The Maltese Falcon (1941) Movie Review

Classic Humphrey Bogart Detective Story Regarded as First Film Noir

The Maltese Falcon marked the auspicious directing debut of John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay and was blessed with an exceptional cast of superb players.

Huston’s film was actually Warner Bros.’ third adaptation of the 1930 Dashiell Hammett novel. The first, in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in the lead roles of detective Sam Spade and femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy (called Ruth Wonderly throughout). In 1936 came a poor (and thinly disguised) remake called Satan Met a Lady with the hammy, unreal Warren William and a comedic Bette Davis.

Huston’s Film a Masterpiece

But Huston’s Falcon is the definitive version. It consistently hits just the right notes, has the most effective cast, Huston’s sparkling screenplay, and a moody atmosphere (by cinematographer Arthur Edeson) that anticipated the film noir genre by several years.

In San Francisco, private detectives Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are approached by the sexy, frightened Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor). She engages them to track a man named Thursby. The lecherous Archer winds up murdered — shot to death by an unseen assailant on a hillside at Bush and Stockton streets. (In present-day San Francisco, a real-life marker honors the location of this fictional murder.)

Spade spends a good part of the film trying to learn who killed three people — his partner Archer, Thursby and, later, a merchant mariner, Capt. Jacobi — while trying to unravel the mystery of a 16th-century figurine.

Sydney Greenstreet a Memorable “Fat Man”

Along the way he meets the sinister homosexual Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the cheerfully dangerous “fat man” Casper Gutman (then-61-year-old Sydney Greenstreet, in his Oscar-nominated film debut) and Gutman’s callow “gunsel” Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr., in a career-making role). He also must fend off suspicious police detectives Dundy (Barton MacLane) and Polhaus (Ward Bond).

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