THE MALTESE FALCON

The Birth of Hollywood’s Original Noir Anti-Hero

Like few other actors, Humphrey Bogart ruled the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s – epitome of the handsome, cynical and oh-so lonesome wolf and looking unbeatably cool in his fedora and trenchcoat, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth; endowed with a legendary aura several times larger than his real life stature, and still admired by scores of women wishing they had been born 50+ years earlier, preferably somewhere in California and to parents connected with the movie business, so as to have at least a marginal chance of meeting him. The American Film Institute elected him the No. 1 film legend of the 20th century; and looking back, indeed no other actor seems to have been surrounded by the same kind of darkly magical aura as the one surrounding Bogart.

The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston, based on Dashiell Hammett‘s eponymous 1930 novel and itself also ranking in the top quarter of the AFI’s list of the 100 best 20th century movies, laid the groundwork for Bogart‘s lasting image, by transforming his on-screen persona from the tough, often two-dimensional gangsters he had portrayed before; beginning with the 1936 adaptation of Robert Sherwood’s Petrified Forest where, like in its 1934 stage production, Bogart had starred opposite Leslie Howard, with Bette Davis as the female lead. Now imbuing his tough guy shell with a softer core, in The Maltese Falcon Bogart became not only Hammett‘s Sam Spade but, moreover, the film noir anti-hero per se; a role that stayed with him throughout the rest of his career, and in which he still remains virtually unparalleled.

The movie’s long-famous story centers around the mysterious statue of a falcon made from solid gold, diamonds and other precious stones; the 16th century Maltese Knights’ immeasurably precious gift of thanks to Emperor Charles V for the protection he had granted them. Stolen by pirates, blackened on the outside in order to conceal its true value and passed on through the centuries by a number of unsuspecting possessors, it finally attracts the attention of two rivaling pairs of equally cunning, ruthless and high-flying scoundrels, who chase each other and the statue halfway around the world and finally end up in Sam Spade’s San Francisco office – not without getting both Spade’s partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and one of their own killed in the process; thus also causing additional grief for Spade, whom the police soon suspect of being behind the murders himself – or at least behind that of Archer – in order to make off with Archer’s widow Iva (Gladys George). And of course, it doesn’t exactly help that he has had his office sign changed from “Spade & Archer” to “Samuel Spade” within mere hours of his partner’s death.

Looking at the movie and its stars’ almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, this was originally just one of the roughly 50 films released by Warner Brothers over the course of one year. But mass production didn’t equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score and the stars’ presentation in the movie itself and in its trailer, was as responsible for its lasting success as were Humphrey Bogart and his outstanding costars; first and foremost Mary Astor as the double-crossing and now partner-less Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (in their first of several appearances opposite Bogart) as Joel Cairo and Kaspar Guttman, O’Shaughnessy/Astor’s competitors for possession of the precious statue, and Elisha Cook Jr., as Guttman’s rough but inept bodyguard Wilmer Cook. Genre-defining and the first truly giant highlight of Bogart‘s career, The Maltese Falcon is an unmissable piece of Hollywood history, captivating you from the first moment you spend in Sam Spade’s office all the way to its cynical conclusion, and a thrill to watch over and over again.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1941)
  • Director: John Huston
  • Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis
  • Screenplay: John Huston
  • Based on the novel by: Dashiell Hammett
  • Music: Adolph Deutsch
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Arthur Edeson
Cast
  • Humphrey Bogart: Samuel Spade
  • Mary Astor: Brigid O’Shaughnessy
  • Gladys George: Iva Archer
  • Peter Lorre: Joel Cairo
  • Barton MacLane: Lt. of Detectives Dundy
  • Lee Patrick: Effie Perine
  • Sydney Greenstreet: Kasper Gutman
  • Ward Bond: Detective Tom Polhaus
  • Jerome Cowan: Miles Archer
  • Elisha Cook Jr.: Wilmer Cook

 

Major Awards and Honors

American Film Institute
  • Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 1 (Humphrey Bogart)
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 23
  • Top 10 Mystery Films – No. 6
  • Top 100 Thrillers – No. 26
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 14th: “”The stuff that dreams are made of.” (Sam Spade)

 

Links

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