A good argument could be made that The Maltese Falcon is Humphrey Bogart’s best film. It’s a movie that seems to get better each time I watch it and has earned its recognition as a film noir classic. It’s also a film featuring two notable firsts. This was Sydney Greenstreet’s first feature film and it was John Huston’s directorial debut. Huston also wrote the story which is based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. It’s said that Huston extensively planned everything in the script, even to the most minute detail. It certainly shows. The movie is smart, well written, and deftly made.
Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco private investigator. He and his partner Miles Archer (played by Jerome Cowan) meet with an attractive new client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who hires them to help find her missing sister. Archer volunteers to follow her as she meets with Floyd Thursby, an acquaintance of her sister. Later that night Spade receives a call that Archer has been murdered. Spade weaves through a gnarly web of lies and an assortment of shady characters to find that it all revolves around a priceless statuette of a bird covered in jewels.
Bogart wasn’t Huston’s first choice to play Sam Spade, but after George Raft turned down the part Bogie was brought in. This was the beginning of a great friendship between Bogart and Huston that spawned many other wonderful films such as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The African Queen”, and “Key Largo”. Bogart’s performance is simply brilliant and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Mary Astor gives a strong performance and sets the table for some of Bogart’s best lines in the film. Toss in the terrific Peter Lorre and Greenstreet, both of whom add their own flavors to the story. Also keep an eye out for a cool cameo from Walter Huston, John Huston’s father.
The film’s is also helped by some fine cinematography. The movie features some crafty camera work, low-level lighting, and use of shadows which adds to the picture’s mood and tone. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson plays around with the angles and camera locations which give the movie a cool, sleek look. It’s a technically sound and stylish movie and Huston’s accomplishment is really profound considering this was his first picture.
The Maltese Falcon epitomizes what high level filmmaking and storytelling is all about. Bogart’s performance became the model for other film noir detective roles and the supporting cast is nothing short of brilliant. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards but it’s contribution to filmmaking can’t be measured by that alone. This is a true cinema classic and it should be considered mandatory viewing for any fan of the art form. And despite being over 70-years-old, “The Maltese Falcon” still hits every beat.
VERDICT – 5 STARS