Review of The Maltese Falcon

Mary Astor, Bogart
A scene from early in The Maltese Falcon as Sam Spade becomes attracted to Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

2013 TCM "Summer Under The Stars" Blogathon
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The Maltese Falcon, shown on TCM Thursday, August 1, 8:00 a.m. CST
Posted by Mary McCord, Editor, classicfilmwatch.com

What can I tell you about The Maltese Falcon that you haven’t heard before? The 1941 movie is one of the most popular film noirs ever produced. It ranks sixth in the 10 best mysteries category of the American Film Institute. This means that almost everyone, except the extremely young, has seen the movie at least once. Most classic film fans have probably seen it four or five times or more, which means that everyone knows the story and characters and ending. So, what is there to say?

I’m going to tell you briefly why this writer likes the film. I have always been interested in archaeology and the stories about artifacts that are being found. So, I think this fascination with items of antiquity is part of why I like the movie. As with the Sidney Greenstreet character, Kasper Gutman, I am intrigued by the mystique of the falcon that is believed to be encrusted with fabulous gems hidden under common black paint. But even Gutman and the other characters, except Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, are motivated by the value of the falcon and their greed. Since I also like stories about someone who finds a painting masterpiece at the Good Will store or buys a $3.00 bowl at a garage sale and it dates to some Chinese Dynasty, I can understand their greed affliction.

At the beginning of the movie, in the introductory text appearing after the opening credits, there is an explanation of the origin of the Maltese Falcon, involving the Knight Templars of Malta in 1539, which is pure fiction. It is believed that the statue in the film is based on the Kniphausen Hawk, a ceremonial pouring vessel made in 1697 for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire. This vessel was modeled after a hawk perched on a rock and is encrusted with red garnets, amethysts, emeralds and blue sapphires. And it is not missing. It is currently owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and is an important piece of the Chatsworth House collection.

The Maltese Falcon has been criticized for having one-dimensional characters. This is true, but it doesn’t bother me so much. It’s like watching a movie made from a comic book or comic strip, one that you have read so many times that you know the characters well. You know exactly what should happen next and are not the least bit bored. The actors play the one-dimensional characters very well with not much action, but plenty of pithy dialogue, even clever in the case of the Sam Spade character.

There were many actresses considered for the part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy and I can see any of those actresses in the role. However, at the end, I don’t think I would have liked to see any of them take the fall more than Mary Astor’s lying Brigid. So, I guess Mary Astor was the right choice. The same goes for the other characters: Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet); Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); and Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.).

Sam Spade is the role that Humphrey Bogart owns for eternity that can never be replicated, even though he was not the first choice for the character. The role was originally offered to George Raft who turned it down because he was hesitant to work with the inexperienced director, John Huston, who closely adapted the screenplay from the novel.

At the 14th Academy Awards, the film received three nominations: Best Picture; Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor; and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Maltese Falcon was selected in 1989 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. To this day, it is often cited as the film that began the classic period of film noir.

As I asked at the beginning, what can I tell you about The Maltese Falcon? A favorite of many, the classic film speaks for itself. The movie comes on early on TCM in most areas of the country, so remember to set your DVR if you’re not an early bird.

Look at the photos from the movie on this page and take the trivia quiz for fun. I think it will be challenging even for the most die-hard fan of The Maltese Falcon. Then, click the “F” icon to go to the Classic Film Watch Facebook page where you’ll find more photos from the movie. Thanks for your interest!

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Note: All photos are screenshots from the trailer for The Maltese Falcon that was not copyrighted.

Sydney Greenstreet
Sydney Greenstreet was the perfect Kasper Gutman. He smokes a cigar while being filmed from a low angle, a technique John Huston used to make the actor appear even larger.

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TCM Summer Under The Stars

The Maltese Falcon is no item of antiquity; it will be enjoyed for generations to come

Peter LorrePeter Lorre played the menacing and strange Joel Cairo.

Elisha CookElisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer, Gutman's gunman.

The Maltese Falcon group of characters
The cutthroat group gathers to discuss money with Sam Spade.

The Maltese Falcon poster
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