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The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

By Ben Nicholson • February 18th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: October 3rd, 1941
Running time: 101 minutes

Director: John Huston
Writers: John Huston (screenplay), Dashiell Hammett (novel)

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jnr, Sydney Greenstreet, Jerome Cowan, Lee Patrick

The Maltese Falcon

I have a deep and profound love for Film Noir. When it came to writing the screenplay for my first short film, my co-director and I could think of no better genre with which to begin. Inspired by German Expressionism – all chiaroscuro and odd angles – FIlm Noir is one of the most visually distinctive genres in film history which is one of the things that draws me to these films again and again.

“Film Noir is literally ‘black film’, not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting a dark mood in American Society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them.” ¹

These social ills can be seen through a variety of stories and characters so dark that we can’t help but be entranced by them. Cynical investigators, corrupt cops, murderous dames, jealousy, greed and obsession – it’s all just so utterly compelling.

The Maltese Falcon isn’t my favourite Noir, but it does fir the bill of being a ‘black film’ absolutely and is full of bravura performances and wonderful crackling dialogue. It was a film, along with The Big Sleep, which we used as inspiration when attempting to concoct our own Film Noir.

As ever, the plot is convoluted with plenty of hidden motives and double-crossing. It begins with Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) arriving in the office of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) asking the private detectives to find her missing sister. When tailing the sister’s supposed lover, Thursby, Archer is killed and a dangerous game begins as Spade tries to protect the dame and eventually to find the eponymous Falcon, one of cinemas classic MacGuffins.

The Maltese Falcon

Along the way Spade is constantly pursued by the police who suspect him of killing Archer, or later Thursby, must avoid Archer’s widow with whom he was having an affair, and comes into contact with more nefarious types who are also after the coveted prize including Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), Wilma (Elisha Cook Jnr) and Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) whilst learning that Miss Wonderly is in fact Miss O’Shaughnessey.

Although it doesn’t use the dizzying stylistic flourishes evident in other Film Noirs, here the blacks are not pitch and the camerawork rather perfunctory, John Huston did adopt the style of deep staging and deep focus made famous by the innovation of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane which released the same year.

It’s not through its visuals though that The Maltese Falcon pushes the darkness of Film Noir, it’s through its misanthropic take on the characters. The genre usually embraces a tone of despair at the cruel dark world and the decisions that people make – but here the characters have considerably less grey; they’re not just morally corruptible but seemingly rather corrupted.

None of the cast of players have an awful lot of depth to them, even Sam Spade, though that makes him no less of an engaging protagonist. He may be the cynical private eye with a soft centre where O’Shaughnessy is involved – and his secretary Effie (Lee The Maltese FalconPatrick) – but he’s a cold and callous man. He has his partners name removed from the windows very quickly after his death and seems interested in catching Archer’s killer because it’s the done thing, not because he’s compelled to.

His opinion of the aggrieved widow is nothing short of brutal and the final decisions he makes, although we’re forever on his side, are almost gleeful. When Bogart looks Astor in the eye in the final scene to decide whether he can trust her and what to do with her after all that’s happened, we’re almost willing him not to do the nice thing making us complicit in the blackening of the human spirit.

Still, there are characters a lot worse than Spade with Gutman nonchalantly deciding to allow Wilma to be the fall guy despite previous protestations that he’s like a son to him whilst Cairo clearly has no scruples at all and we’re never sure how much of the real Brigid O’Shaughnessy has been revealed. Though the characters may be somewhat two dimensional, they’re all portrayed with gusto by the fantastic cast and with the plot hurtling along at the speed it does, it’s hard to even care too much.


  • Silver, Alain & Ward, Elizabeth (1979) Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style, The Overlook Press, New York p.1 ¹

Bogey’s hard-boiled tongue is at it’s most acerbic in The Maltese Falcon as he unleashes bitter zinger after bitter zinger in every direction he can – most notably aimed at Wilma, Cairo and most tellingly the duplicitous O’Shaughnessy – and his smile always seems to carry a sneering quality which just adds to this.

Whist The Maltese Falcon isn’t perfect, and perhaps lacks in character development, it makes up for it with a cracking plot and cast, an infamous MacGuffin and some great dialogue. It might not be my favourite Noir ever but I’d still happily watch it until the cows come home. It may be one of the bitterest and blackest portrayals of the aforementioned American societal ills but hey, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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