“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
Film noir has its roots in the 1930s, but it really took off in the 40s, and movies like The Maltese Falcon really helped make it popular. This was the breakout movie for legendary director John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen), and acting from superstar Humphrey Bogart certainly helped too. So a new style, considerable acting and directing talent, and an outstanding story come together to create a truly amazing movie. As of writing this, The Maltese Falcon is one of the few movies to achieve a 100% score on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, joining the ranks of movies like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. If that’s not a strong enough testament to how good this movie is, I don’t know what will be.
The plot follows private investigator Sam Spade as he becomes entangled with a group of criminals looking for the Maltese Falcon, a historical relic of great value. A woman, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, tries to win him over to her side while the criminals and the police do the same. Sam strings all three factions along as long as he can, but is eventually forced to a decision. Things unravel very quickly in the last 30 minutes of the movie, and there are many more mysteries than I originally thought.
Don’t be too sure; I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.
While the film noir style is great, it’s the story that really elevates this movie to greatness. It’s notoriously complex, especially when the secrets start to come out toward the end. Pretty early on, it’s obvious that almost every character is lying through their teeth and hiding things, but it’s unclear exactly where the lies end and the truth begins. You can think you have a good handle on the story only to be thrown for a loop in the next scene. Make sure to reserve all judgments until the end of the movie, because they keep throwing new revelations at you right up until the last few minutes of the film.
Being a traditional film noir, the tone is far from the happy-go-lucky movies that were much more common then. It’s cynical, world-weary, and morally ambiguous. When The Maltese Falcon was released, this was as dark and gritty as it got. Even by today’s standards, the film does a better job of hiding who the real heroes and villains are than most. It’s not uplifting; but neither is it emotionally heavy. It walks a line of absolute neutrality, allowing you to focus on the plot instead of worrying about heroics.
All in all, The Maltese Falcon is an outstanding movie that I’d recommend to anyone—especially mystery fans. The only thing that seemed dated was the censored violence. The language and acting are still powerful to today’s audiences, and there are few movies that wrap up an intricate plot so neatly as this one. And if you’re looking to get started watching film noir or just looking for some great classic films, this is a great one to watch.
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sydney Greenstreet), Best Writing, Screenplay (John Huston)
Director: John Huston
Genres: film noir