Film Noir Series: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon is often considered the first film noir, its release marking the beginning of the first of Paul Schrader’s three period of film noir production. Of the films we have seen so far, it is by far the most dialogue-heavy, with nearly all of the scenes being dedicated to elaborate posing and talk. These dialogue scenes are shot with uncommon ambition by then-first-time director John Huston. My only previous exposure to Huston’s directorial work was his adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, which is an entirely different and far stranger beast. I’m thankful there aren’t any antics with shrunken heads or gorilla suits in this film.
Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, gives us our first hardboiled detective character, a master of his domain and possessing masterful style and wit. Though he is far from a Doyle-esque rational being, he is able to worm his way out of sticky situations with careful planning and a quick tongue. His invulnerability is a stark contrast to other protagonists we have seen so far, who are often psychological wrecks easily manipulated by circumstance and, of course, beautiful women. Spade’s signature departure from this weaker type comes at the end, when he rejects both the woman and his share of the money. While he’s no superhero, and manages to get himself poisoned by thieving kingpin Kasper Gutman, he recovers and manages to clear his own name and put the right people behind bars. It’s truth, justice, and the American way without the morally simple primary colors.
The film does share much of noir’s characteristic style, though without the dense atmospherics or much of the chiaroscuro lighting–its characters seem unafraid to operate in daylight. We still see a world of densely furnished apartments, striped clothing, and hyperactive urban spaces, but nothing seems quite as imposing as it did in Double Indemnity or Detour. What distinguishes The Maltese Falcon is its unpretentious verbosity, the sheer volume of dialogue that both obscures and reveals, allowing us to appreciate every line as laden with intense competition between masters of language. I give a great deal of respect for the director and the actors for their skillful handling of so much interior verbal wrangling, maintaining narrative stakes and tension without sacrificing the showy performances. This is especially true in the scenes between Sydney Greenstreet and Bogart, both of whom represent stock male types imbued with considerable intelligence. Both are unwilling to give up what they want, and willing to use deception to get it. The difference, of course, is who is on the right side of the law.
P.S. Peter Lorre plays yet another sniveling Peter Lorre character in this one. I always appreciate his presence, especially here, since it creates a direct link back to Weimar cinema and German Expressionism in particular. Flamboyant and spineless, often armed but never taken seriously, he is one of the most intriguing characters in the film, one I should perhaps write more on later.