When style beats the pants off of story

Among the many fascinating and, in this case, amazing things about The Maltese Falcon is that it was the first film for Sydney Greenstreet who was 62 years old at the time. Can you imagine any actor today getting a role, much less starting a career at 62?

It was also John Huston’s first crack at directing — not bad for a first go.

Of course, the really amazing thing is the movie itself. It’s so good. It turns out human greed is very compelling to watch. And it seems to bring out the best in some directors, like John Huston (who would later give us The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Directed by John Huston
Has any movie ever produced as many imitations, and such an array of imitations, as The Maltese Falcon? *

The movie itself has been imitated both in live action and animation. The characters have been imitated — Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet. And the imitations have ranged from unconscious remakes or channeling of the film, to conscious homages and parodies of it. Similarly, the actors and the characters have received that treatment.

Presumably, there is something in this little John Huston movie that grabs people.

Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo about to be socked by Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade.

Normally, I would argue that it is the story. I’m always going on about story. But in The Maltese Falcon it is character, mood and setting. This movie grabs people and holds them with its style. That style is film noir.

Some argue it’s the first film noir and an argument could be made for that if you consider that it fuses the element of gangster movies with a German Expressionist style, turning it into something new. But I’m not so sure it is correct to think of it as “new.” It strikes me more as a stage of evolution in something pre-existing.

It’s hard to think of it as the first when someone like Fritz Lang was busy and had been busy making his movies, like M and Man Hunt, for so long.**

It’s more accurate to say The Maltese Falcon was the first big, broadly popular film noir.

A collection of "bad guys": Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet as Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Kaspar Gutman.

Following on the heels of High Sierra (which Huston did the screenplay for), Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a role that set a kind of template others would do variations on even today, and one that cemented his place as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Along with Rick Blaine in Casablanca, it’s one his iconic roles.

What makes his performance riveting is the mocking amorality of the character. Sam Spade seems indifferent to conventional ideas of right and wrong although he grudgingly accepts a kind of code of honour of his own.

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” The way it is said implies, “I wouldn’t care but I guess I’m supposed to do it.”

A big man to begin with, Sydney Greenstreet's Gutman is even more imposing with the way John Huston shoots him from below.

As this suggests, dialogue alone doesn’t convey character. It is the touches Bogart adds; his tones and expressions. (Also, it comes across through camera angles and lighting.) We often see the famous Bogart sucking of teeth, a kind of silent snarl almost like a feral dog. All that is missing is the growl.

Sam Spade is a mean son-of-a-bitch. But then, everyone in the film is a son-of-a-bitch of some sort.

Every one lies. Every one connives. Every one has an agenda informed by avarice.

Although this is Bogart’s movie, a great deal depends on Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in their supporting roles, as well as Mary Astor. This isn’t a run of the mill group of bad guys. The eccentricities of Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman (The Fat Man) and Lorre as Joel Cairo, and the sexual duplicity of Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, makes them more than “colourful characters.”

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

They’re fabulous foils for Bogart as Spade to play against.

And together with Sam Spade, they make for a really bad lot, one that is utterly compelling to watch.

Greenstreet in particular, with his character, brings out the humour in Sam Spade as they verbally spar. Between the two, that humour leavens what is otherwise a very dark story.

On a small budget, John Huston managed to create a masterpiece by chiefly doing two things: remaining true to the original Dashiell Hammett story and by telling much of it visually with the movie’s style: light, shadow, chaotic angles, contrasts and so on.

The movie he made is simply fabulous and is easily one of the best to ever come out of Hollywood.

* Okay, possibly Casablanca.
** Yes, you are correct.
Man Hunt is not really film noir.

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