The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking: "Dan, I watched that in Intro to Film Studies and it was BORING." Well, you are WRONG. I mean, just look at this photo!

I'm sorry, but this happens to be one of the greatest films to emerge from the Golden Age of Cinema, if not of all time! Sure, it's black and white, and the actors talk all funny-like, and there is a LOT of talking (all funny-like), but this movie is responsible for so much. First of all, I'm willing to wager a hill of beans that Casablanca would not be considered what it is today (if it was even made at all) if this film did not launch Humphrey Bogart into the stratosphere. This was also actor Sydney Greenstreet's first film role (he had done only theatre) which landed him an ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATION. Director John Huston was also nominated for Best Writing, and the picture itself for a BEST PICTURE. This was also Huston's directorial debut, and the beginning of a collaboration with Humphrey Bogart which would span a number of features and nearly two decades until the legendary actor's untimely death in 1957.

Lorre and Bogart.

What this film has in spades (pardon the pun), is excellent characters, starting no less Humphrey Bogart himself as Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett's timeless private eye character. Spade drinks, hates himself, is not afraid to slap someone around (man or woman!) and has loose morals--but morals nonetheless. He, like so many subsequent Bogart characters, sticks his neck out for nobody, and despite his scathing wit and blunt honesty, hides a warm little bleeding heart of empathy. Spade is thrown into a convoluted plot of who's-good-and-who's-bad with Mary Astor as femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a woman who enlists the assistance of Spade and his partner Miles Archer. Brigid gradually leads Spade into an intriguing underworld of treasure hunters, led by the massive Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), and his greenhorn henchman Wilmer. In tow is Joel Cairo, played by the inimitable Peter Lorre. All, it turns out, are seeking the titular long-lost bejeweled sculpture that is rumored to have recently arrived in Spade's town, San Francisco.

I love how Greenstreet takes up the WHOLE frame.

What transpires are a few murders, deception, backstabbing, phone calls, hold ups, mysterious men showing up with packages, adultery, a little sexism, a couple of homosexual insinuations, one-punch knock-outs, and some brilliant dialogue. In fact, the dialogue is what drives this film. You could count the amount of locations and sets on one hand, and pretty much the entire last half of the film takes place in a single apartment. No, it's not for everyone, but the payoff I assure you is well worth it.

Miss Wonderly... or is that Miss O'Shaughnessy?

Aside from the impact The Maltese Falcon had on Casablanca (Greenstreet and Lorre both had very memorable roles alongside Bogart), it was also quite influential in the realm of film noir. Bogart's portrayal of Spade would immortalize him as a fast-talking hard ass with a heart of gold, and would also establish an archtypical detective hero of the film mode.

Astor and Bogart.

Perhaps what I love about it is the sheer effectiveness of it all. It's very theatrical, in the sense that many of the events are spoken of, but little are shown. The power of the word drives the narrative, hand in hand with the power of suggestion: a gun, a knock on the door, a piece of money, or an elevator door. This, to me, is filmmaking at its purest; interesting and dynamic characters, intriguing and unpredictable story, dialogue that tickles me pink, simple yet effective mise-en-scene, and all around smart decisions. Give it another chance. Pour yourself a glass or mug of whatever you're drinking and sit down for the 90 minutes and watch film history unfold.

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