The Maltese Falcon is another one of those films that everyone is expected to have watched. I don’t mean just film critics and film history buffs either but everyone considering how famous it is and how Sam Spade is nearly the American equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. For my part, I remember it being aired quite frequently on Malaysian television when I was young but I’ve never actually sat down to watch it.
Like almost all noirs, it opens with private detective Sam Spade being asked to take on a case by a dame. She claims that her sister has run away with a man and she wants someone to tail him. Sam’s partner Miles Archer volunteers to do it himself. However that night Miles turns up dead and a few hours later so does the man he was tailing. The police at first suspect Sam of killing the man as revenge for his partner’s death and later of killing Miles when it emerges that he may have had an affair with Miles’ wife. Things become even more complicated when his client reveals that her previous story was a lie and another man, Joel Cairo, tries to hire him to find a valuable black figure of a bird. Other figures express interest in this bird including a gunman and his portly boss, the appropriately named Kasper Gutman. Gutman explains that the bird is the legendary Maltese Falcon, being a solid gold, gem-encrusted carving behind a wooden lacquer, and is immensely valuable. They are willing to kill for it and naturally it falls into Sam’s hands.
Although the poster above depicts Humphrey Bogart brandishing a pair of pistols and even calls them his blazing automatics, there is almost no real action here. In fact, he never fires a gun over the course of the entire film. While Sam certainly is handy both with guns and his fists, this film is more about him cutting through lies with detective work, dogged interrogations and psychological manipulation. What especially intrigues me is Sam Spade’s ambiguous morality as depicted here for most of the film. When the dame implores him to keep her identity secret from the police, he obliges her in exchange for cash even though he knows that she is lying. There’s clearly something going on between him and his partner’s wife but he seems to become reluctant to go farther with it after his partner is killed. Eventually it does come out that his strange of honor obliges him to solve the mystery of who killed his partner and he doesn’t trust the police to do it but his apparent amorality keeps you guessing for a good while.
All told I found this to be a solid and enjoyable film but not an especially outstanding one. It’s fun to watch Sam work through the multiple layers of deceit here and make sense of the competing interests of all the crooks. Bogart is great as usual though I think Mary Astor isn’t quite beautiful enough for the femme fatale role. Unfortunately, unlike the truly legendary noir films, I don’t think there’s a deeper underlying theme here to elevate it to greatness. It may be historically important as the first noir film but there many others that are better.