John Huston's 1941 classic, back in cinemas for its 80th anniversary, is packed with unforgettable performances across the board
John Huston’s debut film is widely credited as being the first entry into that genre we now know as film noir: long shadows, hard-boiled detectives, feisty dames with tricks up their sleeves. What may surprise newcomers to The Maltese Falcon, then, is how contained and stagey it all is. Huston’s film is a gripping mystery populated with expressionist characters, but don’t expect the kind of loopy, psychologically intense visuals that the likes of Lang and Preminger would later imprint on the genre. Instead, it's the sizzling performances that drive this landmark crime film.
Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart, in the role which solidified his tough, wiseass persona) is one half of the Spade and Archer private eye duo. They meet a new client, the beguiling Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who asks them to help find her missing sister. But within 24 hours, Archer is dead, and as Spade investigates further, he soon finds himself deep into a hunt for a black figure of a bird – the “Maltese Falcon” that gives the film its name.
Most of this takes place in just a few apartments and hotel rooms, shot for maximum atmosphere. Goopy, liquid cinematography captures the light which bounces off Spade’s floral sofa, while shadows of his venetian blinds turn day into night. This permits Huston’s brilliantly cast actors to move within his sets, drawing themselves into caricatured shapes. Mary Astor’s sad-sack routine fools no-one. Sydney Greenstreet’s vastness as the villainous Fat Man contrasts with Peter Lorre’s sunkenness. They’re all birds of prey who find their way into Spade’s orbit, giving generous performances that allow room even for minor roles – like Ward Bond – to make a splash.
Bogart plays all this with slowly cracking bemusement. Spade is a fairly boring character, driven mostly by a) the job, and b) horniness. But Bogart's performance brings him to life with characteristic nonchalance – an approach that could pass for laziness if weren't driven by such intensity. Bogart’s turn also drives the film’s shaggy dog thesis that the broad types who Spade encounters are all revealed to be their opposite, and none more so than him.
Huston is not what we traditionally consider an auteur. He has not the American obsession of Raoul Walsh, the angular hallucination of Howard Hawks, nor the grandeur of Orson Welles. But as a contemporary of those artists, the raconteur brings elements of each of those filmmakers, a theatrical grandstanding that ensures the quality of the production.
In fact, he adapts Dashiell Hammett's dime store novel with such energy that the film’s slightness slips away into sheer entertainment, taking the time to introduce each character (and the mad conflicts they bring as baggage) across the film’s first half. These various interests build brilliantly, and eventually pay off with such dreamy satisfaction that the film’s classic status is affirmed by its seeming simplicity. The Maltese Falcon is so expertly delivered, so compact and confidently entertaining, that it’s almost unbelievable that it is the first of its kind.
The Maltese Falcon is re-released in UK cinemas on 17 September.Where to watch