The Maltese Falcon (1941) | Movies to See Before You Die

The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon

There’s a lot more to like about The Maltese Falcon than the seemingly effortless, brooding, weary-yet-endlessly-attentive cool of Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade. That’s the iconic part. Bogart leaning back in the chair in his office. Lit cigarette dangling from his lips, he listens with rapt attention and occasional witty remarks to whoever is talking to him. Bogart made it look so good and so easy, it’s tempting to accuse him of not really acting at all. I’ll subscribe to the old notion that the truly great ones just make it look that way. Bogart was a good actor who found range and depth despite a distinctive, trademark voice and style. The Maltese Falcon is an example of this, with Bogart’s Spade as more than just the central figure in a tense noir about murder and naked greed.

Cagey, a little ruthless, and possessing a streak of substantial empathy for at least some of the people he meets, Sam Spade was already a famous literary character in 1941. I’ve read the Dashiell Hammett novel a couple of times, the humor and detail shaped by a man who himself had worked as a Pinkerton in the 1910s and 20s. The screenplay by director John Huston (his first, an astonishing debut) keeps everything that makes the book so readable, despite constantly buzzing with new characters and plot developments.

You never get lost in the information in either the movie or book. It’s easy to keep up, even as the story twists and turns, with Spade soon getting involved with a trio who have their souls set on obtaining a statue known as the Maltese Falcon. Film noir is always soaked in some sort of desperation. It bleeds out of its protagonists and antagonists alike, and even becomes part of the shadows and odd angles of light in which these criminals, losers, and grey hat heroes.

Bogart’s performance is that of a guy working with sly humor and the understanding that he must stay a few steps ahead of these people to survive. The Maltese Falcon could have that element and be just fine, but it wouldn’t work as well as it does if Spade wasn’t playing off phenomenal actors and actresses like Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cooke Jr. and the Oscar-nominated Sydney Greenstreet. Noir is at its best when every character is motivated, clever, and ruthless, and perfect performances by all of these people and others never lets us forget these people are part of the story.

There’s a reason why The Maltese Falcon is considered one of the best of its kind, and by many to be one of the best movies ever, period. One of the first 25 films chosen by the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1989, the film is just fun to watch. These are all story elements and tropes that still connect to audiences of all ages. It was easy to fall in love with this movie when I saw it for the first time at 15.

Just about everything in The Maltese Falcon can play exactly as it did in 1941, and it will still be an entertaining ride. Well-acted, beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Arthur Edeson, and clever in every way, The Maltese Falcon proves that some movies are truly timeless.

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