The Maltese Falcon (1941)

*. It’s a movie full of deathless lines, one of the better known being Kasper (or, in the novel, Casper) Gutman’s “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
*. One of the reasons why it has so many great lines is because everyone in it likes to talk. Even Wilmer enjoys a bit of gaudy patter. Roger Ebert thought the whole film “essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes.” When Sam and Brigid arrive at Sam’s apartment at the end they are greeted by Gutman’s invitation to sit down and talk. He’s looking forward to it, and so are we. And in fact this entire final act of the film will take place in the one restricted set, and consist of nothing but the five principals talking. But is this something that anyone complains about?
*. What makes the dialogue so good? Yes, it’s snappy and well delivered, but it also has a dramatic urgency to it. Even on the phone — and there are a lot of phone calls — it feels electric.

*. If it’s a movie full of great talk it’s also one that’s full of great moments. Not big, showy moments, but lots of little things. Here are a few: the way Spade and Archer watch “Ms. Wonderly” root through her purse; the look of horror on Spade’s face as Joel Cairo enters his office; Wilmer with his hat pulled down so low that he keeps bumping into people on the street while tailing Spade; Cairo’s awkward attempt at a smooth exit from Spade’s apartment when the police come calling; the tears running down Wilmer’s face as he confronts Spade at the end, and the tears smearing Brigid O’Shaugnessy’s makeup as she looks at Sam, realizing she’s lost the game.
*. Just sticking with that last for a moment, was there ever a leading lady represented on screen in such a way before this? Not that Brigid doesn’t deserve it. David Thomson: “Huston never quite trusted women as characters.” Was this a way of putting Brigid in her place?

*. She has to be tough though, as she doesn’t really belong in the all-gay gang of bird thieves. Some people think this homosexual angle had to be toned down here (as opposed to the 1931 pre-Code Maltese Falcon), but I can’t see how it could be made more obvious. Brigid and Joel even get in a fight over a boy. I mean, really.

*. The gang are, of course, a trio of indelible creations. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything else like them. What I find so endearing about them though is their sheer incompetence. Spade delights in mocking them as “a swell lot of thieves.” Even the way they’re often photographed, from below, is sarcastic, making petty criminals seem like giants. Joel Cairo is just there to be slapped around (and like it!). Wilmer is only a “gunsel” (that is, a kept boy, not a gunman). And Gutman, for all his airs of superiority is just a two-bit grifter, not even above palming bills. Is it any surprise these losers got played by the Russian Kemidov in Constantinople? At least Huston sends them off on their next round of travels lightly. In the book and the 1931 film Wilmer turns on Gutman and kills him.

*. Lorre, Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr. are all terrific, but so are veterans Barton MacLane and Ward Bond as the pair of dour cops who get to show up and look unimpressed with all these shenanigans. The weirdos needed some balance.
*. The movie revolves around Bogart’s Spade however, who is in every scene except the one where Archer gets shot. Bogart was actually the second choice for the part, however. And while I don’t think George Raft would have been nearly as good, I think he might have worked pretty well. I can actually see him in the part.
*. It came out the same year as Citizen Kane, both films being directorial debuts. Obviously neither Welles nor Huston went in to the business as complete neophytes, but the results are still astounding. That something like that could happen is one of those things that would seem to say something about filmmaking. I think there’s a certain level of inspiration and energy you have when you’re just starting out that is something special.
*. I could go on, but I don’t want to because it’s not that much fun talking about a favourite film, and I would probably rank The Maltese Falcon in my top three, most days. It’s smart, quick, and no end of fun. What’s more, it plays as lively today as the first time I saw it. I don’t think I see a lot more in it now then I did then, but I enjoy it just as much.

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2 thoughts on “The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  1. Tom Moody

    In the era of nonstop whammies and CGI sludge, a film that is “essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes” seems to be a lost art. Quentin Tarantino may be the only person doing this today, and I’m not sure if that’s good!

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, I think it was also Ebert who called Pulp Fiction a movie about people talking. I certainly enjoy the dialogue in Tarantino’s early movies. More recently, not so much. I don’t know who does it really well today. Like you say, it may be a lost art.

      Reply

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