The Maltese Falcon
John Huston, 1941
The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are sufficiently similar that, before I started this project, I wouldn't have been able to tell you which was which. Both are about smart tough-guy private investigators who are misled and misdirected by their dodgy yet irresistible female clients. Both feature protagonists who must live in a tainted world of greed and squalor in defense of a moral code. Both are definitive movies in the film noir tradition, movies that did much to define the archetype of the hard-boiled detective in the cinematic.
I loved The Big Sleep. I expected to love The Maltese Falcon. But I didn't.
As a detective story, Maltese Falcon is certainly the more coherent of the two. The Big Sleep is notoriously indifferent to its own plot; key scenes that were necessary to understand what was going on were left on the cutting room floor. Falcon, by contrast, is rather at pains to clear up who did what, and why. Oddly, though, this turns out to be completely unsatisfying. The mysterious and randomness of Sleep made played into the dominant mood of the movie, and left you with an impression of heroes trying to carve out stability amidst chaos. The exposition of actions and motives in Falcon, though, is just kind of tedious.
As a relationship story, Maltese Falcon is nowhere near as compelling as the later movie. The Bogart and Bacall characters in The Big Sleep move us because of the plausibility of their attraction for each other; they are both highly intelligent, sensitive people stuck in social environments where their intellect is not valued. You understand why they are falling for each other -- they are just damned excited to have found someone worth talking to.
The characters in The Maltese Falcon, by contrast, are mean, cold, and superficial. Bogart's Sam Spade is unconcerned when his partner gets plugged in the first reel, when his partner's new widow throws herself at him, and ultimately when he turns his sniveling supposed love interest over to the police. He's an interesting enough study in self-absorption, and preaches a fine sermon at the end about his personal code of ethics, but the idea of him really shooting off sparks with anyone comes off as pretty unlikely.
The Falcon itself is a classic example of an item that exists only to set the plot of a movie in motion. It is a random thing that, because people covet it, it causes them to act badly. We might expect that this would be used by the movie to make some sort of point, if only the observation that the coveting of material things can lead to unhappiness. But nah. It's just there to drive events, with all of the subtlety and sophistication of a Hardy Boys novel.
Plot: Dame in distress comes to detective's office with a simple request. Next thing you know, the case gets more complicated. Everybody is looking for the Maltese Falcon, but where could it possibly be? Eventually it shows up, although in a manner so absurdly improbable it might as well have been borne into the scene by a flight of angels.
Visuals: Probably more interesting than I would give them credit for. Reading about the movie after watching it, I saw references to some cinematographic tricks that I hadn't noticed.
Dialogue: There's some cracking wise, but not with the same panache we've seen in other noir movies.
Prognosis: Well, it's your quintessential old movie. If you like old movies, it's a good 'un. If you don't like old movies, you'll probably join me in thinking that its reputation has got a bit ahead of its reality.