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Saturday Night Cinema: The Maltese Falcon

4

It’s back to what I love most for tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic, film noir. The Maltese Falcon is one of the most influential noirs — as well as a showcase for Humphrey Bogart at his finest. In this noir classic, detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets more than he bargained for when he takes a case brought to him by a beautiful but secretive woman (Mary Astor). As soon as Miss Wonderly shows up, trouble follows as Sam’s partner is murdered and Sam is accosted by a man (Peter Lorre) demanding he locate a valuable statuette. Sam, entangled in a dangerous web of crime and intrigue, soon realizes he must find the one thing they all seem to want: the bejeweled Maltese falcon.

Dashiell Hammett’s detective classic The Maltese Falcon is suspenseful, labyrinthine, and brilliantly cast.

After two previous film versions of Dashiell Hammett’s detective classic The Maltese Falcon, Warner Bros. finally got it right in 1941–or, rather, John Huston, a long-established screenwriter making his directorial debut, got it right, simply by adhering as closely as possible to the original. Taking over from a recalcitrant George Raft, Humphrey Bogart achieved true stardom as Sam Spade, a hard-boiled San Francisco private eye who can be as unscrupulous as the next guy but also adheres to his own personal code of honor. Into the offices of the Spade & Archer detective agency sweeps a Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor), who offers a large retainer to Sam and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) if they’ll protect her from someone named Floyd Thursby. The detectives believe neither Miss Wonderly nor her story, but they believe her money. Since Archer saw her first, he takes the case — and later that evening he is shot to death, as is the mysterious Thursby. Miss Wonderly’s real name turns out to be Brigid O’Shaughnessey, and, as the story continues, Sam is also introduced to the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and the fat, erudite Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut). It turns out that Brigid, Cairo and Gutman are all international scoundrels, all involved in the search for a foot-high, jewel-encrusted statuette in the shape of a falcon. Though both Cairo and Gutman offer Spade small fortunes to find the “black bird,” they are obviously willing to commit mayhem and murder towards that goal: Gutman, for example, drugs Spade and allows his “gunsel” Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) to kick and beat the unconscious detective. This classic film noir detective yarn gets better with each viewing, which is more than can be said for the first two Maltese Falcons and the ill-advised 1975 “sequel” The Black Bird. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

A version of this review appears in print in the New York Times on Oct. 4, 1941 of the National edition with the headline:

‘The Maltese Falcon,’ a Fast Mystery-Thriller With Quality and Charm, at the Strand

By Bosley Crowther
New York Times,

The Warners have been strangely bashful about their new mystery film, “The Maltese Falcon,” and about the young man, John Huston, whose first directorial job it is. Maybe they thought it best to bring both along under wraps, seeing as how the picture is a remake of an old Dashiell Hammett yarn done ten years ago, and Mr. Huston is a fledgling whose previous efforts have been devoted to writing scripts. And maybe—which is somehow more likely—they wanted to give every one a nice surprise. For “The Maltese Falcon,” which swooped down onto the screen of the Strand yesterday, only turns out to be the best mystery thriller of the year, and young Mr. Huston gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field.

For some reason, Hollywood has neglected the sophisticated crime film of late, and England, for reasons which are obvious, hasn’t been sending her quota in recent months. In fact, we had almost forgotten how devilishly delightful such films can be when done with taste and understanding and a feeling for the fine line of suspense. But now, with “The Maltese Falcon,” the Warners and Mr. Huston give us again something of the old thrill we got from Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant melodramas or from “The Thin Man” before he died of hunger.

This is not to imply, however, that Mr. Huston has imitated any one. He has worked out his own style, which is brisk and supremely hardboiled. We didn’t see the first “Falcon,” which had Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in its cast. But we’ll wager it wasn’t half as tough nor half as flavored with idioms as is this present version, in which Humphrey Bogart hits his peak. For the trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school—a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos.

Perhaps you know the story (it was one of Mr. Hammett’s best): of a private detective in San Francisco who becomes involved through a beautiful but evasive dame in a complicated plot to gain possession of a fabulous jeweled statuette. As Mr. Huston has adapted it, the mystery is as thick as a wall and the facts are completely obscure as the picture gets under way. But slowly the bits fall together, the complications draw out and a monstrous but logical intrigue of international proportions is revealed.Much of the quality of the picture lies in its excellent revelation of character. Mr. Bogart is a shrewd, tough detective with a mind that cuts like a blade, a temperament that sometimes betrays him, and a code of morals which is coolly cynical. Mary Astor is well nigh perfect as the beautiful woman whose cupidity is forever to be suspect. Sidney Greenstreet, from the Theatre Guild’s roster, is magnificent as a cultivated English crook, and Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., Lee Patrick, Barton Mac-Lane all contribute stunning characters. (Also, if you look closely, you’ll see Walter Huston, John’s father, in a bit part.)

Don’t miss “The Maltese Falcon” if your taste is for mystery fare. It’s the slickest exercise in cerebration that has hit the screen in many months, and it is also one of the most compelling nervous-laughter provokers yet.

THE MALTESE FALCON; based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Screen play by John Huston; directed by Mr. Huston; produced by Hal B. Wallis for Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. At the Strand.
Samuel Spade . . . . . Humphrey Bogart
Brigid O’Shaughnessy . . . . . Mary Astor
Iva Archer . . . . . Gladys George
Joel Cairo . . . . . Peter Lorre
Detective Lieutenant . . . . . Barton MacLane
Effie Perine . . . . . Lee Patrick
Kasper Gutman . . . . . Sidney Greenstreet
Detective Polhaus . . . . . Ward Bond
Miles Archer . . . . . Jerome Cowan
Wilmer Cook . . . . . Elisha Cook Jr.
Luke . . . . . James Burke
Frank Richman . . . . . Murray Alper
Bryan . . . . . John Hamilton

The Truth Must be Told

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