The Maltese Falcon: John Huston’s seminal detective film noir turned Humphrey Bogart into an icon of cool

John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon(1941), is a trendsetting private eye\Noir classic that turned Humphrey Bogart, who played the role of  P.I. Sam Spade, into an Icon.

It’s a cold December night(or rather early morning) in San Francisco. The windows in Private detective Sam Spade’s bedroom is open and we see cool breeze rustling the window curtains. Suddenly the phone rings, breaking the silence of the night, and Sam is awakened from sleep. He picks up the phone and receive some bad news: His partner, Miles Archer, who was tailing a client, has been shot dead. We don’t see Spade’s face as  he is out of the frame. We just hear his voice, But from whatever we hear, we realize that he is surprised, but not very concerned with his partner’s death. He then calls his secretary and asks her to break the bad news to  Archer’s wife . He tell her not to get ‘too excited’ by Archer’s death  and specifically asks her to  keep Archer’s wife ‘away from him’ .  Next we see him reach the spot where Archer is lying dead. He looks at the corpse, he banter with the cops and tells them just enough about the case that he and Archer was pursuing, and nonchalantly walks away. Throughout these chain of events, Spade’s temperament; walk, talk, body language, facial expressions,…  remains absolutely cool.

This is Sam Spade, as Played by Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s movie adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, “The Maltese Falcon”. Very rarely does one get such a perfect marriage of actor and character. Sam Spade is one of the coolest characters ever in detective fiction .Bogart is of course the classic  studio era star\Actor who stamps his personality on the character he is playing. But if one looks at Bogart’s persona , screen presence and his acting style and compare it with the character that Hammett created, then it is hard to make out where the actor stops and the character begins. An actor becomes a star when he gets a good role to showcase his talent, But when an actor gets  a role that’s  so perfect for him – as with  John Wayne in Stagecoach or  Bogart here in The Maltese falcon – then  he becomes an Icon. Humphrey Bogart is  the coolest movie icon ever and this coolness accounts for his  enduring popularity .

Humphrey Bogart was a unique movie star in many ways. He always carried an aura and attitude that made him as immune as a bullet proof vest, Both physically and emotionally. He was perfect for the new type of hero that emerged during the time of World war II in those Noir films and dark crime dramas. I don’t know whether “Falcon” was the first Noir. Perhaps there were a few before or made at the same time as this. But this film set the template for the films to follow.  Sam Spade became the prototype for the new kind of ‘action hero’ and Bogart’s cool, Hard-boiled portrayal will inspire not only other Noir heroes but  everyone from Lee Marvin in Point Blank to Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. Bogart was in the mold of a typical Warner Bros star; who are not conventionally handsome .who looked and felt very working class, very street. But Bogart possessed a certain amount of sophistication that James Cagney or Eddie Robinson did not have. This combination of streetwise and sophistication made him perfect for his iconic roles like Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe .He moved very fast, He  talked very fast – spitting out words like bullets from a gun, there is a scene in the film where he asks ‘ Am i going too fast for you, or are you getting this down‘ -, his body language was abrupt, you always get a sense of a man who was always on the move; tough , cynical, hard boiled, one who will get the job done, no matter what the obstacles.

Coming back to Sam Spade. He is the typical Film Noir hero. A guy who basically has a moral center, but does ( or has to do) morally questionable things to get by in an immoral universe . Spade is a true professional who protects his client’s interests and keep going no matter what. He takes the death of his partner in his stride. He realize that it’s part of the profession. No sooner Archer is dead, Spade has his furniture and his name removed from the premises of the firm. He wryly describes his partner as someone ‘with ten thousand in insurance, no children and a wife who hated him ‘  When Spade is held at gun point by the crook Joel Cairo played by Peter Lorrie. He just grabs the gun and beats him up. When He is drugged and beaten up by Two other crooks, Sydney Greenstreet and henchman Elisha cook Jr. He just gets up ,Washes his face.  straighten his coat and tie and get on with his pursuit. But he is also the guy who  wouldn’t mind having an illicit  affair with his partner’s wife. He always has that moral ambiguity. But He will do the morally correct thing in the end. As Spade demonstrates here; Spade doesn’t flinch as he coldly hands over his lady love- who murdered his partner- to the law. But this moral ambiguity he displays throughout the film elevates the suspense as to whether or not he will do the ‘right thing’ at the end. This is one of those instances of ‘character’ driving the ‘plot’ that John Huston and Bogart does so spectacularly well in the film and the main reason why this film is a cut above the rest.

The film surrounds Bogart’s Spade with three different groups of characters. First, the women: There are three women in his life. First is Effie, his secretary, His ‘Girl Friday’, the go to girl for everything, who is more his pal; Second is Iva Archer, his partner’s wife, with whom he is having an adulterous affair; Finally there is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who is the ‘femme fatale’ of the piece. Extremely beautiful, sensuous and weak on the outside, but quite immoral and tough as nails; who relishes the power she possesses in controlling the men around her. Her relationship with Spade will become the prototype for the relationships between the Noir hero and the femme fatale in subsequent films; Stanwyck and McMurray in Double Indemnity, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past or Claire Trevor and Powell in Murder my Sweet; Where the woman swears undying love for the hero and get him (or try to get him) to commit immoral acts for her. Where the viewer and the hero are not sure whether her love is true or not. It’s a classic love-hate relationship, where either the femme, the hero or  both end up dead. But She is not your average vamp , who is totally evil , but a  more complex character .She has a humane side and more often than not she is genuinely in love with the hero,  as Mary Astor who plays O’Shaughnessy is here, Just that her primary concern is her own survival and she is unscrupulous in her methods to achieve that. The way Spade treats his women is also interesting. He addressee  them with titles like Precious, Angel, darling and one-true-love. Its a mixture of affection and sarcasm. He looks uncomfortable in his relationship with his  partner’s wife Iva and the moment his partner is dead,  his fascination with her is over. The relationship with Brigid is more complex. He see through her femme fatale ways pretty early and realizes that her blushing schoolgirl act is just a façade. But  by the end he does genuinely fall in love with her (or so it seems). which makes his final decision to handover her to the police, extremely heartbreaking.

Then there are the crooks consisting of Mr. Guttman played superbly by the 62 year old Sydney Grenstreet, who was making his big screen debut, Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo and Elisha Cook Jr’s Vilmer. All three characters have a gay undercurrent and seems to be in ‘love’ with Spade.  Cairo is more overtly gay in his demeanor and speech. while Guttman has his share of fey manners. Vilmer is repeatedly referred to as Guttmen’s ‘gunsel’ by Spade. Spade’s treats all three with disdain. As seen in the above clip, he ruthlessly beats up Cairo whenever he gets the chance  and spits out the famous lines like “When you are slapped, you’ll take it and like it’. Finally there are the cops, who always come in pairs, the good cop & Bad cop. Played respectively by Ward Bond and Barton Maclane. A private eye is always the thorn in their flesh (and vice versa). so there is always conflict . The conflict is finally resolved with Spade doing the lawful thing at the end. He hands over the criminals as well as the titular ‘criminal’ artifact  to the cops. It is to Ward Bond that Bogart mouths the immortal final words ‘The stuff that dreams are made of‘ to describe the Falcon.

The Maltese Falcon was director John Huston’s debut film as a director. he had already made his reputation as a writer and had recently written “High Sierra” which proved to be a breakout role for Bogart. Bogart at that time was lying at the bottom of the heap at Warner Bros; ranked below stars like Raft, Robinson, Cagney and Paul Muni. Raft was the original choice for the role , but he didn’t want to do the film with a debutante director so he passed and the role went to Bogart. Huston and Bogart were good friends and Huston had always wanted Bogart for the part. Huston would say later that Bogart surprised him with his performance during every moment of the shoot. His understanding of the character was extraordinary. Bogart is present in every minute of the 100 minute movie – except for one scene where Archer is shot – and literally carries the film on his shoulders.

The film will showcase some of the pet themes of director Huston that he will go on to explore more deeply in his future works. His films mainly deals with a ‘Quest’ of some sorts, where the lead characters’ external journey to find something mirrors his internal journey to find himself. It’s absolutely true for The Maltese Falcon, where Sam Spade’s quest for finding the eponymous artifact will take him on a journey deep into himself. The final ten minutes of the film showcases this theme, and the acting talent of Bogart to the fullest. As Bogart, in his typical fashion, spits out the sentences  – “i will not play the sap for you,… you’re taking the fall,.. when you’re partner is murdered you are supposed to do something about it,..”. etc . It’s really the point where we see the vulnerable, moral heart of this tough cynic. We also see the acting dynamite that Bogart is, which is not very obvious as it lies  hidden under his cool style and attitude. Huston turned out to be the perfect director to unlock that and “The Maltese Falcon” the perfect material. Naturally, Huston and Bogart would go on to become one of the greatest Director -Actor combos in Movie history, spawning such classics as The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo and The African Queen- for which Bogart would earn his lone acting Oscar.


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