Movie Critique – The Maltese Falcon

For review of all movies starring Humphrey Bogart, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A very entertaining murder mystery coupled with treasure hunt leading to some heartaches, some no-nonsense talks, more of push and shove with muscles and considerable loss in every manner. Each and every character perfectly executed with no room for boredom, repetition or drag. 

The Maltese Falcon is the 1941 directorial debut film noir by John Huston based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The film introduced Hammett's private eye, Sam Spade, to silver screen; a character immortalized by Humphrey Bogart on screen. Among other star cast, we see Mary Astor in a femme fatale role of Brigid O'Shaugnessy, Gladys George as Iva Archer; Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo; and Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman. 

Sam Spade and Miles Archer, a pair of San Francisco private investigators are approached by Ruth Wonderly who is looking for her missing sister who was involved with a man named Floyd Thursby. A simple case of finding a missing person turns into a hunt for a mysterious falcon statue and three unscrupulous antagonists that Spade and Archer face along, while dealing with murder along the way.

Hammett's novel first appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask in five parts between 1929 and 1930, before it was published as a complete book in 1930. This was not the first time this book was filmed though. A year after the book was published, in 1931, it was released as an American pre-code crime film where Ricardo Cortez played the role of Sam Spade with Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaugnessy.

I have watched Ricardo Cortez in two films so far - 1941 A Shot in the Dark and 1936 The Murder of Dr. Harrigan. There would be no doubt in my mind that he would have made an excellent Sam Spade. However, I will not lose an opportunity to see his film as well. 

And I am digressing, sorry! The second time the book was made into a film was in 1936 with a revised title "Satan Met a Lady" Bette Davis and Warren Williams. It was a loose adaptation of the book, with comedy and some story lines changed. However, Sam Spade shot to fame with Bogart playing him in this film. Movie also put Bogart in a new light giving him several film noir in subsequent years. 

Bogart also reprises the role in the radio adaptation of the film in 1941, broadcasted by CBS on the Silver Theater. He also reprises the role along-side Astor, Greenstreet and Lorre in the 30-minute adaptation by The Screen Guild Theater on CBS again in 1943. In 1942 Phillip Morris Playhouse did an adaptation on radio with Edward Arnold in the role of Sam Spade. 

One of the episodes of Bogart on radio as Sam Spade, I believe I heard on the Down These Mean Streets podcasts recently. I must say they did a great job of recreating a film that is viewed into a radio play that can only be heard and imagined.

Bogart set a mark for how a private investigator should be, hard-boiled one with his cynicism as well as penchant to find the truth. Even though he may fall in love with the one person who is against him, he doesn’t lose his integrity. Something the future characters who portrayed as any kind of private investigators have adapted. Of course heavy smoking and drinking also got added to the future investigators. 

Hammett himself had been a private detective with Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco. His work inspired him to create Sam Spade. He even named the character after his birth name "Samuel". He is a figment of Hammett's imagination with all the characters he would see in most of the detectives he met in his line of business. 

Despite being one of the high grossing movie that year, the film got only three Academy Award nominations - Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor for Sydney Greenstreet; and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Huston - but did not win in any category. Huston however became a successful director following this film.

Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran theater actor, hitting sixty at the time, weighed between 300 and 350 pounds. He fit into the role of Kasper Gutman seamlessly. Interestingly enough he doesn’t appear until 50 mins into the movie and yet made quite a mark. 

In his debut role on film as a heavy-set antagonist also gave him the role of the heavy weight reclusive private investigator Nero Wolfe, 10 years later in the radio series titled The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, which aired between 1950 and 1951 on NBC.

After watching Mary Astor in the 1933 American pre-Code mystery film, The Kennel Murder Case, I wouldn’t have expected her to be flirty, manipulative, femme fatale at all. I suppose her real-life scandals aided in her playing the part expertly. 

Huston was a perfectionist in his directing and writing of the script. Yet, he had played several pranks on the cast and crew. Huston used almost the entire dialogue from the original novel with very few minor changes. The dialogue-heavy final scene between Spade and Wonderly proves how successful of a screenwriter was Huston. One line became immortal:

Bogart: The stuff that dreams are made of.

Several scenes in the film were shot from over Bogart's shoulder to give the audience Spade's point of view. Another distinct feature the film brought to the movie makers. This film introduced the film noir style of cinematography which carried into other detective films in the genre. 

Though Sam Spade appears in one novel and four short stories, the radio show called The Adventures of Sam Spade that aired on ABC, CBS and NBC from 1946 thru 1951, consisted of stories not written by Hammett. Also the characterization of Sam Spade changed considerably in this radio adaptation. Howard Duff first played Sam Spade and later it was done by Steve Dunne. The Radio Spade had a streak of humor infusing through his hard-boiled persona, which was totally absent in the book or film version of Spade. 

In this radio version Spade's secretary Effie Perrine played by Lurene Tuttle, who has a tongue-in-cheek approach to her dialogue delivery; and more than often comes of as a dumb broad but an able secretary. In the film however, Lee Patrick portrays the role of Effie Perrine, and she is poise, intelligent, and very capable. 

Sam Spade definitely comes in the crème de la crème of the private eyes on screen or page, with the likes of Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Miss Marple, Perry Mason, and others from the yester years; and Inspector Morse, Jack Reacher, Kurt Wallander and others from recent years.

A very entertaining murder mystery coupled with treasure hunt leading to some heartaches, some no-nonsense talks, more of push and shove with muscles and considerable loss in every manner. Each and every character perfectly executed with no room for boredom, repetition or drag. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. The Maltese Falcon statue that was the center of the plot was sculpted by American artist and sculptor Fred Sexton. 

b. George Raft was the original choice for Sam Spade. After he rejected the offer citing that he didn’t want to work with an inexperienced director, Bogart was brought in.

c. A sequel Three Strangers was released in 1946, directed and written by John Huston. However due to contractual obligations Hammett's original characters were not used in the sequel although Greenstreet and Lorre appeared in the film as different characters.

d. Director Huston's father Walter Huston appears in a cameo role as Captain Jacoby, as a good luck to his son's debut film. 

e. Sydney Greenstreet also appears in a special trailer of the film.

f. The Maltese Falcon Statuette can be seen in a few movies in later years - In the 1955 movie Illegal, on top of the D.A.'s bookcase; on a counter in the 2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which is incidentally owned by Leonardo DiCaprio.

g. At the crime scene of Archer's murder, you can see a movie poster in the background. It is of Bogart's 1938 film Swing Your Lady.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. After the opening credits, there is a brief crawl about Maltese Falcon and it clearly says that the falcon is "encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels". But when the falcon is finally shown at the end, all the surface is smooth. Even with black enamel coating the outline of jewels should have been seen.

b. In the opening scene, Brigid O'Shaughnessy hires Spade and Archer investigative agency to find her sister, Corrine. But later when Spade meets Brigid in her apartment, 20 minutes into the movie, Spade tells her that her story about her sister-in-law was fake. There was no sister-in-law to be found in the initial conversation.

c. When Joel Cairo first comes to see Spade, there is a shuffle and Cairo becomes unconscious. On searching him, Spade finds a passport which has his name written twice on two different pages, which is not a commonality with passports.

d. Joel Cairo tells Spade that he is living at Hotel Belvedere in Room 635. But when Cairo comes back to the hotel, he asks for the key to room 603 instead.

e. When leaving Gutman after confronting him, Spade gives him time till 5 O'clock to come clean. But a couple scenes later when Wilmer takes Spade at gun point, Spade says he didn’t expect him until 5:30 PM and it is only 5:25 now. 


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