The Maltese Falcon. Revered by film studies tutors across the land and often trotted out as (possibly) the first and one of the finest examples of a MacGuffin centred plot in cinematic history. Oh, and it could be said the definitive ‘Film Noir’ too. Here is Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet and Lorre. Here is the P.I., the femme fatale and the ‘Fatman’. Here is the classic story of detective tasked with finding the titular Falcon and the scum he meets along the way. Here is the debut of one John Huston.
Huston’s obsession with keeping the film under budget resulted in a near-fetishistic fastidiousness that produced an eye for detail rarely rivalled since. Every inch of the celluloid was mapped out months before being put behind the lens. With this film, black and white found its zenith, with very little room for grey. Those low angled shots remind us we are down in the dirt and this Blu-Ray release only accentuates those shafts of light across the face, now synonymous with the noir style.
Which brings us to the only fault with The Maltese Falcon; in being the archetype of its style, it has every single element of Noir contained within. To a new viewer, this could give it the ‘John Carter Effect’ of seeming to pastiche everything that came after it instead of realising this truly is the beginning of the art form. If that is the only thing to be found wrong with this, you can already guess at the star rating below.
The late 20s had seen the American public wolfing down all the pulp Dashiell Hammett could pen and this, the adaptation of his 1929 novel, would begin a similar cinematic gorging (a sequel was mooted, but never came to fruition). It’s not hard to see why. The film takes all the tropes of the classic gangster movie and, whilst never skimping on the violence or seediness, presents something slicker, more complicated. The only grey on show here is the blurring of Bogart’s honourable Sam Spade with a questionable motive. Mary Astor simmers. Peter Lorre plays, well, Peter Lorre, but is worth the price of admission alone.
Hammett had once worked for Pinkerton’s (the same ‘tec agency Felix Leiter would go to work for after his run-in with the shark, fact fans) and it’s this background of knowledge and Huston’s burgeoning genius that keeps the film's plot from becoming a twisty run-around.
Often found languishing at the bottom of top 100 lists (no mean feat), The Maltese Falcon deserves to sit on a perch somewhat higher than it does. It is a film that somehow started Film Noir and yet was also its peak. It is a film that should be beloved by all, not just Film Studies tutors.
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: JOHN HUSTON / STARRING: HUMPHREY BOGART, MARY ASTOR, GLADYS GEORGE, PETER LORRE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW