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Dissecting the Classics – The Maltese Falcon

June 23, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

There are few genres that excite me more than a good mystery thriller. I acquired my love of the genre through a love for The Dark Knight and Double Indemnity, products of my impressionable youth as a film goer and film appreciation student. Since then, I’ve enjoyed classics like L.A. Confidential and Chinatown, but as is often the case, the very best is the one that started it all.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


The Maltese Falcon

Wide Release Date: October 18, 1941
Written and Directed By: John Huston
Produced By: Hal B. Wallis
Cinematography By: Arthur Edison
Edited By: Thomas Richards
Music By: Adolph Deutsch
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Starring:
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
Mary Astor as Ruth Wonderly
Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo
Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman
Gladys George as Iva Archer

What Do We All Know?

If you’ve never seen The Maltese Falcon, you’ve almost undoubtedly seen it referenced. The first major film noir not only launched Humphrey Bogart to the upper echelon of Hollywood, but clarified the way hardboiled detectives were written and portrayed. It showed how their stories should be shot, how their dialogue was scripted, and provided the ultimate standard of the McGuffin; an item of utmost importance to the characters but largely incidental to the audience.

The film was an instant and enduring classic, with Sydney Greenstreet and John Huston winning Oscars for their acting and writing. Humphrey Bogart would establish himself as perhaps the greatest movie star of all time, the film was one of the first twenty-five movies preserved in America’s film registry in 1989. Revered by film historians for its quality and influence, it is one of the must see films of its era.

What Went Right?

The Maltese Falcon is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, the third attempt to bring it to film. It starts with private detective Sam Spade receiving a visit from a distraught woman. Ruth Wonderly claims that a dangerous man named Floyd Thursby is courting her sister. Sam’s partner Miles agrees to tail Thursby, but when both men turn up dead, Sam finds himself under police suspicion and wrapped up in a mystery to prove who the killer is. Sam’s involvement with Wonderly also attracts the attention of Joel Cairo and “the Fatman” Kasper Gutman. These unscrupulous characters are both looking for a jewel-encrusted bird statue known as the Maltese Falcon.

What ensues is a tightly woven, brilliantly told yarn, with every scene revealing new pieces of information. The film requires the audience to be as distrustful and attentive as its hero, as characters rarely tell the truth and reveal their intents through small gestures. John Huston delivers in his first turn as a director, while the immensely talented cast makes every scene a joy to watch and listen to. I won’t spoil much of the plot, since I imagine many readers may not have seen this classic yet. In this case, seeing the truth unfold is a source of a lot of the film’s drama and entertainment.

What Went Wrong?

I’m not inclined to call any film perfect, and I will admit that The Maltese Falcon‘s dizzying plot was off putting the first time I saw it. It took me a rewatch with my undivided attention to really see how strong the plot is, instead of just being impressed with the acting. But I feel that’s a fault of mine and not the film. It’s worth comparing to the classic Double Indemnity, another favorite of mine that helped define the film noir genre, but stacks up as second best thanks to the superior casting and direction of this film.

What Went Really Right?

As I mentioned before, this was the third attempt to bring the story to the big screen, and you probably haven’t even heard of the others. John Huston’s writing and directing skills are a big part of that, as he carefully constructed each scene to put ideas in the audience’s head long before he confirmed their suspicions. He also assembled a truly great cast, from the legendary Peter Lorre to the Oscar winning Greenstreet. Mary Astor was great in her role, helping to establish the femme fatale and giving Ingrid Bergman a model for interacting with Bogart in Casablanca.

But the most important performance is that of Humphrey Bogart, an actor who simply will never be replaced. Bogie’s voice, his demeanor, and his eyes all create such a unique presence, and he is the embodiment of a Hollywood star. If you haven’t yet seen Bogart perform, this is as good a place as any to start. He defined an archetype forever, but he also gets to act with some of the greatest performers of his time.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966)

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, we reviewed 80’s action classic, Predator. This week, we review the start of Richard Linklater’s excellent romantic trilogy with Before Sunrise.

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