By Stephanie Star Smith
April 10, 2003
The Maltese Falcon is one of those rare films with which everyone is familiar, even those who have never seen it. Parodied and referenced by countless movies and television shows, Dashiell Hammett's tale of a hard-bitten LA private eye who tries to unravel the mystery of the black bird while tracking his partner's killer has achieved a reputation of mythic proportions. But what is sometimes lost in the legend is that, at its heart, The Maltese Falcon is an engrossing film noir about deception, murder and greed.
Prior to assuming the mantle of Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart had mostly played villains. Hammett's down-at-the-heels gumshoe who operates just this side of the law turned out to be a perfect fit for Bogie's gruff screen persona, and also helped in establishing the less-than-classically-handsome actor as a somewhat-unlikely romantic lead. Like the actor who played him, Sam Spade is a straight-shooter, the no-nonsense type who's loyal to his friends and deadly as an enemy. But Bogie also imbued Spade with an intelligence that Hollywood normally reserved for its more gentile snoops.
So why should you pick this up on your next trip to Blockbuster?
Where do I begin? With Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman? With Peter Lorre's weasly hired gun Joel Cairo? With Mary Astor's fetching Brigid O'Shaughnessy?
Maybe the best place to begin is with Humphrey Bogart. Sometimes it's difficult to separate the actor from the legend; there's a tendency to believe that icons from the studio era were creations of publicity departments and handlers, that there's no there there in terms of actual ability. And maybe in some cases that is true, but Humphrey Bogart is not one of them. We've become so familiar over the years with the look, the mannerisms, the voice that we sometimes miss the subtleties the man could bring to a role. There is a conviction to Bogart's portrayal that gives the film its strong foundation. Even the standard mystery wrap-up speech in Bogart's hands plays less like the all-knowing detective schooling the clueless audience than a stinging indictment of the evildoers and a meting out of justice by the wronged.
But this is not to slight the other wonderful characters in the film. After viewing so many parodies and tributes, it's fascinating to watch the original Fat Man, Sydney Greenstreet, in action. The jolly demeanor that hides a cruel and malevolent streak can be chilling at times, but his interplay with Bogart's Spade is among the highlights of the film.
Near the end of his life, Peter Lorre seemed to be forever parodying his role in Maltese Falcon. The nervous laughter, the slightly fey mannerisms, the oily ingratiation that masks a murderous intent. Those who only know Lorre from his later horror films will be surprised to see the marked difference in the actor's appearance before thyroid problems took their toll. This is just one more of the indelible characters Lorre created during his career, but it is possibly the one for which he's most remembered.
But the best reason to watch The Maltese Falcon is that it's a mighty fine detective story that manages to live up to its advance billing.