Top 100 Movie Review: #23 – The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Many Firsts.

Bogart’s first big role. A new genre of film. Huston’s directorial debut. The Pairing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.

Humphrey Bogart with the Maltese Falcon

American Film Institute Ranking: #23/100
Academy Awards: Three nominations and no wins in Best Picture, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay categories.
My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

I’m going to be rather worthless on reviewing this film on the merits of being a good movie. I read “The Maltese Falcon” and enjoyed it so much that I decided to watch the movie — immediately after I had finished reading the book. It was a shorter novel, too, meaning it was all very fresh in my mind after just a few days of reading.

The movie was immensely faithful to book and the casting absolutely perfect. I cannot recall how I imagined the characters pre-movie: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet will be how I remember them going forward.

[story/spoilers.] Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a private detective. He meets with a potential client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who wants Sam to shadow a man because he is involved in the disappearance of her sister. Sam’s business parter decides to take on the case.

Sam is awoken by a phone call in the middle of the night. His business partner has been shot dead. He goes to investigate the crime scene and then walks around the city, mind heavy with thoughts. On his return to his apartment, he is visited by two police officers: Dundy and Polhaus. They keep questioning him on his recent whereabouts. Confused, he asks them what’s up. They tell him that the man they shadowed has also been murdered, and they suspect that Sam was avenging his dead partner.

Sam, realizing that something bigger is a foot, begins to try and unravel the scheme that he’s become involved in. Ruth reveals herself to really be Brigid O’Shaughnessy and the man they trailed was her business partner. Knowing his client is untrustworthy, he nonetheless promises to continue to help her in hopes of figuring out what is going on. This leads to the discovery that he is in the middle of a quarrel between business associates and that they are fighting over an ancient relic worth millions: the Maltese Flacon.


[analysis.] “The Maltese Flacon” was the arrival of what would be called film noir. This type of genre already existed in novels (Danshiell Hammett, the author of the “The Maltese Flacon” had been writing about hard-boiled, morally ambiguous detectives since the 20s), but the term refers to film and did not exist until 1946.

So what is film noir? The elements usually include a lead that is an anti-hero; they are pessimistic, unscrupulous, and disenchanted with society. The antagonist is a femme fatale, a seductive woman that will bring disaster. The setting is usually urban. Institutions, such as politics and policing, are shown as being ineffective and corrupt. The visual imagery is dark (hence “black film”), with many night scenes with low lighting.

All these things occur in “The Maltese Falcon:” Sam loses a detective partner, but he is really more focused on the big cash out of finding the Maltese Falcon; the police force is not interested in finding out the truth, just pinning the crime on someone; Brigid is a true femme fatale, capturing Sam’s attention while trying to manipulate him for her needs; the backdrop is San Fransisco, where all the motifs of lonely, dark city life are present.

The low-lighting urban setting of Film Noir.

The movie, besides being the first movie pegged as “Film Noir,” was the first to do several other things. This was the first big hit of Bogart’s career, nailing the film noir detective so convincingly he raised to critical acclaim. It was also the first film for Bogart and director Huston to work on together: they would continue to make other top 100 movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet went on to do nine movies together forming the Little Pete and Big Syd team.

[conclusion.] This movie was the start for a lot of people and things that would become fixtures in Hollywood. It is pegged as the start of an entire genre, created bonds that would continue for decades, and is a great adaptation of the book. Even though I already read it, which took away from the suspense of the film, I still found it enjoyable.

Other People’s Takes: 

  • Murf Versus: That’s not to say I disliked the movie, it is just dated by default.”
  • Funk’s House of Geekery:A lesser actor may have struggled playing such a cool and complex character, but Humphrey Bogart turned in the performance which set him on the path to Hollywood stardom”
  • Franz Patrick’s Film Archive: “… it demands that the viewers learn something new or surprising in every scene…”


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