Despite spectacle, stories and vaguer entities such as lighting attributes, it’s a comfort that the biggest pull in cinema is that vague quantity known as ‘star quality’. It’s star quality that makes a film noir classic like The Maltese Falcon watchable, even when the plot is failing. There’s a section about 40 – 50 minutes into The Maltese Falcon in which the story widens out — suddenly there are more adventurers revealed, and a whole lot more in terms of characters and detail — and historically, this is the moment many switch off. If it weren’t for Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, and the vile duplicty portrayed by Mary Astor, they may even not switch back on again.
The idea is that the audience should know no more or less than Spade does at any given time, and this is a fine idea, but trickier to execute than you may think. The effect this offered at the time was something surprisingly new, a film for which an audience would remain disinterested, with no special knowledge or opinion on the action. Even more reason to rely on the star quality of Bogart.
There is in the book of The Maltese Falcon (by Dashiell Hammett) a section in the middle of the novel which has been reduced severely — and in the novel, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is explicitly homosexual, and so this is toned down also.
Joel Cairo was a much better role for Lorre than his previous outing, which had been the disappointing Stranger on the Third Floor, and The Maltese Falcon commenced a good period for him in which he played with Bogart a couple of times, in All Through the Night (1942) and Casablanca (1942). In the late 1940s, when morphine use and other high-rolling lifestyle choices left Lorre rather broke, Bogart often gave him money. At this time, Lorre was asked by the HUAC if he had met any suspicious characters since being in America — and he responded with a list of everyone he knew.
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade is perfection. Samuel Spade (as it says on the window of his office) is not such a wise-cracker as Philip Marlowe, but he makes up for it in cynicism, with which he infects every scene, every line, every look. Bogart as Sam Spade disbelieves everybody, and always seems to be a step ahead, even when he cannot be. He loses his temper a couple of times, and takes what he wants in terms of guns, women and even money. Sam Spade never seems to be in danger, and there never seems to be any moment when you are not convinced that he will win. Bogart is actually considerably smaller than most other players in the film, but as Sam Spade still has no problem handling anybody. Viewers squirm most of all at the conclusion when Spade — through more cynical logic — ensures that the woman he loves is locked up, offering her no solace. A guy has to do right by his partner, and himself, he reckons, and love comes in a miserable third. Sure, he’ll miss her for a couple of nights, he says — but he’ll get over it.
The Maltese Falcon is also proof, if it were needed, that the noir genre may be so slippery as to be a red herring. You can’t obviously call every crime thriller from the 1940s and 1950s a ‘noir’ simply because they feature society’s underbelly, and so you have to look for further elements — generally to be hinted at in the lighting. Other hints are to be found in studio-bound sets which offer a kind of claustrophobic menace, the femme fatale, and the fact that often, a noir will be set at and shot during the night.
Did women ever like this sort of approach?
The real noir aspects of The Maltese Falcon (if they are present at all) are therefore in the ‘hardboiled’ nature of the Bogart character, a type that has been called the ‘seeker-hero’ by students of noir. Hammett’s detective writing was far removed from what was the norm in the day — the intellectual pursuits of sleuths like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Furthermore, these heroes are motivated by moral opposition to the crimes and their enemies, and the satisfaction of solving the mystery — though Sam Spade is only motivated by money, and a loose argument about doing right by his deceased business partner. In that sense, Sam Spade is in essence profiting from the misfortune of others, and this type of noir detective spends a good deal of time on society’s darker side, involved in violence, deceit and even corruption. At some stage in the noir detective story, the criminal will try and make the detective complicit, but as the layers of deception are unpeeled, the detective’s intelligence and incorruptibility will out, and they will emerge safely from the labyrinthine plot.
For Sam Spade, people are untrustworthy and he doesn’t care a bit what they think of him — a world view which came straight from the novel and which John Huston applied exactly. It’s really just this noir archetype that labels The Maltese Falcon as noir — because it simply didn’t exist before. As a noir hero, Sam Spade isn’t plunged into a paranoid nightmare. Instead you may consider his journey as a laconic and engaging dream, the vision of a seemingly relaxed hero. Indeed, the kind of characters Bogart represented seemed to be lacking in humanity, different from the wild criminal anti-heroes that Warner’s had peddled in the 1930s, as typified by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.
The Maltese Falcon was the first directorial work of John Huston, who made many films now seen as classics, from his crime works Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), to others like The African Queen (1951) which he made before moving to Ireland in 1952, angry with the HUAC. The opening scenes of the film — my favourite — which deal with the death of Spade’s partner Archer, have a strange resonance with America’s deliberation over joining the world war that was raging in Europe and elsewhere. Consider these two lines from Bogart as Sam Spade:
‘When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.’
‘Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business — bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.’
Sam Spade always seems to know what is going on, and crucially controls his own destiny, meaning that The Maltese Falcon does teeter on the edge of noir. Yes, it’s uncluttered visually and digs deep into the nastier sides of the city, but even the fact that Bogart’s Sam Spade doesn’t trust the Mary Astor character at all, means that there isn’t even room within its walls for a proper femme fatale.
For collectors, George Segal played Sam Spade Jnr in a 1975 spoof called The Black Bird, which is notable for return performances from Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jnr. And Elisha Cook Jnr is certainly a noir staple, turning up all over the place, looking panicky and very often playing some kind of victim. Here he’s a hood, but not a very good one, and of all the failures of character in The Maltese Falcon, it’s his that hurts the most. Like everyone who comes up against Sam Spade, Cook’s character just isn’t cut out for the job.
Mary Astor - she plays miserable, she plays mean, and she plays pure damned ruthless. A star.