The Maltese Falcon

This prototypical _film noir_, which saw rookie director John Huston adapting Dashiell Hammett’s only Sam Spade detective novel, was the last movie I watched in 2010. Warner Home Video’s recently released Blu-ray version had been calling to me from the depths of my to-watch stack, and anyway it’s always been one of my favorite movies — immaculately designed, evocatively photographed, and easy to watch but also spiky, morally complex, and ultimately unsettling. Humphrey Bogart is so beloved a figure in American film history that it always catches me a little off-guard to realize that the superficially charming character he’s portraying here isn’t the dedicated moral crusader that convention might lead one to suspect. Arguably, he’s rather a glad-handing sociopath.


In that, _The Maltese Falcon_ really does right by its source material. Hammett’s novel was a profoundly ambiguous piece of work about unsavory characters in pursuit of an oversized knick-knack. His terse, descriptive prose detailed the investigation of a layered mystery without giving readers many clues to its gumshoe protagonist’s inner life. Sam Spade is a smart guy and a tough guy for sure. He knows how to handle the police, and he can sniff out thieves and liars like a bloodhound retrieving a dead bird. But here’s the thing about Spade: he takes an unseemly pleasure in his near-superhuman ability to exploit the failings of the mortals around him.
When a swell-looking dame (Mary Astor) shows up at his office identifying herself as Miss Wonderly and laying down a couple of big bills to have Spade’s partner Miles Archer tail a man named Thursby, Spade knows she’s trying to hoo-rah him, but instead of calling her a liar he strings her along with a gusto that eventually crosses into sadism. His brusque final-reel dialog with Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy represents one of the most brutally sarcastic dismissals of a woman in film history — “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck” — pumped up with phony righteousness and male privilege and, most of all, the crazy twinkle in Bogie’s eyes.
That scene smarts, brimming over as it does with Spade’s justifications, calculations, and self-examinations. He looks to be having a better time when he’s merely sticking it to the younger companion of criminal Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), an ineffectual gunman named Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) whom Spade calls a “gunsel.” Fun fact: the word _gunsel_, a derivation of a Yiddish word for _gosling_, was street slang in Hammett’s day for a young gay man. Hammett chose the word in a successful attempt to sneak the reference past his editor at _Black Mask_ magazine, where _The Maltese Falcon_ was originally serialized, and it has been misunderstood, by both fans and practitioners of crime fiction, ever since. Once Spade’s language is understood as explicitly gay-baiting, his grandstanding emasculation of both Wilmer and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who is also depicted as conspicuously effeminate, gets an unpleasantly homophobic edge. “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it,” Spade declares before asserting his raging manliness by smacking the living shit out of Cairo. It’s a very funny moment, and also a supremely cruel one. It remains truly shocking today.
Need further evidence Spade is a bit cold around the heart? Check out his muted, utterly practical reaction when informed of the death of his partner. Mainly, he responds by making sure Archer’s name is promptly scraped off the windows at the office. His demeanor in this regard may be mitigated by the detail that he’s currently banging Archer’s wife, Iva, but in all honesty he hasn’t much use for her, either. (“When a man’s partner is killed,” he tells Brigid, “you’re supposed to do something about it,” but it sounds like he’s just trying to convince himself of something.) It’s a very happy accident that Spade finds himself aligned with the interests of law enforcement at the end of the film, since he seems fully prepared to throw his lot in with Gutman’s gang as long as there’s enough money in it for him. (He comes off best if you’re willing to believe — SPOILER ALERT! — that he tweaks early on to the fact that the black bird is a fake that won’t make him rich no matter where the cards fall. But I don’t buy it. As Gutman is laying hands on the artifact for the first time, there’s an insert shot close on Bogart’s face, where his excitement and anticipation are unmistakable. In the retention of this single shot, which could so easily have been left on the cutting-room floor, Bogart and Huston both reveal their thinking: Spade, too, expects this parcel to be worth a fortune, and has smartly bargained for his small share of it.)
Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in <em>The Maltese Falcon</em>
No, despite his ultimate claims to the high ground, this is not a pleasant man — probably among the most morally compromised characters ever to be (mis)understood as a good guy by generations of film fans. Maybe Hammett really did see Spade as something of a white knight in a trenchcoat. I don’t know. But there’s a real genius in the way Bogart’s performance shades the character, just as the powers of a great interpreter are evident in the way Huston massages the material as he adapts it for the screen. (This is only Huston’s first film?!) Some of the more unsavory bits from the story have been elided, but the deep, implacable nature of Spade’s all-seeing private eye, always looking out for number one, is intact.
It’s a hell of a movie, and it looks great on Blu-ray. The advantage of the high-definition transfer isn’t as pronounced here as it is on some other HD releases of older, black-and-white films, such as the preternaturally gorgeous versions of _The Seventh Seal_ and _The Third Man_ (the latter sadly out of print, replaced by an inferior, grain-reduced release from StudioCanal and Lionsgate). I suspect that Warner has used some judicious grain-reduction techniques that ensure a soft-textured image, although fine detail from the original 35mm elements does not seem to have been compromised. (Indeed, it’s easy to tell when an individual shot is a little unfocused or otherwise diffused.) I’ve never seen _The Maltese Falcon_ projected in 35mm, but I have seen other films from the era (such as _Casablanca_), and this transfer seems to be on target for a film of the period, grainwise. Casual viewers will probably consider the DVD to be adequate, but discerning film fans will consider this a desirable and — thanks to Warner’s sane pricing policies — affordable upgrade. I haven’t sampled any of the extra features, but in this case the film itself is more than enough.

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