The stuff dreams are made of.
The Maltese Falcon is one of the original films noir. And as such it put into place many of the themes and stylistic aspects the noir films are known for. However, as this is one of the original noir’s, some of the stylistic aspects are not yet quite there and as such the film can feel a little rough around the edges.
The Maltese Falcon follows Humphrey Bogart’s Detective Sam Spade in his mission to find his partner’s murderer, murdered while Spade was following a man named Thursby on request from a mysterious woman. While trying to discover who killed his partner, Spade is dropped into a group of people all after the same object, the mysterious Maltese Falcon which seems to carry with it death, deception and double-crossing.
This story is brought wonderfully to life by superb acting from Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as the glamorous mysterious client, Peter Lorre’s excellent Joel Cairo and Sydney Greenstreet’s fantastic portrayal of Kasper “Fat Man” Gutman; the villain of the piece. Every actor seems entirely in their element in this world of double-crossing, violence and deception, with Humphrey Bogart giving what became a genre-defining performance as the morally ambiguous Sam Spade.
Moral ambiguity is the name of the game in this film, as it was written and directed in such a way to make the audience question every character as potential suspects, as such the protagonist is made out to be violent, one who takes bribes and is known to have not liked his partner. Thus, it is left up to us, the viewer to figure out who the killer is until the end of the film where it is stated, but still not in black and white – the ending is ambiguous also.
The Maltese Falcon is a smart film that wears that fact on its sleeve. But perhaps it is not quite as smart as the creators thought. It is intentionally ambiguous by its very nature, but it tends to just come off as confusing. A fair amount of the narrative is just not explained, thus we as viewers cannot find enough emotional bond with any of the characters to really care about the outcome. The film’s ambiguity then, acts as a double-edged sword; it creates a sense of confusion that works wonders in detective stories – in that we do not have any real clue as to who the killer is for the majority of the film – at the same time as leaving out fairly important nuggets of information or has the information buried under a mountain of dialogue.
The film’s employment of ambiguity is helped by an overbearing amount of dialogue. Everything in the film is explained through a large amount of dialogue, too much for any film. The trouble with making a movie like this is that it can become dull, meaning you can miss out on small but important plot details hidden in a mass of quick dialogue. This use of dialogue is more akin to something of a radio play, which is odd because the film is visually striking.
However, the film’s greatest weakness comes from not making some things clear enough. It is not made obvious that Spade is having an affair with his dead partner’s widow, meaning when it is made more obvious we are just left confused. Again, we are not made to think that Mary Astor’s character is lying throughout the film, but the film assumes we know this. The Maltese Falcon then is a film stuck somewhere between how clever it is and how clever it thinks it is.
Thankfully, the film’s narrative is interesting enough to keep you watching through to the end, but if it does bore you, its style and camerawork certainly will not. As one of the first films noir, The Maltese Falcon does not utilise quite the same visual cues of later efforts, but its use of low key lighting to accentuate the good and evil, morally ambiguous nature of the film mixed with inventive camera angles flow together with the dialogue and action wonderfully to create a visually arresting film.
Perhaps then, The Maltese Falcon’s greatest asset is its use of Mise en Scene. Each shot is beautifully crafted and the interplay of light, space and props is masterful. Director John Huston and cinematographer Arthur Edeson really knew their way around a scene, there is more story in every shot of this film than pretty much anything else. It is stylistically immaculate and in every regard is one of the finest looking films I have ever seen.
The Maltese Falcon is a film that struggles with finding the right balance between narrative and dialogue, meaning often key pieces of information are missing if not watched very attentively. But the films use of Mise en Scene and exuberance of style coupled with brilliant acting from all involved save it from being the dull detective story it could have been.
A noir classic, The Maltese Falcon oozes with style, but falters in narrative thanks to an overbearing use of dialogue.