1941 (the year my father was born). Film Noir. Humphrey Bogart. Peter Lorre. Sydney Greenstreet. Written and directed by John Huston. Manipulation. Murder. Accusations. Stealing. Betrayal. Inferential affair. Suspicions. Greed. Lust. Malta. Falcon. Anxiety. Trust. Deception. Mistrust. Love? Honor. Integrity. Truth.
I could stop here and feel that my review of “The Maltese Falcon” was complete. 41 words worth. But I will forge on, as a writer writes.
I first saw this movie as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. It was the mid 1980s, and I was taking, as an elective, a film history class taught by the late Jim Cash. Cash would later add some cache to his name by co-writing several box office successes with his writing partner, Jack Epps, Jr. – movies like “Top Gun,” (1986) “Legal Eagles,” (1987) “The Secret of My Success,” (1987) “Turner and Hooch” (1989), “Dick Tracy” (1990) and “Anaconda.” (1997). I had Cash as a professor just before he had his first big hit.
It is safe to say I will not be reviewing in my blog any movie that Cash co-wrote. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Cash introduced me to Chaplin and Welles, Hepburn and Bergman, Astaire and Kelly, and for that, I am grateful.
Cash’s undergraduate film course started with silent movies, including some Chaplin, then moved onto the movie “It Happened One Night” (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, then progressed to such notable movies as “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Graduate.” (1967) I couldn’t remember all of the other movies we watched, but when I did a good search online I was shocked to find one a Cash’s syllabus from 1987 (click on the name “Jim Cash” in the index and it will reveal the syllabus):
This is pretty much identical to the movies we watched, except its missing “The Maltese Falcon” and it includes “The Glenn Miller Story” – I don’t remember the latter. Did I sleep through it or skip that day or was it just absent from the term I had the course? Your guess is as good as mine. You will notice that Cash had both “The Graduate” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on the syllabus. Why?
Why do most men do what they do? He told us that he had a crush on Katherine Ross.
I do remember watching “The Maltese Falcon” with half-hearted interest – it really didn’t seem that revolutionary, but then again, I was just 22 years old.
I’m now 49, and while I wouldn’t really call this a great movie, I can say that I found it more interesting now than I did nearly 30 years ago. The movie is set in San Francisco, and Bogart plays Sam Spade, co-owner of a detective agency with his partner, Miles Archer. They take a case under false pretenses, mis-lead by an apparent 1941 hottie played by Mary Astor. She tells Spade and Archer that she needs to find a man named Thursby, as he is with her sister and she is concerned about her sister’s well being.
Archer takes on the case, but both Archer and Thursby end up murdered. When the dust clears, Astor finally provides what may be her real name, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and some lame excuses, then adds female charm to try to entice Spade to continue on the case.
The police think that Spade had something to do with the murders. It doesn’t help that he has either had an affair with, or discussed having an affair with, Archer’s now widow. This provides some motive to the police.
Spade stays on the case, but he’s no fool. He’s a tough detective – hardboiled is what they called it. Bogart’s not playing the soft-hearted-tough- shelled Rick Blaine, which he did play the following year in “Casablanca” (1942) (also on Cash’s syllabus). Spade likes to fight. He can take a gun away from a thug in the blink of an eye. He’s not easily intimated by posers or other weaklings. And he’s not going to be undone by a dame.
Spade calls out O’Shaughnessy on her bad behavior several times during the movie – actually calling her a “liar”, which she admits. He knows she’s being manipulative. But it also seems clear that they are somehow romantically involved, although due to some 1940s censorship, we’re not privy to the extent of their physical closeness. Today, no doubt there would be some very revealing sex scenes.
Peter Lorre is my favorite, mostly because he’s so damned weird looking and always plays that odd-little-man character. In this movie, he is initially introduced to Spade by Spade’s secretary through his gardenia-scented calling call. It is Lorre’s character, the mysterious Mr. Cairo, that introduces us to the missing piece of the puzzle, the “black figure of a bird,” a.k.a. the “ornament,” the “statuette,” and he’s offering Spade $5,000 for its recovery. That’s just before he pulls a pistol on Spade.
The best line in the movie comes from Bogart to Lorre:
“When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it!”
Sydney Greenstreet also appears as the “heavy” in this movie. Huston’s camera angles make him comparable to Jaba the Hut! He’s a guy who wants his hands on the black falcon, and he won’t stop nor will he be double-crossed. His character, the aptly named Mr. Gutman, is not one to be messed with – he’s even got a minor thug as a body guard. His character is essential, as Gutman provides the historical background regarding the importance of the falcon.
What’s interesting is that Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet all appear again in 1942’s “Casablanca,” although I can’t remember if all three share screen time in that movie as they did in this one. A little known fact is this movie is actually a remake of two previous versions: “The Maltese Falcon” (1931) and “Satan Met a Lady” (1936) starring Bette Davis as The Lady. I rented this movie from the library, and it included all three movies and the movie trailers. Bonus.
I’m sure this was a cutting-edge movie by 1941 standards; however, in 2011, 70 years later, it doesn’t hold up as well. We’ve been tainted by high-resolution video games and surprising movies twists like those of Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” (1999) The end is completely unsatisfying to me – I wanted more of a twist and was kind of writing in my head, but I won’t say here as it will cause a significant spoiler.
I can recommend this movie. Mildly. Without any expectations. It’s entertaining.
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