I absolutely love the Maltese Falcon as a film. Which makes sense since if I loved it as an adhesive I’d be out of my mind. But I’ve always had a deep fascination with Film Noire mystery films circa the Humphrey Bogart era of detective periods. And to be honest, can you blame me? There is something about the 1930’s and 40’s pulp era that overflows with storytelling potential.
You have the boundaries of science being pushed with the likes of The Manhattan Project, you have major innovations in air travel allowing countless cultures who were otherwise separate to mix and interact on a level they hadn’t previously, that and you have the wake of the Prohibition era to make your imagination rife with mob stories. Christ, is it any wonder so many superheroes like The Shadow, The Phantom or countless others saw their advent here? You have a time period where you could have strange science, mystic arts, and crime politics happen in a single story logically. Well… okay, I wouldn’t use the word logic that liberally in this case.
Man, I’d love to set up a continuity in this time period, one where you have a guy exploring strange lands and an urban superhero who’s friends with another lead character who’s a scientist exploring the boundaries of… What was I talking about again?
Maltese Falcon, right!
Well okay, the film kind of feeds into that argument. It has so many of those set pieces, a treasure from a strange land, a chase across countries, criminals trying to outmanoeuvre one another through shady deals and backstabbing and a murder mystery to spring it all off. God I love this film! It manages in the first ten seconds to give you a set up conflict, completely reveal it to be a bait-and-switch and only a prelude to a larger crescendo of lies and mistrust.
And the best part is? If you watch the film closely, you can kind of see these things coming. I don’t mean you guess them but the film is shot to actually convey through camera angles (on a subconscious level anyway) which characters are not to be trusted and that’s supplemented through the amazing acting.
Puts guys like Michael Bay out in the minor leagues doesn’t it?
The thing is I’ve watched other Film Noire films like The Big Sleep and the evolutionary offspring of the Film Noire genre: the now formulaic crime dramas on TV. All with labyrinthine plots about whodunit and yet somehow, The Maltese Falcon stands above them all. Why?
Well, my theory is that on top of the brilliant acting, memorable and unique characters (including a female lead whose acting makes you believe she’s SATAN INCARNATE) and a rock solid story, the focus of the story isn’t the murder mystery at all; the focus is the titular Falcon and the effects of greed.
Now at first that might seem obvious considering that it’s the titular figure but also puzzling that much of the plot doesn’t even focus on the murder in the first act. In fact it’s treated as a minor point really, given not much notice until the final moments of the film when the protagonist Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) reveals the true identity of the killer. Don’t misunderstand me; despite how the film treats the murder as a secondary concern the revelation, confrontation and resolution are among some of the finest moments of acting and scripting in film.
Despite this the majority of the film is an examination in the effects of greed and how it corrupts people despite pretences they may put forward to mask it. The palette is so diverse that it makes the characters all the more memorable from Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) with her web within web of lies so deeply woven we can only guess at the true malicious nature of her character until the Falcon is within her possession when we see a cold, hard calculating mind willing to sacrifice any life to possess it. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) portrayed as a man of lavish comfort and eloquent speech, gives the impression of a simple procurer of antiques and yet his methods and the untold bodies in his way slain by his personal gun for hire bely a much more violent streak capable of discarding allies at a moment’s notice.
Even Sam Spade himself is not immune to the Falcon’s corrupt touch in the film. When he at last has the item in his possession, beholding a statue of such value that people have betrayed, stolen and killed to acquire he is granted a sensation of triumph that matches his numerous enemies.
When The Maltese Falcon became the quintessential Film Noire movie, defining so many characteristics of the genre, many have imitated it (through parody or otherwise) focusing their story on the mystery rather than larger thematic ideals. However, in doing so they neglect that which makes it that amazing piece of film. As I understand it, pirate movies had the same problem of fixating entirely on stealing treasure until Pirates of the Caribbean gave us diverse characters and conflicting motivations and deeper character conflicts on top of it.
If it seems as though, in the writing of this, I’ve skimmed quite liberally over the details of this film where normally I would spoil them and give you clear warning The Maltese Falcon is one of those few films that I feel should be enjoyed with as little foreknowledge as possible, free of speculation and with a fully open and ready mind. I truly believe, despite what studies say to the contrary, that the film’s first viewing should be experience without any foreknowledge of it. But don’t let that dissuade you, you shall watch it again.
And so too does this work exist.