Back in late October of 2016 I reviewed Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel “The Maltese Falcon.” To describe the review as highly enthusiastic would be an understatement. I raved about the book. Well, I’ll almost repeat the performance for John Huston’s film. There are differences, of course. And if you had read the book before seeing the movie you’d feel that both Bogart and Astor were physically miscast. But the movie on its own merits is superb.
John Huston based the movie quite faithfully on Hammett’s book. Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, one half of the San Francisco based private detective firm of Spade and Archer. He’s also his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva’s former lover (now that’s a complicated sentence!).
The story opens up with Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, announcing a new client, Miss Wonderly (played by Mary Astor). Wonderly starts telling a tale to Spade and also Archer as he walks in during the story. The story is a fabrication about a make-believe teen-age sister who has been spirited away cross country by a real gangster named Floyd Thursby. Spade and Archer agree to tail Thursby in return for some also very real hundred dollar bills that Wonderly pays them.
Archer is shot and killed during his surveillance and this begins a sequence of events that involves Spade in a confusing search for the truth about a globe-trotting quest to obtain the legendary Maltese Falcon. We meet corpulent Caspar Gutman played by Sidney Greenstreet, who is the ringleader behind the search. Then there is Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, a mincing effeminate who sometimes works for Gutman and sometimes doesn’t. There is Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s young triggerman who would rather shoot his opponents than negotiate terms. And finally, we have the good cop/ bad cop duo of Detective Tom Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy. They show up at strategic moments to inform Spade that he is everyone’s favorite suspect in several murders.
The exact details of the plot are too much fun to spoil so I won’t go into much detail but suffice it to say there really aren’t any innocent parties involved unless you include Effie Perine. Wonderly, which isn’t the last fake name she’ll go by in the film is up to her neck in the crimes but she becomes Spade’s femme fatale in the story. Spade is a ruthless but strangely honorable character who lives by his own logic. The criminals (almost everyone) spend the entire movie double-crossing each other in various iterations. They all prove, with some prodding from Spade, that there is indeed no honor among thieves. But the plot moves along smartly and by the end all the loose ends are neatly tied up and Sam Spade is sort of the last man standing. Bogart even gets to apply an ironic tagline to describe the futility of the whole mad enterprise.
When I said that Bogart and Astor were physically miscast it’s because in the book Spade is described as a tall muscular blond-haired man. Bogart is none of those things. And in the book Mary Astor’s character is a woman in her twenties which at the point when this movie was made could hardly describe Astor. Regardless, they make the characters their own. And especially Bogart’s Spade is iconic and basically defines the Sam Spade character for most of the people who have heard of the Maltese Falcon. The rest of the cast is also excellent. Greenstreet and Lorre are so interesting and memorable that at certain points in the movie they push even Bogart out of the spotlight.
If you’ve never seen the Maltese Falcon then shame on you. In fact, if I had my way people would read the book first and then watch the movie. But this is a fallen world we live in. So, I guess I’m already asking too much to recommend a black and white movie. Highly recommended.