|Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade|
Filmed twice before, Director John Huston's version of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, makes the first two efforts pale in comparison. It is simply one of the best films of its genre, and the film that solidified Bogart's stardom. Many consider it one of the first Film Noirs, but I don't classify it as such. Yes, it has a femme fatale, but you never seriously believe that Bogart as the protagonist is in real danger or in trouble. And it lacks the shadowy photography that I associate with the best noirs. Still, it set the bar high for entertaining detective films that followed for the next fifteen years or so.
It's hard to find fault with the film. Precise direction, a genre-defining script, stellar cinematography, and one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled; it's a great story of intrigue. Bogart may star, but the memorable collection of eccentric villains is what makes this so much fun to watch. Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film) plays the rotund Kasper Gutman; Lorre is the effeminate Joel Cairo; and Astor the beautiful femme fatale. A dedicated bunch--Gutman has been chasing the falcon for 17 years--they are more dangerous than they appear. Still, the group seems slightly out of their element, and we can't help but like them for it. Of course, Spade will outwit them all by the end.
In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels——but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day——[
Gutman employs an inept underling, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), who thinks he is a tough guy. Spade's interaction with this character is one of the joys of the film--he continually gets the upper hand of the punk. Cook is one of those frequent character actors who enhances every film he's in, seemingly without effort. His best decade is the 1940's where roles included Lawrence Tierney's sidekick in the brutal Born to Kill, and again with Bogart in The Big Sleep. But his most memorable performance is as a stubborn Southern homesteader gunned down by Jack Palance in 1953's Shane. Here he plays Gutman's muscle, and not so subtle "boy." Wilmer does Gutman's dirty work, and is in fact a murderer, but he is no match for a professional like Spade, The detective is dismissive, calling him a gunsel, slang for homosexual.
|The stuff that dreams are made of.|
The film was among the first named to the Library of Congress' National Registry in 1989. Oscar nominations included for Best Picture (it lost to John Ford's How Green Was My Valley), Best Script, and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet). As a testament to its popular longevity, it is likely the most famous role of several of its performers: Greenstreet, Lorre, and Astor. As for Bogart, his signature role came just one year later, as Rick in Casablanca, the first film in which he received an Oscar nomination.
Author Hammett says of his character:
Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.