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The Maltese Falcon

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor
Director: John Huston
Rated: NR
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: October 1941
Genres: Mystery, Noir, Suspense, Classic

*Also starring: Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, Elisha Cook Jr., Ward Bond, Gladys George, Barton MacLane

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Brian Koller read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

Flood of remakes is definitely one of the most annoying trends of contemporary Hollywood. It seems that every outstanding film made twenty-five or thirty years ago is about to get modern makeover. Judging by the way Hollywood handled those remakes in past few years, it is almost certain that many great films are about to have their reputations forever tarnished by uninspired and usually abysmal modern versions. Remakes, same as the sequels in past few decades, are viewed as the manifestation of creative crisis in modern Hollywood and its inability to deliver anything original in their products. However, remaking films is hardly a contemporary phenomenon in Hollywood; movies used to be remade in previous decades same as in our times. And in some rare occasions remakes turned out much better than original. The best example is, of course, one of the best known films of all time - THE MALTESE FALCON, film noir classic directed by John Huston in 1941.

The plot of the film is based on the "hard-boiled" detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, which has been adapted for the screen twice before - in 1931 and 1936. Protagonist is Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart), tough and street-wise private investigator from San Francisco who shares a firm with his partner Miles Archer (played by Jerome Cowan). One day their services are hired by mysterious and good-looking Miss Wonderly (played by Mary Astor). What was supposed to be routine surveillance job goes terribly wrong for Archer who gets killed, while Spade becomes a prime suspect. Almost immediately after that Spade is approached by peculiar yet sinister world traveller Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre) who wants to hire his services in order to put his hand on a certain object. Spade is convinced that those two events are connected and his suspicions are gradually proving correct - not only Cairo, but also few other interested parties are involved in the case that revolves around ancient and priceless artefact known as "Maltese Falcon". That includes Miss Wonderly who is not what she claims to be, yet that doesn't prevent Spade to fall in love with her.

THE MALTESE FALCON is often seen as the Hollywood's first film noir. The genre of hard-boiled detective stories existed before, namely in the domain of pulp literature, but this film was first to bring it to the silver screen in its recognisable form. Because of that, THE MALTESE FALCON has great historical importance - it represents something of a milestone in development of American genre cinema. It is also the reason why many of the characters and situations might look like cliches, but to view them this way would be a great injustice to the film that actually inspired such cliches. However, when we watch the film we are hardly aware of such cliches - the plot and character type, despite being utilised in numerous other films through the latter decades, are still interesting and the movie provides lot of entertainment. This accomplishment is even greater when we consider that THE MALTESE FALCON was actually the first film directed by John Huston, one of the greatest American filmmakers of 20th Century. It could be argued that his first film (in which his father Walter appears in small cameo role) is actually the best film in his entire career, making this the second such instance in 1941 - the very year when Orson Welles made his CITIZEN KANE.

One of the reasons why THE MALTESE FALCON happens to be as great now as it was more than a half a century ago could be found in its timeless quality. The story, characters and situations are universal and you could sense that they might exist in each era, including our own. This is due to the extremely clever and tight script by John Huston, who took each scene and each piece of dialogue from the original novel and packed it into the coherent whole as faithful to the dark world of Hammett's fiction as possible in early 1940s Hollywood. And because of that the movie looks incredibly modern - its content, with hidden and some not so well hidden layers, might very well belong to our time. The protagonist is anti-hero with the utter lack of conventional moral code - he is cynical, adulterous, lacks any compassion and sometimes manifests sadistic pleasure in using violence. There is hardly anything that separates him from the villains in this film, except for the fact that he is more experienced and more intelligent and therefore uses manipulation instead of the acts that would brand him as the villain in the classical sense. Even his final act, when he does the Right Thing, is motivated more by the common sense than adherence to even the most basic ethical principles. In the world of THE MALTESE FALCON almost everyone (with the exception of Spade's loyal secretary Effie, played by Lee Patrick) is bad - each and every character is motivated by greed or instant self-gratification in the form of sex (like the character of Iva Archer, played by Gladys George). Even the forces of law and order, which are supposed to give some kind of moral compass, are presented as inept or violent. Because of that, THE MALTESE FALCON, with the cast of exclusively immoral characters, might remind contemporary audience of the Tarantinoesque films about criminal enterprise going bad.

Huston's flawless direction was in many ways helped by truly stellar cast. The most recognisable of all actors, Humphrey Bogart, used this role of morally questionable protagonist as an excellent opportunity to make his transition from the roles of traditional villains, which he had played in 1930s, to the roles of noble heroes he was going to play in 1940s. Cynical and near-psychopathic Sam Spade is, therefore, one of his most recognisable screen incarnations, although not as a loveable as his next greatest role in CASABLANCA. His partner Mary Astor is also great - she might not look enchantingly beautiful compared to the other femme fatales of film noir, but she nevertheless manages to ooze wickedness on the screen in a manner which is, in a sense, more sexy than physical looks itself. Of course, the rest of the cast is even more interesting. Peter Lorre's role of homosexual gangster is legendary, and it is no wonder that he became one of the greatest characters of his time. Sidney Greenstreet as seemingly cultivated yet equally ruthless criminal (with the large belly as a character trait, which Huston emphasised with clever camera angles) is also great, and his accomplishment is even greater, considering that this was his first major on-screen role. Finally, Elisha Cook Jr. is equally impressive as young wannabe thug. The good acting was essential for the success of this film, because the complicated plot would be quite uninspiring without interesting characters and the cast capable of presenting them to the screen. Huston again shows his great directing skills by managing to tie every loose end and keep the appropriate pace in the same time, making this film slightly more than an hour and half long.

THE MALTESE FALCON, with its great direction, truly stellar cast and interesting story and characters is a film that managed to transcend its time and it is still able to entertain the audience six decades after its making. To countless new generations of viewers this is film is more than an important piece of film history. It is a true masterpiece.

Copyright 2001 Dragan Antulov

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