It might not be an utter coincidence that The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane were released within a month of each other in 1941, as both films jockey for the title of American film noir’s founding father and have stood the test of time with critics for over seventy five years. The two films of course share their contemporary cultural moment: the depression was ending, a second world war was rising, and the nation was enduring a rumble of emotional unrest while struggling to forge a path out of desperation. Part of what makes both films so poignant is the braiding of that unrest, repression, and ambiguity into the characters of their leading men, atmosphere, as well as the flow of the camera movement and cinematography.
When I first started exploring cinema, I considered film noir challenging at best and abstruse at worst. I found the fast talking detectives unlikeable and they lost me during their rambling monologues. The women characters were too often thin or hysterical foils to the leading men. The shadowy tone of black-and-white imagery masked the content of what I was straining to trace on screen. I found the plots difficult to follow, and was desperate to feel like I was nipping at the heels of the gumshoe, beating him to the resolution of the mystery as I had been trained to do with other detective movies. I credit Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston for altering my perception of noir as a genre by performing with a degree of excellence that shows how everything I saw as a detraction is actually an artful choice on behalf of the director and performers.
Bogart’s refinement as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is masterful. His stone cold reaction to the news that his partner had been shot dead was at first disconcerting. This was our hero? A man so grizzled and calloused that even the knowledge of a murdered partner wouldn’t break the barrier to his emotional core? As the story continues to unfold, Spade balances his hardboiled persona with flashes of a smile and a knack for identifying when those around him attempted to leverage emotion for their gain. The most persistent practitioner of this technique is Brigid O’Shaughnessy – ominously introduced to Spade as a “knock out.”
The relationship between Spade and O’Shaughnessy creates the most palatable tension in the film, far superior to the hunt for the valuable maltese falcon. The two characters play cat and mouse with each other emotionally, each embracing a faux affection in order to serve their ulterior motives. O’Shaughnessy uses her feminine wiles and exploits assumptions of female hysteria to lure Spade into the hunt for the maltese falcon. Spade, arguably aware of her tactics, is at times taciturn, combative, or playful. We see him flash a rarely seen smile, and play coy with O’Shaughnessy, in addition to the police and his other foes. For both Spade and O’Shaughnessy, emotion is merely another tool in the arsenal used to exploit less apt enemies.
The reason that noir, especially top-tier ones like The Maltese Falcon, can afford to present rapid and befuddling storylines is because it allows plot to be displaced by character. It is a mystery, and of course we want to know who did what, but more importantly we want to develop an intimacy with the violent and edgy detective himself. Huston and Bogart allow this relationship to grow between the star and the audience by keeping us rooting for him even when he behaves immorally – a technique we’ve seen so effectively borrowed that it helped to usher in the modern golden age of television.
What helps separate The Maltese Falcon from other detective films is a resistance to categorizing characters as heroes and villains. When Spade kisses his partner’s wife hours after Spade stoically received the news of his murder, it’s morally questionable at best. The police aren’t likable or trustworthy. O’Shaughnessy fluctuates between Spade’s accomplice and prime suspect. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet bounce from friend to enemy multiple times within single scenes. Audiences have been trained to rely on a dichotomy in storytelling – us against them, good against bad, right against wrong. Huston trusts that the audience does not need simplistic dynamics in order to embrace Spade.
At the end of the film, when Spade reveals that he does believe in a personal moral code, he justifies it by saying it would be bad business to let his partner’s murderer go unpunished. His speech to O’Shaughnessy after his motives are revealed is a crown jewel of American cinema, with Bogart showing restraint but also revealing just a sliver of the duress he had repressed up to this point. Therein lies the magic of noir and its difficult men, including Bogart. The style requires distance where other genres would tend toward gusto. The effect of that withholding is that when the bubbles over and flashes of genuine anger or love or hatred are revealed, the potency of authentic feeling is doubly magnified: “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”