Saw the Maltese Falcon again tonight on the big screen. Yes, it is a masterpiece.


NOTE: This review does contain a spoiler or two.

Sometimes one needs to see a great old film to appreciate why so many of today’s films don’t measure up.

The Maltese Falcon is a masterpiece. Humphrey Bogart IS Sam Spade and if you read the original novel you realize he was born to play this part. There are little things he does that nail Spade. He manipulates the action, pushes things to confrontation with genuinely dangerous foes, grins wickedly when he pulls it off — and his whole body shows shame when his cockiness almost got him killed. Look for times when Bogart used a clenched fist, a slightly trembling hand, or a weary look in his eyes convey Spade’s thoughts in scenes.

One of the brilliant decisions made by director John Huston was to shoot the film in sequence with almost no lines of dialog left on the editing floor. It seems like Spade is genuinely trying to work through a web of lies and murder because the filming schedule allowed him to do it that way.

Spade relentlessly pushes the action along, appearing in each scene. The viewer learns what is going on in the film as Spade figures it out. He plays other characters against each other, fractures their loyalties, and exploits their greed and distrust.

You believed him.

While the posters showed Bogart holding guns and implying that he would use them, Sam Spade never shot anyone in the film. His character jokes that he has little use for guns. He takes them away from others, humiliating them in the process. Spade’s weapons of choice are his mind, his carefully chosen words, sometimes his thick fists, untiring tenacity, and a street-smart toughness. He seemingly walks a tightrope between criminality and the law. He isn’t a cop and often butts heads with them. Yet, he has a sense of what constitutes justice and isn’t quite as shady as he lets others believe.

Spade isn’t noble or even moral at times. He is cheating with his partner’s wife — and then is cold to the widow when the partner is gunned down minutes into the film. It is clear he isn’t going to marry her, despite what she believes. Spade holds himself out as emotionally aloof to Brigid, but he is not above it all as much as he tries to appear. He just accepts pain as a given in his role as a seeker of truth. He is too smart to be fooled for long by anyone, but with his wisdom comes sadness. It means he may remain alone.

While flawed, Spade isn’t without a code that guides him. He is loyal to the truth and to his profession as a seeker of it. He is a bloodhound that will follow the scent to the end, no matter where it leads. It may lead to truth that is unpleasant to discover, but Spade will run it down. He will solve the killing of his partner, whom he actually despises, because that is what a detective does. He is not dishonest to his code, though he will lie and manipulate and even resort to the occasional act of violence if it gets him closer to the truth.

There isn’t a single bad performance in the film, a miracle considering that almost the entire cast was not the first actors picked for their roles. Sidney Greenstreet had never been in a film before being cast as Kasper Gutman. Mary Aster brings sympathy to a role where she is shown to be as villainous as the rest of the conspirators, but who says a bad girl can’t have feelings.

Just see the film and note the ingenious use of darkness and shadows and camera angles and closeups and the absolute economy of the story-telling. No word is wasted, no scene lingers a second too long. Even silence is used to great effect, such as the slow burns by Wilmer the Gunsel as Spade repeatedly enrages him in the film. He wants to kill Spade so bad he is emanating pure hatred, but Spade knows Wilmer can’t pull those guns because his boss won’t let him.

It was highly disciplined film making done on a shoestring budget by a director on his first film — and it was actually a remake of a novel filmed twice before! This was a small film, with few crowd scenes and almost all of the action takes place in a handful of rooms. There is one shot fired in the whole film (and we don’t know who pulled the trigger until much later), no car chases, violence is a single punch or kick that gets the job done, and any sex is implied and not shoved in our faces.

Few of the films made today will still draw an audience to the big screen more than 70 years later.

Just go see it. It is Film Noir at its best and sometimes bringing justice doesn’t mean a happy ending. Sam Spade does what has to be done, but it comes at a personal price. Does he love Brigid? Maybe, maybe not. The film lets it be a subject of internal conflict. In the end, it doesn’t matter. She killed his partner and is a generally lethal danger to any man who trusts her. Spade can’t play the sap. She is going over for it.

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