The Maltese Falcon (1941)

maltese falcon

Wilmer: “Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.”
Sam Spade: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

The Maltese Falcon is heralded as the film that kick-started the film noir genre. Through its whip-smart script and ferocious pace, the film is the considered the dictionary definition of film noir and has been celebrated and imitated for over 70 years.

The plot is convoluted, like most film noirs, but if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded. The film opens with private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) meeting with a prospective client Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Miss Wonderly claims her sister is missing and involved with a thug named Floyd Thursby. Spade sends his partner out to investigate Thursby, but by the next day both Thursby and Spade’s partner end up murdered at different crime-scenes. Avoiding the cops and other crooked thugs, Sam Spade must use every trick in the book to solve two murders and save his own skin.

The Maltese Falcon was the debut of legendary filmmaker John Huston. The film stands as testament to his stature as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, as he didn’t grow into his skill he had it from the beginning. Despite his Academy Awards for other films and the acclaim he has received for them, The Maltese Falcon is the definitive John Huston film. Huston planned his direction down to a tee, from storyboards to the incredibly detailed shot-for-shot script; he was a trail-blazer in his preparedness for the film.

What is more astounding is Huston’s script, which to me is a thing of beauty. Unlike the previous adaptations of the novel, Huston stuck as close as possible to it and made a completely faithful film. By sticking as close as he did Huston essentially created the film noir genre. By bringing out all the intricacies of the novel to the screen, the film plays out like a great American crime novel, which is essentially what the film noir genre is.

Along for Huston’s ride is his trusty friend Humphrey Bogart. Together they became one of the great director-actor combos and created some of the cinema’s greatest adventures. The Maltese Falcon is hailed as the film that really launched Bogart as a leading man and it is easy to see why. Bogart is the ultimate anti-hero, fully immersing himself into Sam Spade and coming out with the quintessential private detective. He is tough, fast-talking and extremely intelligent. He plays all angles, all players and is ahead of everybody (including the audience) by 10 steps. Watching Bogart delivering the perfect dialogue is a delight; he blasts through goons with only his words and fires off insults and lies faster than any bullet.

If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon than you really should. It is the original and the best film noir. It may lack the detail and plot of more recent entries (think Chinatown), but it has a lot of heart, a fantastic script, John Huston’s mesmerising direction and Sam Spade, cinema’s original bad-ass.

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