Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Movie – The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon is often named as the first true film noir to come out of Hollywood.  This is debatable, especially since this story had already been adapted twice before from Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, first in 1931 under the same title and then in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady.  Noir isn’t just about the story, though, but also about the mood and presentation in the film.  Whatever the case, this film proved to be extraordinarily influential on the entire noir genre which would explode onto screens in the 1940s.  In addition to being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, The Maltese Falcon proved to be very popular with audiences, too.  So much in fact, that the studio decided to put Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre together in another film.  The result?  Casablanca.

I’ve seen words like “convoluted” and “labyrinthine” to describe the plot of the Maltese Falcon.  Suffice it to say, it’s one that you will want to pay attention to in order to follow everything that is happening.

A woman calling herself Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) hires private detectives Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to follow a man named Floyd Thursby because he supposedly ran off with her little sister.  Archer takes the assignment.  Even though Wonderly projected innocence, Spade says he feels there’s something off about her and her story.  His instincts are right because both Thursby and Archer are killed that night.  The police wonder if Spade killed Thursby in retaliation for his partner being killed.

We wonder some, too, but for a different reason.  Archer’s wife (Gladys George) visits him and asks Spade if he killed her husband so the two of them could be together.  It turns out Spade has been having an affair with his partner’s wife.  Actress Gladys George was born in Maine, but was soon acting on the stage as a child.  She transitioned to making films and received a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1936 for Valiant is the Word for Carrie.  She received third billing in this film, but her part is not actually that large and the 1940s saw the decline of her career, although she did have a role in the 1946 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives.

With both the cops and his lover thinking he killed someone, and with finding out that Miss Wonderly gave him a fake name, he knows he could be in some serious trouble.  Wonderly – real name Brigid O’Shaughnessy – establishes contact again.  Spade finds out she never had a sister and she just wanted to find out what Thursby was doing.  She claims to not have had anything to do with the deaths.

Spade gets a visit from Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who seems to think that Spade has a “large black bird” in his possession, or knows where it is.  Spade plays along and Cairo offers him $5,000 for it.  Spade says he will need time to track it down.  Knowing that this can’t be a coincidence he lets Brigid know about the visit and she is definitely nervous about it.  All three meet and Brigid and Cairo definitely know each other.  Spade isn’t sure what they are referring to, but he does get that they are both afraid of “the fat man”.

Being a very popular person, Spade then gets a call from Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) – the “fat man” that the other two were worried about.  They meet.  Unlike the others he seems surprisingly willing to tell Spade all about this mysterious bird figurine that everyone is searching for, and offers him $10,000 for it.  The reason for this openness becomes apparent when Spade passes out; Gutman has drugged his drink.  Just then some familiar faces come out of a back room to join Gutman.

There is much more that happens after this, but I will leave it here to avoid any spoilers.  Do watch for an uncredited cameo by writer/director John Huston’s father Walter as a man who comes to Spade’s office after having been shot.

Because John Huston had such a long career it’s sometimes easy to forget that he had to start out like everyone else.  Believe it or not, The Maltese Falcon is the first film he ever directed.  Talk about a hell of a start.  He had been a screenwriter for several years, even receiving an Oscar nomination the year prior for Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.  The studio was reluctant to hand this film over to a first time director, but when they got John Huston to agree to also re-write the screenplay for Sergeant York, they handed him the reins to The Maltese Falcon.  He would end up receiving Oscar nominations for his screenplays for both of these films that year.

This movie also featured the screen debut of Greenstreet.  Even though he was over 60, and had been a stage actor for 40 years, he had never appeared on film.  And his film career only spanned 1941 – 1949, yet his presence in the movies, perhaps because of his sheer physical size, seems so much bigger.  He would receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this film.

I haven’t spent any time talking about the cinematography which established so much of the noir feel.  There have been shelves of books written on this subject and I can’t hope to convey anything new or interesting in a paragraph.  I will leave it to those other sources to provide much better information to you on that subject.

While The Maltese Falcon did have to change some things to get by the censors it remained a remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel, much more so that the first two films.  It had a “hero” who was definitely flawed and not really a “good guy”.  This was somewhat novel at the time and audiences ate it up.  You should, too.  Unless what I’ve written sounds like something you’d hate, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Four out of five stars? Man, this has been on my five-star list since the first viewing years ago.

  2. Mine, too. This is a film I can watch whenever for any reason. In fact, I'd love to watch it right now.

    I've seen this on a big screen in a restored 1920s-era theater. That was a real treat.

  3. @Retro Hound and Steve - Your comments had me wondering. I create a shell document of every film I am going to review in a category when I create the category header post. It's at that time that I research all the tags I have (rating, decade, book-based, 1001 movie, etc.) I create these shells docs one after another, so it was certainly possible that I had a typo in this one since I do not re-check them when I write the body of the review.

    I doublechecked my Netflix rating and I had this film there at four stars out of five. And in giving it more thought that feels right to me. While I don't have anything negative to say about the film, there were no surprises in this movie for me, other than the reveal about the falcon itself. I had seen too many other films like it to not know what to expect. I realize that is not this film's fault - that all those other films came after this one - but nevertheless it did affect the impact this movie had on me. I do consider it a notch below Casablanca, which is a five star film for me. The notch isn't huge, though. If I did half star ratings I'm sure I would have had this at 4.5 stars. Whenever I am in-between ratings I usually round down, not up.

    1. I think that's fair. All ratings are always subjective and at least a little arbitrary. That I see something here that you don't isn't some indicator of my being a "better" film viewer. It's more that I have different experiences, or a different expectation, or that something connects with me in a way it doesn't for you.

      For instance, someone with a very strained relationship with his father will react very differently to Field of Dreams than someone without that past.

    2. Field of Dreams is a good example. As I wrote in my review of it, my father died a few years before that movie came out so it particularly hit home for me. While I can acknowledge that the film is not perfect, it is a five star movie for me because of the impact it had on me when I first saw it.

  4. I guess I had the advantage of seeing this young enough that I hadn't seen anything else like it yet. The dialog knocked me out: "Sorry I got up on my hind legs, boys, but you fellas tryin' to rope me made me nervous. Miles gettin' bumped off upset me, and then you birds crackin' foxy, but it's all right now, now that I know what it's all about." and "When you're slapped you'll take it and you'll like it!" was nothing like I'd ever heard.

    It's not like I'm going to quit following your blog because of a star. Though you are wrong. ;-)

  5. ... which is basically why I do not like to give movie an absolute rating. I think everybody unless they are complete idiots would agree that this is a very good movie and ground breaking in so many ways.

    I had all but forgotten about Gladys George. She belongs to a subplot that does not really connect with the main plot, but helps describe Spade and adds to the predicament he is in. And we are left to wonder (for a while) if maybe she had something to do with the killings.

    It is a movie I would like to draw a diagram for to establish how people are connected and to reveal what is really happening. Was everything disclosed in the end or is it just Spade's best guess?

    1. Every reviewer has to decide whether to include a rating or not, and if so, how the rating should function. I went for simplicity (3 stars = give it a try, 4 stars = unless something specific would bother you then see it, 5 stars = must see.) This sometimes leaves me in a gray area where I've just reviewed a 3 star film, for instance, and the very next film I review I feel is better, but not enough better to earn 4 stars.

      I do find ratings helpful, especially when the review misleads. There is one blogger I can remember being surprised by several times when I got to the rating. Some reviews came across as glowing, but she would only give the film 2.5 stars out of 4, while others would seem like she didn't much care for it and it would get a 3.5 star rating. When I asked her about these discrepancies she told me to always use her ratings as the guide, not her reviews.