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The Maltese Falcon’ offers a glimpse into film noir’s history

Molly Griffin | Friday, October 28, 2005

Between the no-nonsense detective sitting in his unadorned office, the watchful secretary, the untrustworthy femme fatale and the muddled mix of bad cops and even worse criminals, “The Maltese Falcon” begins many trends that became hallmarks of film noir and standard practices in generations of films that follow.

The film is based on the book by Dashiell Hammitt, who is well-known as one of the pioneers of the hard-boiled style of crime writing. The movie manages Hammitt’s complex plot, with all its double- and triple- crosses, with a deft hand and has a cast that does such a good job with their characters that their performances are imitated to this day.

As one of the first and most famous of the hard-boiled detective films, it sets up tropes that have been seen in classic movies like “Chinatown” and “Blade Runner” and continues to be seen in current films like “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

The film’s screenplay was written by John Houston, and it also marks his directorial debut. The movie also began a partnership between Houston and star Humphrey Bogart that would continue with the classic films, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen.” The film also casts Bogart with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, both of whom would reappear with Bogart in the most classic of classic films, “Casablanca.”

“The Maltese Falcon” balances an extraordinarily complicated and convoluted plot surrounding a group of criminals all attempting to acquire a supposedly priceless statue of a falcon. At the center is Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), the archetypal hard-boiled detective who walks in the gray area between criminals and police on the streets of San Francisco.

Spade is first approached by Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who asks him to help her located her sister who has been seduced by a man named Floyd Thursby and decided to run away with him.

After Spade agrees to take the case, his partner, Miles Archer is killed while tailing Thursby. He soon learns that Thursby was killed almost immediately after Archer. Spade tries to find Wonderly, but loses her trail until her learns that she is staying in a hotel under the name Miss Leblanc and that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She admits that her first story was false and that she and Thursby were partners.

Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a mysterious new customer, approaches Spade about helping him locate a statue of a black bird.

A larger power player, Mr. Gutman or “The Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet), comes into the game and ups the stakes. He is looking for the Maltese Falcon and will do whatever it takes in order to get it.

Spade must wade through the lies and motives of each of the three people seeking the falcon. Through a series of double-crosses, power plays and revelations the truth about each of the characters and the falcon itself emerges. The Maltese Falcon, thought to be incredibly valuable, is found to be utterly worthless. In spite of the revelation about the falcon’s true nature, those who have been seeking it refuse to give up because they refuse to accept the truth.

The final resolution of the play reveals that Spade, while appearing to be a pawn for various unseemly characters to manipulate, has actually been controlling the action from the beginning.

The final lines of the film reveal a great deal about the plot and the nature of treasures that people are willing to do anything to get. A police sergeant says of the statue, “It’s heavy. What is it?” To which Spade replies, with a nod to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”

“The Maltese Falcon” is the stuff that dreams are made of, at least in the minds of most current and aspiring directors. The multiple lines of the plot are well-balanced by a great cast, great direction and fantastic cinematography.

The film will be screening at the DPAC on Saturday, Oct. 29 at 3 p.m. in the Browning Cinema as part of the PAC Classic 100 Films.