Shortly after taking on the mysterious Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) as a new client, Private Investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) winds up in the crosshairs of the police and a couple of international criminals when his partner is murdered and he’s believed to be in possession of the bejewel Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon is often regarded as the first Film Noir. Like many of the so called “firsts”, it is as distinct from its eventual genre as Jaws would be from “summer blockbusters” or 2001 from “big budget sci fi” . The Maltese Falcon stands blissfully unaware of the role it would play in cinema history. The written introduction could have preceded any number of swashbuckling features. The source material had already been adapted twice for the screen the first of which in 1931.
Many of the noir conventions are in place. Many crime films, from The Big Sleep to Beverly Hills Cop throw in a sequence where the beleaguered heroes come to the police station to discuss their predicament. When building complex plots this is a helpful life preserver for audiences acting as a means to dryly lay out the full narrative. The Maltese Falcon sets up such a sequence only to have Sam Spade smell a frame up and march out immediately. Sorry, the audience has to keep up this time.
Film Noirs would rise as a negative reflection of screwball comedies. Both mapped the intersection of the wealthy and powerful with the common class. But in the Maltese Falcon Sam Spade’s foils are revealed to be charlatans and hucksters. They inhabit the cliches of well heeled life--tuxedos, opera tickets, art deco furnishings--but are down to their last dollars, a step away from hawking their clothing to stay in the hunt for the Falcon.
Perhaps biggest here is the outright rejection of Hitchcockian tenets of building suspense. At multiple points in the film Sam Spade is taken by surprise. A crucial scene that sees Gutman slip Sam Spade a Mickey plays so subtly that repeat viewings are needed to pick up the scant clues. Meanwhile Miles Archer’s demise and the sudden appearance of Captain Jacoby at Spade’s office come without any warning to the audience. The cumulative effect is one of disorientation and hopelessness both for Sam Spade and the audience. This is not a fair world, nor a just world. The representatives of law and order are dead set in trying to charge Spade for the death either of his partner Miles Archer or Floyd Thursby and don’t allow any evidence to dissuade them. For a film released during the meat of World War II, a period where hyper patriotism was the norm in pop culture, to see the representatives of government depicted as predatory and untrustworthy AND to see audiences embrace it is incredible.
Fittingly, Sam Spade pursues Miles’s murderer not out of honor or sense of justice, but primarily as a means of regaining a measure of control. The bulk of the film is entirely concerned with Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the disruption she causes to Spade’s professional life. There’s only one scene at the outset of the picture that shows Spade before meeting Brigid at its over in the time it takes to light a cigarette. The world outside of Brigid’s sphere of influence doesn’t merit any attention. There’s nothing here to tie the Maltese Falcon with its moment. There’s no hint of World War II, no stand ins for FDR or Adolph Hitler, no pleas to the war effort, or the righteousness of the American experiment.
Among the cast, Humphrey Bogart would get catapulted into superstardom. In a short time he’d cement his place as one of the greatest film actors Hollywood would ever produce. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet would get reunited in multiple features of varying quality. All would arguably go onto films that would rival The Maltese Falcon in terms of regard. Perhaps that’s why I’m inclined to think of this as more of Mary Astor’s picture.
Behind the scenes her real life was one of multiple lovers and substance abuse with plenty of intrigue and drama thrown in. Her hard living didn’t diminish her physical beauty. All of which set her up as the ideal embodiment of the femme fatale. Astor’s early roles were to act as arm candy, and her later roles were often as one-note motherly roles. Neither provided the opportunity for much acting. A far cry from Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a destructive force whose only emotional saving grace is that she might not intend for the men to fall in her sway to end up destroyed. If her interactions with Sam Spade are indicative, she allows herself to be loved rather than actively angling for suitors. Yet the emotionless expression Astor gives as O’Shaughnessy accepts her fate cuts sharper than any of the switchblade dialog that preceded it.