The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston was born into entertainment. His father, Walter, got his start in vaudeville and then transitioned into movies. When John was born, his parent ended their earlier careers (his mother was a sports editor) to be more domestic. Walter became a civil engineer for a few years but eventually returned to acting. The couple divorced when John was six, and he spent much of his childhood at boarding schools, ferried between his two parents. Watching Walter act on stage profoundly affected John’s burgeoning love of storytelling and set him on his path to becoming a filmmaker.
As a young adult, newly married to his high school sweetheart, John started writing plays and eventually secured a script editing position at Universal Studios. By the age of 31, John had gained a reputation as a hard drinker and was involved in the vehicular homicide of an actor’s wife. The experience left him traumatized, and he retreated into his writing. At the age of 35, after years of writing & editing screenplays, John was given an opportunity to write & direct his own picture for Warner Brothers. That would be The Maltese Falcon.
Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon follows private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) as he becomes embroiled in an obsessive search for the titular statue. It begins with a visit to his office by Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). She claims her sister has run off with a man named Thursby. Spade’s partner Miles Archer tails Thursby but ends up shot dead later that night. Then, Thursby is killed in front of his hotel. The police suspect Spade getting revenge for his partner’s death which puts the gumshoe in a situation where the clock is ticking. He eventually meets an eclectic cadre of fortune seekers like Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who desperately want this bejeweled bird and reveal secrets Ruth would rather have stayed quiet.
If you have ever seen a serious noir detective story or the multitude of parodies out there, you were experiencing the resonance this film has had on pop culture. Sam Spade is THE archetypal detective both in his look and persona. He never breaks a sweat, even when he’s backed into a corner. Spade is a survivor always ready to think his way out of a bad situation or, if that doesn’t work, punch & shoot his way to safety. On his own, Spade is a decent protagonist, but it’s the juxtaposition of his cool as ice character against the supporting cast that makes the film pop.
Joel Cairo is just one of the best-introduced antagonists in movie history. Before we see him, we are given information about him (“he smells of gardenias”). It’s obvious that Cairo is coded as gay at a time when American cinema wouldn’t let a character be explicitly homosexual. He is not a villain because he’s gay; he’s a villain because he’s greedy and decides to work with nefarious parties. His affectations give Cairo dimensions beyond just a flat obstacle in Spade’s way. Cairo is very charming at moments and doesn’t seem to hold any grudge against Spade. The two pull guns on each other multiple times, but Cairo seems happy to chat away with the detective in moments of calm.
Then you have Gutman, played wonderfully by Sydney Greenstreet. Here we have the archetypal “big man” figure, both literally & figuratively. He doesn’t impose physical violence so much as a looming threat in the air around him. He appears reasonable on the surface, sharing tea with Spade, wanting to negotiate on the surface. Of course, we see the real Gutman, doping the tea, palming money he offers as payment, etc. Marvel Comics’ Kingpin is inspired by this character, as are so many “big boss” figures in popular media.
The Maltese Falcon is such a beautiful, satisfying film predicated on performance. The plot is pretty simple when you boil it down but what keeps the audience invested are the actors. Everyone has such a robust understanding of who they are playing, and it comes across as deceptively effortless. Part of this is also John Huston’s meticulous planning. He reportedly planned every single second of the film through storyboards and shot-by-shot instructions for himself in the shooting script.
Almost nothing was cut from the final film because he honed the writing down to its most essential elements. The Maltese Falcon was shot in sequence because of this planning, something very unprecedented. The cast was so happy with his handling of the picture and keeping with his shooting schedule that they could have free time in the evenings to socialize together. Even with all of this efficiency, the picture includes some elaborate sequences, including an unbroken seven-minute take. John Huston made sure he made his mark on American movies with his debut. The bar was set high and left many wondering if he could match it again.