Director: John Huston
Producer: Hal B. Willis
Screenwriter: John Huston
Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Studio: Warner Bros 1941
Main Acting: Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor
How did the universe begin? All these years of human evolution and we are still not sure of our specific origins and how life began. Theories and speculation abound, but a clear concrete answer is still beyond us. Perhaps there will never be an explanation that will please or even satisfy anyone. Our origins are like any great mystery, full of clues but maddening when trying to find the proper resolution. Seems like some poetic justice that film noir has similar questions when it comes to a source. Where does it all begin? Is there one movie that can truly hold the key to how the whole movement formed? Does it come neatly packaged in one big bang explosion named The Stranger On The Third Floor or The Maltese Falcon, or has it gestated for many year in many little progressions? Does the answer lie in Germany, where Lang created M and The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse? Perhaps when we look at France and their poetic realism scene, we see a glimmer of the form taking hold? How about looking at our own horror films of the thirties? Maybe even to some silent films that lay immersed in German expressionism that gloriously offer a similar stylized palette? The bottom line is that I don’t believe we can easily find the great clue that will solve our little genre equation. I am as befuddled as the next person in trying to erect that proper piece of the puzzle to completely illuminate the whole.
What I can do in my own little way is build some personal guidelines for myself to follow. A religion of noir if you will, where a certain film gets nominated as the beginning. Not being a crazed zealot, I do not hold this belief as absolute. Nor do I expect others to follow and agree with my opinions. In fact, I am quite sure that The Maltese Falcon is not really the first film noir. I also don’t think such claims should matter. What the John Huston film almost certainly is though is the first unquestionably great picture in this developing genre. As I see it, the classic era gets its first perfect American example in 1941. Based on my own guidelines, this is year zero. It seems only proper that the movement open up with so many familiar tropes, like a morally evasive private dick, a shifting femme fatale, various curious characters with shady underpinnings, and most of all… an inanimate figure that possesses the stuff that dreams are made of. After all, what is it that most noir inhabitants are relentlessly looking for? But the keys to some everlasting nirvana where good fortunes may shine upon them for eternity. Why else would one risk murder, deceit, prison, etc.? Getting out of the shadows and into the light of untold riches. It’s why so many participants in the noir universe fall from the celluloid wayside to begin with. The stuff of dreams that makes us enjoy noir is actually the nightmare fostered upon the characters we follow who know no better.
The Maltese Falcon is thus in my estimation the first truly great work of noir. It is the film that the rest of the canon will follow, for better or worse. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner, Miles, meet a female client (Mary Astor) looking for her sister. She mentions the name of the man she believes her sibling is involved with… Thursby. Miles volunteers to follow him after the retainer is set and gets himself killed that night. Spade takes the news rather well but further gets pulled into the web of deception being spun around him. He slowly starts to learn that Thursby was also killed and that he is a suspect. When the woman reappears the next day with a new name of O’ Shaughnessey replacing Wonderly, her story has changed and Spade decides to continue pursuing the case. He begins to learn that what Astor’s multi-monikered character is really looking for is a black statue of a falcon. He also soon finds out that she is not alone in this endeavor, and a whole slew of figures are also in hot pursuit. What could this seemingly unimportant object possibly contain to get so many people committing all sorts of crimes for? Can he crack the case while also keeping himself out of jail and in good standings with the law? Watch and find out as classic American film noir takes its first steps of immortality.
Not only is The Maltese Falcon the first noir of distinction, but it also begins the directorial career of John Huston. Known primarily as a screenwriter before this, he made sure to have his first effort behind the camera go smoothly. Taken from a novel written by Dashiell Hammett with the same name, Huston kept most of the same dialogue while eradicating any sexual references that could run afoul of the Production Code. Legend has it that he ran a tight ship and was very adamant about keeping the whole feature from surpassing its scheduled timeframe set by the studio. For some, The Maltese Falcon is not very noir in its look and cinematography, while winningly matching the other criteria of the genre. When I watched the film a couple of months ago, I was surprised by the fact that Huston’s film did not look visually flat at all. It maintained a shadowy noir milieu, and also employed the use of creative camera set-ups and exaggerated angles to express the motivations of all the participants. I was puzzled by the film’s reputation of not affording the same extensive visual design as other of its ilk. In my eyes, Arthur Edeson does a commendable job and greatly contributes to the picture’s success.
There are so many areas of The Maltese Falcon that can be praised. The acting by a succession of character actors from Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr. is all first rate and worthy of note. I always get a kick out of seeing Wilmer act so tough to only have his confidence shattered when Spade smacks him around with impunity. Another convoluted plot is handled with more ease by Huston than Howard Hawks and the dialogue is just as crisp. The action is taut and every twist and turn is met with great relish and excitement. There might not be some deep existential meaning to what is happening throughout the film, but it is grand entertainment that keeps me as interested as the elusive falcon does for everyone in the movie. Humphrey Bogart became a star after The Maltese Falcon. He would continue to etch his legend in multiple follow-up pictures for the rest of his career. A movie that never shows any strains of tiredness, I will be returning to it every now and again until the day I stop drawing breath.