Director: John Huston
Here is the ultimate Film Noir pick for murder mystery fans. In his directoral debut, John Huston created a landmark film that became the standard for all directors to follow. Huston's screenplay was taken from the novel by Dashiell Hammett and set the stage for a myriad of mystery movies for decades. Rapid fire dialogue, dimly lit sets, and gritty characters that are as flawed, and often as dubious, as the elusive Maltese Falcon, itself.
Bogart's Sam Spade is cynical, callous and complex. Here is a detective who tells lies easier than he speaks the truth and carelessly sleeps with his partner's wife. When the chips are down, however, Spade rises to a higher standard of morality than any of the film's other characters.
As an example, despite his admitted attraction to the sultry and seductive Brigid who has admitted setting up Spade's partner, Miles Archer, Spade coldly turns her in to the police, "When your partner is killed, you have to do something about it".
Despite the seediness and evil of the world, Spade obviously enjoys sparring with those around him, playing them off each other and setting the stage for elaborate crosses and double crosses.
At the center of the game is the black bird, the legendary Maltese Falcon. This priceless antique statue is encrusted with jewels that are disguised by a coat of black paint. The lure of possessing the Maltese Falcon has led the film's major characters on a cat and mouse game around the world.
A corrupt trio of treasure hunters find themselves in San Francisco in a frantic search for the black bird. Each is ready to kill or be killed to obtain the Maltese Falcon. Who will end up with the bird? The beautiful Brigid O'Shaugnessy (Mary Astor), the sniveling Joel Cairo (played to perfection by Peter Lorre), or the "fat man", Casper Gutman. Gutman is a complicated and corrupt villain who sends his minions out to snare Sam Spade in his unrelenting attempt to find the statue. Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at age 62, tries to alternately lure Spade to work for him or just to kill the detective to get him out of the way in a desperate charade that leads to death and deceit.
As the hard-boiled Spade, Bogart created a tough guy that few could match. He is always ready to take on the cops, hired guns and dames. Sadistic and self-assured at times, Spade also shows us that he is also vulnerable enough to be afraid of the dangers of the dark world he inhabits. When he survives a frightening encounter with Gutman by pulling his small frame up into a combative and intimidating tough guy, he storms out of the hotel and then, noting that his own hands are shaking, slowly breaks into a sly smile. It is the juxtaposition of hero and admitted coward, that makes Spade so complex and enduringly interesting.
Nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for the performance by Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon is a perennial favorite at vintage cinema retrospectives. In fact, its popularity has not dimmed over the decades since it's original release.
This is the classic detective movie. Hard hitting and fast paced and still as brilliant today as when it was released in 1941. Worth a viewing on any evening but especially on a dark and stormy night.