Wednesday, February 17, 2010

“The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”

You can’t discuss film noir without The Maltese Falcon coming up. Its simply impossible. Released in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart leading the way in what has been called the "First" film noir.

The San Francisco detective firm of Spade & Archer gets a new client, a “Miss Wonderly,” who hires them to trail a man who ran off with her sister. Then things get complicated when Archer gets shot dead, “Miss Wonderly” hires Spade to protect her from whoever shot Archer, and a trio of criminals come looking for a mysterious enamel covered statue of a falcon worth millions that was once a gift from the Knights Hospitaller to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Sam Spade: Humphrey Bogart nails it in his first heroic leading man role (before that he was usually playing tough guy villains), and everything he does is awesome as Spade. Tough, smart and a magnificent bastard who’s damn good at maneuvering through the bad situation he finds himself in, Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Hell, he’s not even a “good” guy, since he was having an affair with his partner’s wife, and he doesn’t even really like her. Doesn’t matter. Two minutes in and you can tell he’s the biggest badass of the picture. Its like the trailer says, "he makes crime a CAREER -- and ladies a HOBBY!"

Brigid O’Shaughnessy: Mary Astor (who led a notoriously…colorful personal life) is a classic femme fatale here. She hires Spade & Archer under a false name to follow a man named Thursby, then reappears after Archer is shot, seeking Spade’s help to protect her from people that might kill her. Then its revealed that she’s got a very strong connection to the black bird that everybody’s after.

Miles Archer: Jerome Cowan is in the film long enough to provide some motivation for Spade to do something about his death. Archer’s a lech himself, ogling our femme fatale from the minute he walks into the office.

Iva Archer: Gladys George is basically Sam’s baggage. After Miles’ death, she kind of expects Spade to jump right on in. Instead, he tries to avoid her at all times, which leads to some bad feelings on her side.

Effie Perine: Lee Patrick is Spade’s fantastically competent secretary. Sharp, competent and frequently going the extra mile to help her boss out, she’s pretty much the only real friend Sam’s got in the world.

Joel Cairo: The always awesome Peter Lorre plays a cultured, effeminate (he’s clearly homosexual in the novel, but, well, 1940s cinema shied away from that stuff) foreigner who’s willing to buy the falcon from Spade, but would prefer to hold him at gunpoint and search the office for it. Cairo’s a classic henchman.

Wilmer Cook: Elisha Cook Jr. is the other henchman in the movie, a tough talking, gun toting kid who is constantly being called out and taunted by Spade. He doesn’t take it well.

Kasper Gutman: Sydney Greenstreet is awesome as the affably evil “Fatman” who approaches Spade about the bird after Cairo fails to find it. He’s certainly dangerous, but also surprisingly jolly for a man who’s had several people killed in pursuit of that statuette. Watching the game of wits between him & Spade is one of best things about the movie.

Detective Lieutenant Dundy & Detective Tom Polhaus: Barton McLane & Ward Bond are the two cops investigating Archer’s death. Polhaus is generally willing to back Spade up, but Dundy has the detective pinned as the prime suspect.

John Huston, who had a hell of a prolific career as a writer and actor, made his directorial debut with this movie, and damn did he come out swinging. Shot on a low budget, the polish of this film is outstanding. Camera angles and shots are iconic and efficient and the movie races along at an incredible pace. Every scene matters, and every scene works. Its absolutely incredible.

Original novel by Dashiell Hammett & screenplay by John Huston, the story hews closely to the novel. Dialog is sharp, the characters well defined (almost archetypal, considering this was the “first film noir”). Nothing is wasted, and the actors have some outstanding material to work with.

Adolph Deutsch’s score for the film is incredible. Big and orchestral flourishes that sidestep into some dissonance that undercuts the grimness of the storyline. Outstanding.

There is a reason why The Maltese Falcon has the reputation that it does. Simply put, its one of the best films ever made, where EVERYTHING that went into it is firing on all cylinders. The novel and the film were what got me into film noir back in high school, and if you’re looking for a way in, there’s no better place to start. If you haven’t seen this movie, do so now. And if you didn’t like it, get out of my sight.

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