The Maltese Falcon (1941)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A straight trajectory to the heart of the mystery appears to be the approach of classic film-noir “The Maltese Falcon,” based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet and adapted to the screen by John Huston, for it demands that the viewers learn something new or surprising in every scene, whether it be about the puzzle to be solved or the characters who find themselves embroiled in a crime that begins with two people ending up dead within minutes of one another’s murder. What results is a highly efficient piece of work that urges the person looking in on the action to keep up with its many questions and curiosities.
Those regaled with beautiful dialogue are certain to find romance in a film bereft of sentimentality because it is filled to brim with words. But not just words. Partnered with these are silences lodged in between which are equally telling at times. Humphrey Bogart plays Samuel Spade, one-half of a San Francisco-based detective agency whose partner is killed while investigating a client’s claim (Mary Astor). Bogart plays the role with such intricate and refined delicacy that he sells every line with seeming ease. He can be tough then soft, sometimes at the same time, at a drop of a hat. Spade embodies the words while the dead partner rests in silence. The film commands a magnetic rhythm.
Like a pendulum that eases one into hypnosis, the material inspires us to look closer at the screen—and it is not just because the plot involves a mystery to be solved. Every character introduced exudes intrigue, from the spirited secretary (Lee Patrick) to the figure (Elisha Cook Jr.) who follows our protagonist from among a crowd in broad daylight. We are inspired to figure them out, to learn about their endgames. There is not one weak link here; having one would have limited its world-building that consists of tough talk, foggy alliances, and convincing lies. Most importantly, each character must serve a purpose and not rely on being a personality—a trait that modern thrillers and noirs seem to overlook.
But it is the “Fat Man” who steals the show and he is named Kaspar Gutman, played by the excellent Sydney Greenstreet. This corpulent man’s ambition to get his hands on a twelve-inch black falcon statue, its origin going as far back as the 16th century, is matched by his sheer size. When he speaks, he dominates the room; and when he is silent, we look into those cunning eyes and wonder what he might be thinking. Within just a few seconds of the Fat Man’s meeting with Spade in a posh hotel suite, we are convinced that not only is he intelligent and well-connected but that he can be dangerous, possibly ruthless when the occasion calls for it. His boisterous laugh tends to mask his threatening presence. He is Spade’s equal in nearly every way and it is so entertaining how our protagonist attempts to outsmart and outclass a coequal.
“The Maltese Falcon” is skillfully directed by first-time filmmaker John Huston and it stands strong alongside mystery-thrillers of today. It is intelligent in regards to plotting, it offers an understanding of genuine human interactions, and it invites us to participate in detective work. The reason for the words is not to fill up the time but to engage us with the poetry of the genre, a way to get us to think and feel like the characters so that by the end we are not surprised by the answers, but rather we accept them as natural resolutions for it is simply how it is in their cynical, unforgiving, morally ambiguous world.