In an apartment close to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett wrote perhaps the best structured of all private-eye novels. The Maltese Falcon originally appeared as a five part serial in the pulp detective magazine Black Mask in 1929. In 1930, the book was published & became a best seller. It has remained so since then. Cards on the table, I am not generally a fan of old films. The acting styles, set designs, plot artifices, and production values usually do not attract me. But there are some exceptions. One such was Casablanca. (Casablanca)another of these is the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon – its ethic and philosophy of life is directly relevant to men today, and is worth repeated viewing.
In the 1940s, a new genre of film began quietly to make an appearance in Hollywood. It was a hard-bitten type of film, born both of the cynicism and dislocation of the Depression & Second World War. This genre—which later came to be called film noir—came to be defined by its embrace of the following themes, in one form or another:
- Men are prisoners of their nature. No matter how hard you try, you can’t escape your past or your character.
- Crime sometimes does pay. Even when it doesn’t, the temporary thrills are worth something.
- Women are unstable and inherently untrustworthy.
- Most people lie or are treacherous.
- A man must live by a code of honour, despite all the crookedness swirling around him.
- Alienation from society is the inevitable consequence of living by a code of honour.
Film buffs tell us that first of the genre was John Hustons’ production of The Maltese Falcon (1941). This film set a standard that few of its descendants have matched. It is truly remarkable : a misanthropic, dark meditation on human greed, the futility of effort, and the consequences of betrayal. In many ways, it is more of a stage play than a film. It is claustrophobic and oppressive, with all of the action taking place in hotel rooms and offices. Every character is either corrupt, an opportunist, or a liar, and their scheming machinations add to the oppressive atmosphere. Everyone is trying to screw everyone else; only Sam Spade, played wonderfully by Humphrey Bogart, is able to convey some sort of stoic honour.
The plot: An apparent damsel in distress (Mary Astor) visits private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to ask for his protection. Spade’s partner Miles Archer gets shot in the back while working on the case. The cops, apparently aware that Spade had had an affair with Miles’s wife, finger Spade as a murder suspect. Spade is visited by a series of strange characters: Joel Cairo (masterfully played by Peter Lorre), the sinister Gutman (a sixty one year old Sydney Greenstreet in his first film role), and even his client Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), who proves to be a mistress of deceit. Everyone is lying, everyone is concealing something, and everyone is trying to screw everyone else. Slowly, the connections between all the characters are revealed. They are all engaged on a joint quest to find a precious artefact, a jewel-encrusted statute of a falcon, once in the possession of the Knights of Malta. Spade is seemingly doubtful, and apparently is motivated only by money. Or so he wishes everyone to believe. Feelings between him and Mary Astor begin to develop. Or do they? The conclusion of the film is what enables it to rise above the cheap conventions of the standard crime drama. The quest for the precious statue turns out to be an illusion, a fools’ errand that brings its seekers only misery. It is the essence of the futility of effort, which would become a pervasive noir theme. The cops turn out to be deluded, corrupt fools. The male supporting characters are scheming sociopaths. The only female character turns out to be a lying, manipulative murderess.
When Spade discovers that his partner had been gunned down by the woman he loves, he must put his allegiance to his moral code above his amorous impulses. “When your partner is killed,” Spade growls, “You’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t matter whether you liked him or not. You’re supposed to do something about it.” Your comrades and your code are more important than your physical gratification. It is a lesson lost on the modern day simps, manginas, and soy boys. “You’re supposed to do something about it.” And he does. Despite all the rottenness of the world, despite all of its corruption and evil (or maybe because of it) a man of honour must be true to his own code. He must do the right thing in the midst of all the iniquity, in spite of all the swirling malevolence around him. Only this stoic courage is able to give life meaning.
Although I describe the film in bleak terms, I have to say that it’s tough to top “The Maltese Falcon ” for entertainment. The dialogue crackles, the plot is confusing but intriguing, and, most of all, it is loaded with pure, unrefined cool, most of it coming courtesy of Bogart. He’d perfect his onscreen persona the following year with “Casablanca,” but the Bogey we know and love is pretty much fully formed in this film. All he’s lacking is the sentimental courage lurking at his core that we see in “Casablanca,” but that nobility really wouldn’t work in the seedy world of 1941 San Francisco. What this film required was a smooth but tough operator fuelled by cynicism, and in Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade, that’s what it gets.
Bogart had been kicking around Hollywood since the end of the silent era, playing mostly low-rent criminals in films starring Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. But it was as Sam Spade — someone at least nominally on the right side of the law — that he made his mark. Spade is in almost every frame of “The Maltese Falcon,” and he drives it relentlessly – but effortlessly – , playing the other characters off each other and deceiving all of them to achieve his own ends. One of the most entertaining things about “The Maltese Falcon” is that it’s a film about people lying to each other, and surely THE most entertaining thing is watching Bogart lie, repeatedly and enthusiastically. Watch any random minute — when Spade flirts with O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) or pretends to explode in fury at Gutman (Greenstreet) — and you can see why Bogart became not just a film star, but a cultural icon.
The Maltese Falcon has much to teach about life and human nature. As we go through life, we quickly find out that peoples’ motivations are usually not altruistic; that many women do rely on cunning and guile to manipulate men; and that most other men are craven and corrupt. The only safe refuge, apparently, is to adopt a patina of detached irony. Spade shields himself from the evil of the world by his tough-guy exterior, but beneath that, we could say that he is a profoundly moral man. He sets things right with the case, avenges his fallen comrade Miles, and exposes the statute of the bird for the phoney it is. Sam Spade is indeed a man of honour, if a flawed one.
This is a film that bears frequent viewings. Its message resonates just as loudly today as it did in 1941 : Be sceptical of the world, and on your guard with strangers. But never – ever – abandon yourself to despair, or your soul to amorality.
Onward… Kind regards
© DJM 2018