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Pulp Corner: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is generally considered to be the first true film noir with a widespread release and as far as I’m concerned it’s the best.

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It doesn’t carry all the hallmarks of the genre but it set a lot of the guidelines of what was to come. Seeing it for the first time as a teenager it helped me connect a lot of dots and to this day holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I was introduced to Humphrey Bogart, who is still my favorite golden age Hollywood actor. After seeing countless parodies growing up of the private detective visited by a deadly dame that was in distress it was great to finally see one of the movies where it originated from.

The movie itself is based on the hard boiled novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. There had been two attempts to bring this story to the screen in both 1931 and 1936 to less than stellar results. It wasn’t until newcomer John Huston stepped into the director’s chair that the magic of the book was able to be translated to the screen. Huston storyboarded every scene of the movie, detailed all of the camera shots and retained much of the novel’s original dialogue and plot proving the source material was the movie’s strong point.

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The movie of course stars Bogart as detective Sam Spade a cold and cynical loner who plays by his own set of rules but is morally sound. This not only set up the archetype for the anti-hero for years to come (say hello Han Solo) but also Bogie’s career path. Bogart isn’t an actor who has an incredible depth of range, he plays one or two types of characters but he plays them so well that it’s all you want to see him do. For instance, in Casablanca his character Rick Blaine is a slightly different version of Sam Spade that’s just a little more calloused and world weary.

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The plot revolves around femme fatale Ruth Wonderly (played by Mary Astor) who solicits Spade and his partner Archer’s assistance. She’s worried about a man named Thursby who her sister has recently taken up with. Archer begins to tail him and ends up being murdered but a short time later so does Thursby. This draws Spade into a complex situation where there is more involved than meets the eye. The police are convinced he murdered Thursby to avenge his partner and he knows Wonderly isn’t telling the truth. Soon we find out that Peter Lorre’s character, Joel Cairo is somehow involved and working for someone referred to as the Fat Man. The Fat Man seems to be feared by both Cairo and Wonderly.

When we meet the Fat Man it’s one of the great scenes of the movie. The Fat Man is Kasper Gutman portrayed by the great Sydney Greenstreet. Gutman cuts an imposing figure and is the basis for the Marvel Comics’ character Kingpin. A large and well educated man, Gutman has been searching for the relic known as the Maltese Falcon for the better part of 17 years. His considerable wealth has allowed for this pursuit but also in no small part due to his white collar crime ethics. He doesn’t care how he gets it or who must be stopped along the way just as long as he ends up with the Falcon. When he details the history of it over drinks with Spade in his lavish hotel room it’s hard not to think of the scene in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade where Donovan discusses the legend of the Grail Knight with Indy. Gutman is shot in a way that the camera is beneath him and always looking up to help empathize his size.

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The artifact of the Maltese Falcon itself is nothing more than a Hitchcockian Macguffin designed to move the plot around. Like most noirs the plot does tend to be a bit confusing and non linear (but nowhere near as complex and baffling as Bogart’s The Big Sleep) but needs not be strenuously focused on. It’s all about getting the momentum rolling and unleashing the gloriously pulpy dialogue. The dialogue makes this movie and we can thank author Dashiell Hammett for that. It’s smart, witty and quick. Full of one liners and iron barbs dealt cold and calculatingly.

I’d wager a lot of people watch this movie and are unsure of whether or not they should be rooting for Sam Spade. I can see where he would be hard to like. In fact, the only truly “good” person in the entire movie is Spade’s secretary, Effie. Everyone else is motivated by greed, lust or combination of both. Even Archer’s newly widowed wife spends a few hours in mourning before she’s making out with Spade. There are a few scenes that erupt into short bursts of physical violence and Spade almost seems to revel in it each time. In the end though he makes good by turning in all parties involved. I had forgotten that he even gives back the money he took from Gutman to pay for his time and efforts to the police. Something he certainly didn’t have to do.

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Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is what I will always think of when I focus on private eye fiction or movies. He sums it up in his manner of speaking, his actions and the way he dresses. It’s pitch perfect and the game has changed considerably since the 1940’s, but if I even hear the words private detective Bogart in that role is what I picture. It’s a true classic. If you’re interested in film noir it’s an invaluable document to its beginnings or if you like crime movies or detectives this is a 100% must see essential film.

Need more Bogie in your life? Check out our friends over at The Bogie Film Blog. They’re the ultimate resource for all things Bogart related.

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on April 2, 2015, in Movies, Pulp Corner, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great review! Bogie is great in this. I recently looked at The Maltese Falcon on my blog as well. I like your insight on this.

  2. Bogart as Han Solo? I like it. I’ve already suggested he’d be great for Indiana Jones, but Solo would be a heck of a lot of fun too. Maybe Leslie Howard as Luke? (Although Warner Brothers would probably push George Raft on us.) And Allen Jenkins as Chewbacca????

  3. Open Source Media

    Reblogged this on Open Source Media.

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