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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Retro Review: ‘The Maltese Falcon’

    In “Retro Reviews,” arts writer Andrew Conlogue discusses old-school movies that are still worth watching.

    It’s on the list of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies. Roger Ebert calls it one of the best movies ever made. It’s the directorial debut of perennial film titan John Huston and the star-making vehicle of that immortal fount of tough guy manhood, Humphrey Bogart.

    Even if that means nothing to you, you have to watch this movie.
    Under discussion is, of course, “The Maltese Falcon.” Adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammet (famous also for The Thin Man and its subsequent adaptation), this 1941 picture is actually a remake of two earlier films, one of the same name and the other, a comedic take on a decidedly not comedic story, called “Satan Met A Lady.”

    But the Huston/Bogart version towers above all its predecessors both then and now.

    The tale of “The Maltese Falcon” seems nearly as well trod as a passage of the Bible, but here’s a short retelling for those that aren’t familiar. Sam Spade, private eye, walks into his office one morning to find a beautiful dame in a heap of trouble. Next thing you know Sam’s partner, Miles Archer, is killed while working the case, and Sam’s double dealing with Archer’s wife Ida makes him a potential suspect. In search of answers, and hopefully his paycheck, Spade meets villains as sophisticated as they are slimy, takes a few hits and throws a few thoroughly quotable one-liners, and learns that dame is, as dames are, more trouble than she’s worth. And at the center of it all is a falcon statue from Malta, whose origins and incalculable worth are explained by a pleasantly quaint title card at the top of the picture.

    Sound cliché? Yes it does, but The Maltese Falcon just happens to be the film where all the detective story clichés were invented. Those old tired plot points are young and vibrant in this film, and you’ll find yourself buying into it almost as that first audience did, when this stuff was completely original. That extra layer of making those eye-rolling tropes feel new and exciting, is a vintage that only contemporary viewers can enjoy. Few films stay as good years later, but “The Maltese Falcon” might even be a little better.

    If corniness of any kind turns you off, though, make absolutely no mistake. “The Maltese Falcon” is a really dark movie. Life is hard and people are bad. Effie Perrine, Sam’s tomboyish young secretary, may be the only character that is not deeply flawed in an awful way. Of course there’s Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the most likeable but perhaps least admirable of them all. A tough man and little else, Spade’s true feelings, if he has them, are never really on display.

    Sidney Greenstreet, making his film debut as the portly villain Casper Gutman, purrs his way through a character that is refined and disgusting all at the same time. His sinister associate Joel Cairo is played by Peter Lorre, whose seductive creepiness is on full display and is as tantalizing and deeply uncomfortable as ever. Mary Astor plays Ms. Wonderley, the aforementioned dame, whose character, loyalties, and even name (hint: it ain’t really Wonderley) are all uncertain. She is likely the weakest link of the major players, though when paired with such cinematic heavyweights, this is obviously excusable.

    Of course, “The Maltese Falcon” is obviously a movie of a different time, with very different and stricter limitations in its production. Though it stays quite close to Dashiell Hammet’s work, the novel is a bit grittier. In the book, there’s more swearing, visceral violence and an obligatory sex scene between Spade and Wonderley — assets which are largely absent in the film.

    “The Maltese Falcon” accepts these limits, but it does so with style. The characters are a little more polite than they are in the novel, but it’s done in such a way as to also make them a little more interesting and a little more dangerous. Take one scene in particular, in which a frustrated Spade asks Wonderley why he should trust her when all she’s done is try to buy him with money. The girl asks what else she could buy him with, and in the novel it spins into a sexual conversation. We’ve all seen that before. What we haven’t seen is the movie’s interpretation, in which Spade, in answer to her question, kisses her, not gently, and doesn’t say a word. It’s one hundred percent censor-approved, but brimming with nuanced, dangerous, and electric sexuality. In today’s much more sexualized world, that would still be the thing a real man would do.

    Little flourishes like these could make the movie seem outdated, but instead manage to immortalize it as one of the best films of all time.

    The last line of the movie, delivered by Spade, encapsulates this feeling. Without giving away the ending (you’ll have to go watch it to find out), the last line might at first seem corny to the modern ear. However, it only takes a few seconds to realize that the line, much like the film, is bone chillingly cold, flawlessly timed, and besides all that, perfect.

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