The quintessential catalyst for any film-noir lover even if it isn’t my favourite of the sort. John Huston’s directorial debut was a remake of all things, and as a matter of fact it was the third film to be made from Dashiel Hammett’s novel of the same name and it remains the best known of all of them for good reason. Yet it also started a director-acting partnership between Humphrey Bogart and John Huston which would only go on to create more classics as they went on – achieving success one after another. All of it comes back to The Maltese Falcon for even if it is not their finest it is certainly one to be remembered through the years.
Although this was not the first film to have been made with the source, many traits that would come to become so easily recognizable for film-noir are exposed even within the bare bones of how John Huston crafted them in his version of The Maltese Falcon. The hard-boiled detective in a frustrated Sam Spade, the femme fatale as played by Mary Astor, soon to fall into a web of lies that only further complicate the path for our characters and set the mystery afoot. The basic ingredients for film-noir are ever present in The Maltese Falcon but the fact that it may have been the film to have lay apart what we have come to know within future films of the sort isn’t the only reason it remains so important.
John Huston’s mise-en-scene never feels like it is the work of a directorial debut, whether it comes down to how specific scenes are shot or lit – for every last background detail adds more to the strength that lies in the atmosphere that we have all come to love from the best of classic film-noir. Huston always kept a certain cynicism all around that ultimately set in motion what had ever kept these stories so compelling whether it be from how he constructs their character arcs or the core of the mystery altogether, that is where Huston knew so well already how to work so seamlessly with whatever material he was given. He may not have created film-noir on the spot but he has certainly defined it for generations that were set to come through The Maltese Falcon.
At its core, the characters who end up getting caught within this web of lies are all people who carry traits of suspicion. Sam Spade is never a character who is made clear whether one should root for him especially upon knowledge that he dislikes his partner but he is always one our eyes are peeled on as Humphrey Bogart turns into the antiheroic figure he represents, just as Mary Astor’s alluring presence also carries shade in her trail. Yet for how much these two lead into the deceit set to come forward, Peter Lorre’s role is another critical performance that the film could not ever find itself doing without. Peter Lorre’s role is a fine middle man to the mystery only to be dragged in and Sydney Greenstreet also shows within his screen debut at his age the bare bones of what made such dialogue so tasteful: the fact that unlike the other adaptations of the novel, it was a direct translation of its source. It was soon enough when Bogart, Lorre, and Greenstreet would all reunite for Casablanca but in here they set promise for what lies ahead.
Yet as the motives are unearthed, that is where the beauty of film-noir finds itself uncovered at the same time – there’s a certain flair to which it leaves even a resolved image unclean because The Maltese Falcon‘s ending only hints toward what may come of Sam Spade based on actions symbolized through motion. Whether it be from camera movement or the lighting of certain scenes, or just the general direction of events, Huston’s decision to move along and put fate aside in favour of what such characters have been driven to go for as a result of the mystery we have been watching only set in tone a greater cynicism at hand for it soon makes itself as seedy as a criminal lot for it feels rooted within the environment alone.
The Maltese Falcon isn’t my favourite film noir but it certainly remains one of the most important ones for on a technical level it has achieved what many more should be following along. At the same time, it is also important on the count it started a string of classics directed by John Huston that would star Humphrey Bogart – a pairing that still ever remains unrivaled now as it did back in its day. Bogart knew from his posture how to carry the arc of an antihero through Sam Spade and through his career he had only allowed that to shine through the many seedy characters that he has played, with The Maltese Falcon only being one amongst many. Essential viewing on all counts.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by John Huston
Screenplay by John Huston, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Produced by Henry Blake, Hal B. Wallis
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet
Release Year: 1941
Running Time: 101 minutes