Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.
This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.
A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.
Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.
Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.