The proof that some films are simply immune to satire or the wear and tear of time is fully contained in the sharp little diamond of cinema that is John Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. (Dashiell Hammett’s novel was actually filmed twice before, under the same title in 1931 and as Satan Met a Lady in 1936 with Bette Davis.) All the recognizable private detective flick elements are here, from the wisecracking P.I. himself to the femme fatale, scurrilous mugs who are too quick with their guns and too slow with their brains, and the McGuffin itself, a 400-year old statue of inestimable value. But even though these stock devices have become so well-worn over the intervening years with mockery or tribute, this remains a highly entertaining thing of beauty, done with skill and economy, not to mention smarts: none of which are things much in evidence today.
Smarts is ultimately what separates Bogart’s Sam Spade as clearly from the rest of the characters in Maltese Falcon just as it separates the film itself from most of its inferior imitators. Spade is the eagle-eyed watcher, a calloused and borderline morally indifferent student of humanity who seems to get his kicks tossing verbal banana peels out for the more dim-witted to trip themselves up on. He has plenty of opportunity for such sparrings, dropped as he is into a mess of scam-artists and treasure hunters violently turning San Francisco upside down as they hunt for a long-lost jewel-studded falcon supposedly once given by the crusading Knights Hospitaller to the Holy Roman Emperor in exchange for the island of Malta. The world around Spade — a sort of aloof knight errant in fedora and sharp suit — is one of manipulation and lies, stupidity, and the occasional cleverness dulled by unlimited greed.
First, the femme fatale Brigid (Mary Astor, hilarious in her obviously over-the-top deviousness) gets Spade’s partner Miles Archer killed. Then the cops come knocking down Spade’s door trying to pin another, related murder on him. A strange little man smelling of gardenias (Peter Lorre) comes bearing offers of cash, and when that doesn’t work, a gun. Then a corpulent fellow of great merriment and casual cruelty (Sydney Greenstreet) shows up to give Spade the full lowdown on the Falcon, and when money doesn’t serve as enticement, drugs him.
Spade remains aloof from all this at first by his lack of knowledge — everyone assumes he knows more than he does — but very quickly by playing each individual off of each other. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that Spade carries off with aplomb, hiding out from Archer’s not-so-grieving widow (she and Spade were having an affair), feeding the cops just enough to placate them, and playing divide and conquer with the money-hungry treasure hunters. Bogart’s Spade is able to pull all this off not just through his smarts (‘Ms. Spade didn’t raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, and an assistant district attorney and a stenographer’) but through his relative soullessness. Archer’s death seems barely to faze him, with the body barely in the ambulance before Spade is having the name on the office door changed, and he expertly plays Brigid even as she thinks she’s wrapping him around her finger. He’s the callous counterpart to the comparatively humane Philip Marlowe that Bogart would play in Howard Hawks’ film of The Big Sleep, moving like a shark amid a school of hapless fish.
John Huston’s direction is similarly sharp and jagged. The mise-en-scène is stripped clean, without the long shadows that would soon define film noir, but with the occasional spectacular flourish like Lorre caressing his walking stick with an almost erotic intensity, or all those shots of Spade from behind as he’s perched, bird-like, between two others. Huston moves the film forward with an economy almost unheard of in modern film, most every line of dialogue honed to a gleaming perfection (those two earlier films probably having helped weed out the weaker lines). It’s an appropriate approach for a film as cold-minded and cynical as this one, where the jokes are weapons, emotion and excess are weakness; as Spade says to one gunsel, ‘The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?’
The new Warner Bros. special edition release of The Maltese Falcon is a three-disc set containing an excellent new digital transfer of the film, both of the previous versions, vintage newsreels, documentaries, and a studio blooper reel. It’s also available as part of the Bogart Signature Collection Vol. 2, which also includes a good number of war films Bogie made.