It’s rather a pity Sam Spade is sort of a one-off character in the pantheon of detective fiction (aside from a few minor short stories, The Maltese Falcon is the only novel he ever appeared in). I would’ve loved to see Humphrey Bogart play him again. He’s so cool. So sneaky. So sexy. Every time he smiles that toothy grin, the entire film lights up. It’s so apparent that he was having a blast, and in turn you are caught up in the breeziness. For unlike most noirs, this one isn’t quite as dark or bleak. It’s got murders and villains, and a plot that gallops ahead like an agile filly, yet it’s done in an amused way, never reaching the dripping depths of cynicism that is the usual hallmark of the genre. And even in the cynical moments, the darkness is mild. There is an air of life moving on rather than being changed irrevocably. We do not end this film wanting to scream into our pillows. It’s rather gratifying.
I read the book some five years ago, and from what I recall, the film is extremely faithful to its source (barring the blatant homophobia, which is thankfully toned down due to the Hays Code). Those moments of characters popping out of the woodwork, their motivations always clouded in half-truths and uncertainties, was something I remember quite well, and on the screen it’s almost confrontational. Everyone appears without introduction, and they quickly vanish when it’s convenient. It’s a stark contrast to the conventional mystery, which ensures every suspect has a name and place. Hammett follows the rhythms of entropic existence, so those who prefer order and clarity will be dismayed by how little of that there is. The only thing that centers the whole is a valuable statuette that may or may not be real. Uncertainty abounds, and we must learn to embrace it.
I love Huston’s direction; for a debut, it’s extraordinarily assured and artistic. Bogart is nothing less than fabulous. The supporting cast, however, is slightly less assured. Mary Astor is not as memorable as I was expecting. Peter Lorre does what he can with what I think is a nothing character—a walking stereotype that’s less than convincing. Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut, does his best work towards the end, but doesn’t enunciate enough when he first appears. Elisha Cook Jr. does what he is asked, and nothing more. Really, the strongest supporting player is probably Lee Patrick as Spade’s trustworthy secretary. So in the ensemble department, The Maltese Falcon falls a little short, but honestly, that doesn’t bother me. Bogart, Huston, Hammett, and I’m already *chef’s kiss.*