“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.”
Over its century or so of existence, film has created a few genres that are personified by specific character archetypes and one or two particular actors who made those archetypes their own. The classic western had John Wayne, while the neo western had Clint Eastwood. The 80s action movie had Arnold Schwarzenegger. The earliest romantic screwball comedies were all about the flighty and infuriating, but charming and endearing whirlwind that was Katherine Hepburn. When it comes to the film noir gumshoe, there’s one name that instantly takes the title. Humphrey Bogart. And one of the movies most responsible for that reputation is, The Maltese Falcon.
As the opening title crawl says, “In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels—but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day”. Cut to present day (1941) San Francisco, and private eye Sam Spade (Bogart) receives a visit from Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Her sister ran off with a man named Thursby, and Ruth wants Sam, and his partner Archer (Jerome Cowan), to find them.
When Sam wakes to a late night phone call telling him that Archer has been found dead, the plot begins to thicken, and it does so for the next 90 minutes until it turns to molasses. Suspicious of Ruth from the get go, Sam finds her and demands the truth. A visit from the gun toting Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) fills Sam in on some of the actual truth. Ruth, now known as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and Thursdby were actually caught up in the search of the golden falcon of the opening titles. Working for Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), they’re all playing Sam from different angles.
Maybe learning from the perplexing, non sensical plot mistakes in The Big Sleep, John Huston’s screenplay stops down every half hour or so to remind the audience where everything’s at. Whether it’s Sam demanding answers from his latest antagonist, or getting an ally up to speed, we get regular dumps of exposition to make sure everyone’s up to speed. That’s the kind of thing that should be clunky and bring the movie to a screeching halt. It also goes against the golden movie making rule of show, don’t tell. But when that exposition is being delivered by the likes of Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre, it’s surprisingly compelling.
While Bogart might be the centre of attention, and totally deserves it, as I watched The Maltese Falcon this time around, I was more blown away by John Huston’s work. A bit part actor, but mainly a screen writer throughout the 30s, The Maltese Falcon was his first crack at directing. And to be able to handle a story this intricate, dense and convoluted on his debut, and to do it so well, is an impressive feat. So while this movie might be what cemented Humphrey Bogart as the quintessential movie PI, it’s John Huston who I was thinking about as the end credits rolled.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to How Green Was My Valley)
Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet nominated, lost to Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley)
Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated, lost to Here Comes Mr Jordan)