable villain.  Gutman, with his greedy eyes and eloquent manner, is a sinister foil for the straight talking Spade.

Huston keeps the camera low, especially during scenes involving Gutman, to emphasize the daunting corpulence of the treasure hunting villain.  The Maltese Falcon has a claustrophobic atmosphere, and feels like a small film, despite its vast influence.

There are very few exterior shots, and most encounters take place in tiny apartments or offices.  The motifs of film noir we all recognize find their original form in The Maltese Falcon, but it took later films to expand them – Huston’s film, murky and deceitful as it is, feels too constricted and low-key to be a true masterpiece.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 21/07/2012, in Detective, Entertainment, Film, M, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I never realized where it came from, but filmmakers copied the hell out of the smoke and venetian blinds motif during the noir craze of the 90s.

    • Yes, good point actually. When writing this, I knew what I was saying was true, because I remember studying film noir. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember any examples other than Blade Runner & Who Framed Roger Rabbit!

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