The Maltese Falcon (1941)
You know it’s a monumental debut when a director’s first feature film is considered an all-time movie classic. Such is the case with John Huston and his phenomenal film noir “The Maltese Falcon”. Brimming with style, slick dialogue, and brilliant work from Humphrey Bogart, “The Maltese Falcon” is a glorious example of smart and creative filmmaking that takes fabulous source material and breathes cinematic life into it.
So much of the film’s success is directly attributed to John Huston. His creative touches can be seen throughout and his intense dedication to the project is legendary. It’s said that Huston actually planned every minute detail of the film. He laid it out scene by scene and line by line. His reasoning – so that the filming would go by in a timely and professional manner. But interestingly enough, by doing that he gave us a glimpse at the pure cinematic genius of a director that would go on to make so many of the industry’s great movies.
Huston also wrote the screenplay and much of his dialogue was taken from the novel and incorporated with a near flawless technique. And it’s not just the writing that shows such an inventive new style. His carefully crafted visual style employs cool camera angles, strategic lighting, and the subtle use of imagery to create the overall tone the film is known so well for. All of this from the hands and mind of a first time director. Of course this is one of the all-time great debuts.
A good argument could be made that The Maltese Falcon is Humphrey Bogart’s best film. It’s a movie that seems to get better each time I watch it and has earned it’s recognition as a film noir classic. It’s also a film featuring another notable first. This was Sydney Greenstreet’s first feature film as well as Huston’s directorial debut. As mentioned, Huston also wrote the story which is based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. The movie is smart, sharply written, and very well made.
Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco private investigator. He and his partner Miles Archer, played by Jerome Cowan, meet with an attractive new client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) who hires them to help find her missing sister. Archer volunteers to follow her as she meets with Floyd Thursby, an acquaintance of her sister. Later that night Spade receives a call that Archer has been murdered. Spade weaves through a barrage of lies and an assortment of shady characters to find that it all revolves around a priceless statuette of a bird covered in jewels.
Bogart wasn’t Huston’s first choice to play Sam Spade but after George Raft turned down the part Bogie was brought in. This was the beginning of a great friendship between Bogart and Huston that spawned many other wonderful films such as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The African Queen”, and “Key Largo”. Bogart’s performance is simply wonderful and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Mary Astor gives a strong performance and sets the table for some of Bogart’s best lines in the film. Add Peter Lorre and Greenstreet and you have an incredible cast. Also keep an eye out for a cool cameo from Walter Huston, John Huston’s father.
The film is also helped by some fine cinematography. I talked about the crafty camera work and low-level lighting which adds to the picture’s mood and tone. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson plays around with the angles and camera locations which give the movie a cool, slick look. It’s such a technically sound and stylish movie and Huston’s accomplishment is really profound considering this was his first picture.
The Maltese Falcon epitomizes what high level filmmaking and cinematic storytelling is all about. Bogart’s performance became the model for other film noir detective roles and the supporting cast is nothing short of perfect. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards but it’s contribution to filmmaking can’t be measured by that alone. This is a motion picture classic and it should be considered mandatory viewing for any fan of film. If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, it’s time to. Oh, and it also marks one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. That’s something no one can argue.