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The Maltese Falcon
Reviewer: Richard Tara
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick

In my list of movies, this is one of the best ever. An original story by Dashiell Hammett, a great director, John Houston, and a cast of great actors; Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cooke, Jr. and Peter Lorre. A movie that will never stale and could not get much better.

The Story:

The story is about the hunt for an ancient statuette of tremendous value and the greediness of people trying to get their hands on it.

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), and his somewhat flakey partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) own a small detective agency. It's a small outfit and they just about make a living out of it. They have a nice looking secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) who is devoted to Sam, but Sam does not seem to notice her as a woman. He is having an affair with his partner's wife Iva Archer (Gladys George.)

A woman (Mary Astor) walks into the office one day, calling herself Ruth Wonderly and claims her sister and her boyfriend, a Floyd Thursby, are missing and asks for help. They agree to help her. That night, Archer and Floyd Thursby are killed. Sam is accused by the police of being implicated in the murders.

The strange woman, Mary Astor appears again, stating that her name is really Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and knows nothing about the murders. She claims that she is really after the Maltese Falcon and pleads for Sam's help. Sam, who is attracted to Brigid, agrees to help her.

Sam discovers that there are other players in this game and they are all looking for the Falcon. A very fat smooth talking criminal Kasper Gutman (the Fat Man) played delightfully by Sydney Greenstreet and his vicious side kick Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.) are also after the trophy and so is an effeminate crook by the name of Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre.)

Initially, they try to drug and kill Sam, but eventually ask for Sam's help. Meanwhile, Sam has his own ideas for finding out the real murderer and getting the heat off his back. He eventually presents the Maltese Falcon to the bevy of crooks, but there is disappointment and double crossing in one of the most tense moments of this movie!

Direction, Acting and Cinematography

The Maltese Falcon was a remake of an earlier movie made in 1933 starring Ricardo Cortez. The new version was John Houston's first movie as a director. He first offered the role of Sam to George Raft who, stupidly, refused it.

To make this movie a success, John scripted every scene by sketching it and sharing it with his actors. This was not the norm in those days. What is more, he shot the movie in sequence of events. Usually, different parts of the movie are shot and then the director makes the final cut by splicing them together to follow the script. Some directors shoot the end of the movie first! By shooting the movie in the sequence of the story, the actors could follow the story line naturally. This was one of the reasons for the success of the movie. It all jelled together.

Black and while cinematographers only had three shades to work with. Dark, light and grey. Therefore, they became masters of shadows, deep focus, and narrow lights to bring the story to life. There was no wide-screen technology (Cinemascope, VistaVision etc) and the director and the cinematographer had to fit the story to the limitations of the 35 millimeter aspect ratio of 4 by 3 which is still a standard on many movies. Arthur Edeson was the director of photography in this film and the other Humphrey Bogart classic, Casablanca.

Humphrey Bogart was a versatile actor who zoomed to stardom and was a major motion picture actor in the 40's, through 60's. His portrayal of Sam is deft. Sam Spade is not a hero; he is a flawed character who has no qualms about seducing his partner's wife. He did not commit the murders, but he has no hesitation to pin the blame on others to get the police off his back. It is hard to believe that, only two years earlier Bogart had played a vampire in the horror flick, The Return of Doctor X. Two great movies, in succession, The Maltese Falcon followed by Casablanca established him as an international star.

The movie would not have been such a masterwork without Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman. This was Sydney's first movie and he made a string of other movies before an early retirement due to poor health. He had many fans and they even nicknamed the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb “Fat Man” after his character in the movie. He was one of a kind! Peter Lorre, another talented actor who often appeared as offbeat sinister losers was Joel Cairo. He had been in the movies since the 1930's. Elisha Cook Junior appeared as Kasper's bodyguard and maybe the object of his sexual affections. At least according to an interview that I read several years ago. Elisha was a wonderful character actor specializing in playing, weirdoes, losers and pathetic characters. To the best of my knowledge, he never played a straight role. The movie would not have been so great without any one of these fine actors. It was an once-in-a-lifetime gathering of talent that fit the spot perfectly. The original Maltese Falcon pales in comparison to this masterpiece.

starstarstarstarRecommended for all.