Plato believed that everything in the world has an “ideal universal form” that represents the perfect example of the imperfect things in the real world. For many, The Maltese Falcon is the Platonic ideal of the hard-boiled detective story. True, it’s not the earliest example of the genre, the original novel already having been adapted twice for the screen in the previous decade, but it still contains classic examples of what we consider the basic elements of that genre of film. Most of would now be tired clichés of detective films were either established or popularized by this classic version of Dashiell Hammet’s novel.
The story is remarkably faithful to the source material. Legend has it that first-time director John Huston, before leaving on vacation, left a copy of the book with his secretary and asked her to break down the scenes and dialog. When Huston returned, the secretary’s breakdown had found its way to the studio heads at Warner Brothers, who told the director that his “script” was brilliant and that he should shoot it as written. I think this story is apocryphal but, given the fidelity of the dialog to Hammett’s writing, it certainly seems possible.
The film begins as such films should, with a classic femme fatale (Mary Astor) coming into the offices of private detectives Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), asking them to follow a man named Floyd Thursby. The lecherous Archer volunteers for the job and gets killed for his troubles. Spade is so broken up that he waits until the next morning to take Archer’s name off the door.
When Thursby also turns up dead, Spade is automatically a suspect and, to clear his name, he has to sort out a complicated plot involving the woman, Brigid O’Shaghnessy, who seems congenitally incapable of telling the trust, as well as Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet in his first role) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and a jewel-encrusted bird given by the Knights Templar to the king of Spain. It’s a classic “MacGuffin,” nothing but a good excuse for an enjoyable series of double crosses and triple crosses.
Even more so than in Casablanca, this is Humphrey Bogart in top form, cynical, tough but basically a decent guy trying to do the right. He doesn’t waste any tears on a dead partner he despised (and whose wife he was sleeping with) but he still feels obligated to see justice done. It’s no wonder that this is the film that broke him out of the career trap of villains and other second-level tough guys.
The cast surrounding Bogart is, as you can tell from the credits, a first-rate collection of B-movie actors, marking the first pairing of Greenstreet and Lorre. Both Bogart and Astor were second choices for their roles and we’re probably fortunate that the first choices turned it down or were otherwise unavailable.
If you can, pick up the new three-disc DVD version of the film, which also includes the 1931 production of The Maltese Falcon. This version was also very faithful to Hammett’s and certain scenes are virtually identical to the better-known Huston-Bogart production. If such a version existed, why bother making the new version? The first film, starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in place of Bogart and Astor, was made before creation of the Hayes Code and included sexually frank dialog and two scenes of implied nudity that were no longer permitted under the code. Warner Brothers was barred from re-releasing the film because of its “indecent” subject matter, leading them to commission a remake with all of the objectionable material excised or a least dealt with more obliquely. It’s interesting to view the two different versions side by side, but the earlier attempt, made at the dawn of the “talkie” era, pales stylistically next to Huston’s later effort. This classic may then be one good thing the Hayes code actually produced.