RogerBW's Blog

The Maltese Falcon 24 July 2021

1941 noir, dir. John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor: IMDb / allmovie. So for a third time the dame hires the private eye to find her sister, who ran off with a man…

And this of course is the one that got everything right. Almost everything. Like the 1931, it stays close to the book, borrowing large chunks of dialogue, though of course censoring things that wouldn't pass the Code. But John Huston, directing for the first time, has the sense to realise that the things you imply can be much more powerful (because your audience is not made up of the innocent lambs that the censors want them to be) than the things you actually show.

So maybe this Spade sleeps with a lot of women, and maybe he doesn't, but (and this contrast is especially clear having seen the two earlier adaptations) he isn't performative about it, he doesn't need to try it on with every woman he sees. So when he does, with Ruth/Brigid, it means something.

Meanwhile Huston and Arthur Edeson have been listening to the German exiles, and rather than the realistic palette of greys in the earlier films everything is BLACK or WHITE. When you turn on a light, it makes more shadows. And Huston has subtlety in his direction: Brigid's expression when Spade is calling the cops on her confederates; the way Wilmer the patsy subtly sneaks out while the others are having a serious discussion, but framed so that the viewer will notice even though it's plausible that the others don't… there's a very specific skill here.

Meanwhile Bogart takes Spade and makes the part his. He didn't have a great range, but he did the thing he did superbly well.

And I think I'm probably in love with Peter Lorre. He is just utterly perfect here. I'm not going to object to Greenstreet, but Lorre just nails every single move, every mannerism, every word.

All right, the noir private eye story should be about honour, and there isn't a dilemma of honour here. Yes, on the one hand, she killed Sam's partner and you don't let that go (and this is the only version of the film that even uses that speech from the book). But on the same hand, it's quite clear that sooner or later she would inevitably use Sam to push herself to a better place, just as she's used all the other men she's ever been involved with, and they both know it even if she isn't admitting it. So it isn't a hard choice for Sam; the alternative to dobbing her in is not "happy ever after" but "a few weeks or months of fun then being found dead in a ditch or sent to the chair". So that part's not quite as effective as it could be. (But the book makes the same misstep.)

Roger's Guns Corner, which I forgot to say in the podcast: there were several models of Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver, the major ones being the 8-shot .38 (as used in the book) and the 6-shot .45. They never made an 8-shot .45 as in the dialogue here. But it's still a really mechanically interesting weapon. On the other hand they last made the things in 1925, and there were probably a lot more of them around in 1929 when the book was written than in 1941…

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

  1. Posted by Robert at 03:32am on 25 July 2021

    Agree on all counts.

    Mild trivia I’ve always enjoyed is that Captain Jacoby is an uncredited appearance of Walter Huston, the director’s father.

    Reading the book adds in the Flitcraft Parable. I’ve always wondered if Bogart and Huston could have worked that story into the movie. I like to think they could, it’s the romantic in me.

    Perhaps M needs to feature for Ribbon of Memes.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:53am on 25 July 2021

    It could have been effective in suggesting that, unlike Flitcraft, Spade could change – but this is a remarkably tight film and I'm not sure it would have improved matters overall.

    I'm always up for some Fritz Lang…

  3. Posted by Robert at 05:02pm on 25 July 2021

    May I also recommend the “Goy’s Teeth” section of the movie A Serious Man for a bit that gave me some of that Flitcraft Parable vibe.

    And if you are looking for a book to throw in with the ideas, Joe Gore’s “Hammett” was a read I enjoyed.

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