What have we got here? Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the prototypical hardboiled detective? Yes please!
The Maltese Falcon is pretty much the iconic noir tale, and since noir is a genre that hasn’t had it’s day in Genrely Speaking yet I’ll take just a moment to define that term for you. Noir is a story that examines what the world would be like if everyone lived for their own self-interest, entirely without restraint. The one exception tends to be the protagonist, who has something that resembles a moral code, even if it’s not one that would make him welcome in everyday society. Needless to say, most noir stories take place on the seedier side of life. So with that said, what makes the Maltese Falcon such a prime example of this genre?
Let’s start with Sam. He’s not a nice guy, he’s quite rough around the edges. He shows respect to Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) when she shows up in the office of his detective agency, but we quickly learn he has no qualms about playing around with his partner’s wife and when that partner turns up dead Sam has no qualms about taking over the business entirely. He does stay away from the wife after that, and sticks with the job he’s taken until the end, although part of that is simply because he knows he’ll never make it in the business unless he actually helps find his partner’s killer. Failing to do some things can ruin your reputation entirely.
He also lies to everyone he meets, is ruthlessly cruel to a young, headstrong thug he meets in the opposition and fights like a man possessed.
On the other hand – he does the job. He does stick with it until the end, makes sure all the crooks he meets are arrested and put in prison at least for a while, and finds his partner’s murderer. He does all this in spite of the fact that, for at least half an hour of the film, it’s fairly clear he’s stopped planning on getting money out of the deal.
And you know what? That’s really what makes this movie entertaining. Sam Spade got a raw deal, no getting around that. His partner took a job that was a little fishy, got killed and left him holding the bag. Every person – everyone – that Sam tangles with is lying to him and may be out to kill him. He has to tangle with Peter Lorre as a rival (and that’s just creepy). And when it’s all said and done, he’s still broke.
There’s something classic there. It’s not the clean, glorified kind of heroism we might like to see, but there’s a truth in it that we can’t always appreciate. Sometimes it is hard to see through all the lies, sometimes we don’t know who’s playing straight with us, sometimes we are too tired and too roughshod to handle the people around us kindly. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right thing to do, no matter how hard it is to see, and doing it will leave us feeling right, even if there’s no other reward in store for us.
The Maltese Falcon is also the debut movie performance of Sydney Greenstreet. His performance will delight you, although you will have a hard time articulating why. Don’t worry, Greenstreet is always like this.
There are a lot of classic tropes in The Maltese Falcon, to the point where listing them all is best left to some other website. Even if you don’t enjoy noir or crime dramas, it’s worth watching the movie just to see them executed so well. Best of all, the story is timeless. It could easily unfold in some shady dockside district in America today.
So go watch it! And let me know what you think.