The Maltese Falcon

United States, 1941

Directed by John Huston

With Humphrey Bogart (Samuel Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Elisha Cook Jr (Wilmer Cook), Barton MacLane (Lieutenant Detective Dundy), Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer)

The plot is fiendishly complicated, and revolves around unusual bad guys and stuff. The object causing the deaths of two men and explosive confrontations gives the film its title; it is a gold-made and gem-decorated statuette of a falcon which the Knights of the Sovereign Military Hospitalier Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta wished to offer Charles V, then head of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, but was stolen by pirates; the statuette surfaced later in Russia (needless to say this is a complete historical fantasy).

The chief bad guy has nothing to do with the underworld; he is an aesthete, possibly an art dealer who has definitely become a maniac, Kasper Gutman. He is assisted by two bizarre, effeminate young men: Joel Cairo, dapper, ingratiating and trying to act tough and smart, and Wilmer Cook, weak, pesky and playing the role of the devoted sidekick.

A deal between a private investigator and his client getting sour: Mary Astor (left) and Humphrey Bogart

They are in San Francisco to catch up with a partner who reckoned to run away with the coveted jewel; this woman is the first of the film’s dubious characters to appear; in a way, this the story of her cunning but desperate effort to be on the winning side. Brigid O’Shaughnessy pretends to be a sad lady vowing to protect her sister who eloped with a disreputable lover; that is why she pays a visit to the office of private detectives Samuel Spade and Miles Archer, hoping they would find the beloved relative in the Californian port, and keep her safe. But as he prepares to watch the going and comings of the suspicious guy, Miles Archer is killed; so is the man afterwards. That twin tragedy spurs Samuel Spade into action, if only because he is suspected by Police Lieutenant Detective Dundy to have a hand in the crimes in order to get hooked with his late partner’s wife, Iva Archer.

Spade tries to get his client confess the true facts. This is the beginning of a riveting and thrilling narrative rigmarole: the situation becomes increasingly confused and dangerous, but O’Shaughnessy keeps telling only shreds of the truth blended with misleading statements. Until the very end of “The Maltese Falcon”, she would show the greatest reluctance to be honest and candid, always obsessed with her safety and the fulfillment of her material goal. Spade can meet Gutman only because he has been harassed by Cairo and Cook; to the teasing and guessing game with O’Shaughnessy, he must now add a cat and mouse game with the sophisticated and sordid aesthete.

He eventually manages to get hold of the statuette and to make all the players meet in his apartment and wait for the delivery of the loot; this is a long, subtle and stunning confrontation where Spade just has to ask a few smart questions to at long last get all the facts; the friendly conversation is the moment when all the jigsaw puzzle pieces are gathered and fit together nicely, the expected display of a sleuth’s deductive mind giving way to the criminals explaining everything themselves in a chatty way. Spade would only have to call the police and then give his testimony to close the case. This is a remarkably clever move, but actually this is a clever narrative with brilliant twists and turns, a detective story where words matter most than actions, and actually move the characters forward.

As unrepentant masculinity goes, Spade’s case is truly blunt and fascinating. Grinning and grumbling his way into the story, he exudes a physical assertiveness and manly confidence which do not just fit with stereotypes about private detectives but overdo them. Humphrey Bogart seems a quintessential and unassailable model, tough-talking and hard-boiled to a fault. He has seemingly few scruples and few illusions and holds his sense of virility as a gold standard. He is as O’Shaughnessy puts it “wild and unpredictable”. Smoking and alcohol are cherished badges of identity.

It means he would poke fun at the hapless Cairo while sadistically takes on Cook, playfully fueling the anger of a pent-up neurotic plainly wishing to seem manly even as he is Gutman’s ephebe. Gutman is respected because of his powerful intelligence and astute calculations – but then, it would be great fun for Spade in the final long conversation to get him spill the beans and make fatal mistakes. Conversely, Spade would prove more spirited and wittier than the cops, actually crushing his nemesis, Dundy, under the weight of his biting remarks. As for his late partner, the observation of the stares they exchange during O’Shaughnessy’s visit and after point to the disdain he felt for him; indeed, he would readily get Archer’s desk removed and the office’s door altered after the killing.

As far as women are concerned, his attitudes remain as brutal and his expectations as clear-cut. The only lady he does respect and wants to rely on is his secretary, a bachelor living with her mother, a rather decisive and practical character, a woman with nice hats but simple looks, Effie Perine; she usually proves to be an invaluable asset in his quandary and he appreciates it; however, it is clear their bond is based on respect and hard work, without an ounce of sentiment. Sentiments are indeed what is supposed to link Spade to Iva Archer – in her view and in the views of others. But Spade does not love her and treats her astonishingly harshly and unfairly – he is a man who cannot love.

Or maybe he can – this is the other suspense underlying the plot: would he and O’Shaughnessy have an affair? Could the happy ending be him saving her from the grasp of her enemies and of justice? This is what she has hoped, it turns out: all her narrative arc feels like a partly improvised and partly planned effort to get away with her crimes and to run away with whatever rewards she can have. She is the perfect femme fatale, bringing troubles, arousing feelings and waiting for a safe outcome. This is where the aggressive, baffling, even annoying masculinity of Spade proves to be a decisive factor and oddly a powerful moral compass: he just lets her down, explaining that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when on of your organization gets killed, it’s – it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere”. In other words, he has seen though her and is not going to let her off the hook. Sentiments can be a powerful weapons but they can be taken away as easily as bad guys’ revolvers (Cairo and Cook learned it the hard way).

For a debut feature, this is quite impressive. Dashiell Hammett’s novel has become a complex and intelligent screenplay replete with great, well-turned lines that skillfully define the characters, making them even harder to forget (though the most famous of them, the penultimate one, was a contribution of Bogart; it nicely brings the story to a nice, relevant conclusion; as the failures of O’Shaughnessy and Gutman are complete, the statuette can rightly be defined as “The stuff that dreams are made of”). John Huston’s inspiration and dedication do not stop here: he has carefully planned the shooting, the screenplay being completed by a famously detailed storyboard that helped the young director deliver the end product in time and smoothly. His taste for slightly low-angle shots to capture the characters moving in the rooms or slightly high-angles in reverse shots to stay close to Spade’s viewpoint points to a fairly dynamic, visceral approach that seems to emphasize constantly the deeply deceitful and treacherous nature of the characters and the plot.

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