Monday, 11 January 2010

Movie Review - The Maltese Falcon (1941)

I don't know if the term film noir had been invented before The Maltese Falcon was released in 1941, but if it hadn't, it would have been necessary to create it just for this film. (If you don't know what film noir means, watch this film to find out!)

We decided last night to look at a classic, and selected this one. Humphrey Bogart is one of my all-time favourite actors and his portrayal of unemotional but honourable Private Detective Sam Spade is perfect. When a damsel in distress (Mary Astor) comes in with a case for Spade and his detective partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), it seems like a routine case of a woman with a secret, but when Archer is murdered and a set of criminal characters (well, three to be exact – Joe Cario [Peter Lorre], Wilmer Cook [Elisha Cook Jr.], and “The Fat Man” [Sydney Greenstreet]) turn up and show an interest in Spade and his newly acquired female companion, and in particular in something she’s not telling him, things start to hot up. Not only that but Archer's wife has fallen for Spade and the police suspect him of one (or possibly more) of the killings that have recently taken place… it seems that the only person Spade can really trust is his long-suffering secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick). Right up till the very end it's difficult to know who’s on whose side.

I know it’s too easy to give an acknowledged classic like The Maltese Falcon a top rating without really thinking about it, but this really does deserve not only it’s 5 stars (also given by all but one of the previous reviews here on Epinions) but also it’s 49th place in the all-time top 250 movies list over at the International Movie DataBase ( The plot builds up slowly, reaches boiling point, then calms down for a while before delivering a brilliant sucker-punch. The atmosphere is totally compelling and, while admittedly some aspects of the acting seem a little cheesy by today's standards and the dialogue-heavy scenes may seem hard work for modern viewers used to lots of action and little talking, this is a film that really hasn't suffered with the passage of time. It’s still brilliant entertainment (and the twist at the end is wonderful) and the class of the cast really shines through. I'm already a fan of Bogart but I was most impressed by Greenstreet's fascinating performance as Kasper Gutman, AKA “The Fat Man”. Peter Lorre gives an intriguing performance as a criminal who seems to have ambitions way above his station. Mary Astor also does well in her role.

The film signalled John Huston’s directorial debut and he does a fine job. Despite his distinguished career (including films such as Key Largo and The African Queen, where he worked again with Bogart, Moby Dick with Gregory Peck, the epic The Bible, and one of his last films, in 1982, the musical Annie) and working with other stars such as Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne, Peter Sellers, David Niven, and Orson Welles, he must have looked back on his first of 46 films with great satisfaction. Huston also adapted the novel by Dashiell Hammett for the silver screen. The only thing I might have changed is the very opening, which detracts from the impact of a later explanatory scene, but it's only a very minor grumble.

Overall this is a film that no serious movie fan will want to miss – though of course, if you're a serious movie fan, you’ll already have seen it! I'm reviewing it now since it was a long time since I saw it last, so watching it last night really reminded me of what a great film it is. (Also I've reviewed far too few black and white films so far!!) Definitely one not to be missed!

I do mention this film in my Top Ten Movies of All Time, albeit only briefly. There's another Bogart film in my top ten… perhaps not the most famous or critically acclaimed, but still my favourite. I recently posted my review of We're No Angels, which is my favourite Humphrey Bogart comedy.

This most famous version of The Maltese Falcon is certainly definitive, though the 1931 film wasn't bad. It is extremely faithful to the original plot and dialogue of Dashiell Hammett's novel, and all the better for it.

CaptainD - Movie Reviews Blog

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