“Everybody has something to conceal,” comments detective Samuel Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). This comment perfectly encapsulates the unremitting promise of film noir. Any expectations will inevitably be displaced by the double-dealing nature of anyone and everyone. In the depraved, chaotic world of film noir, deception is the only guarantee. John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON, the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, maintains this promise. The film provides a narrative of twists and turns as the characters, all in conflict with one another over the titular gold statuette, demonstrate no moral limits to how far they will go to possess it.
I had preconceived notions of what to expect from THE MALTESE FALCON that were enforced by my knowledge of the genre from films such as THE DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), and OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Prepared for a heavy film filled with human depravity and despair, I was pleasantly surprised that it was quite different to what I was expecting from noir. Instead of experiencing a “weighty” effect at the closing credits, which tends to be the case when watching a film noir, I was entertained and satisfied without being inflicted with confused internal debates about the events that took place. As the first typical noir, the dark deceitful atmosphere is present, and will indulge any cravings for a detective-mystery-drama. However, unlike the films aforementioned, these conventions in the film are not heightened to the same extent; the intensity and grittiness are relatively subdued. The film provides a “lighter” noir experience, in which the tensions are further relieved by frequent comedic moments in the form of witty dialogue and banter.
What struck me as a surprising contrast from other noirs was the representation of the infamous femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy played by Mary Astor, and her relationship with hard-boiled detective Samuel Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. Brigid certainly embodies the traditional femme fatale template: she is dangerous, independent, and seductive. Like the femme fatales that succeed her, she is consciously aware of her sexuality, which she shamelessly exploits to manipulate Sam, and other male characters, to assist her with accomplishing criminal deeds. A constant narrative that has evolved to define noir is of the male protagonist who, having succumbed to the sexual deviance of the evil femme fatale, ends up facing an inevitable doom. Interestingly enough the film presents an alternative narrative to what is traditionally a power struggle of the sexes that is ultimately ‘won’ by the unforgiving female counterpart.
While Brigid pulls out all the stops as she masquerades as a poor, defenseless woman, Sam almost immediately recognizes her tactics. At one point, when Brigid is in the process of a committed performance as a delicate and helpless woman, Sam confidently calls her bluff: “You, you aren’t exactly the sort of person you pretend to be, are you?”. This revelation is not foreign to the males in film noir who share the same awareness of the femme fatale’s intentions. Yet, unlike Sam, they are too governed by their inhibitions to break the spell.
What separates Sam from the other protagonists is his acute self-awareness that his attraction to Brigid is stimulated by her innate dark, dangerous nature. Sam vocalises his consciousness, when after having confronted Brigid’s façade, to which she concedes that she is not all that she seems, he comments: “Yeah well that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” As a result of his awareness, Sam manages to escape the doom that future noir protagonists encounter. While the other protagonists fall prey to the seductress’ spell, Sam has the ability to resist Brigid’s charms, albeit sometimes vacillating between rationality and the temptation of sexual desire. In preventing his primal passions from influencing his morals, Sam rises from the doomed love affair, having maintained the traditional power balance between genders.
Similarly, the antagonists in the film do not adhere to their customary noir images. Granted, as convention, the antagonists are perverse crooks who have no qualms committing crimes and spilling blood to get what they want. And yet, they are simultaneously larger than life figures that compared to other noir villains, seem significantly less threatening. The boss, Gutman, is surprisingly the most honest character. His posh, polite, and joyful demeanor, along with his extravagant physicality in both wardrobe and weight, renders him a parodic caricature rather than a character that instills fear. Cairo is also comical, as he sporadically alternates between exhibiting gentlemanly behaviors to threatening to commit violent acts. His spilt-personality functions as material for comedic entertainment. Even Cook, the professional assassin, is subject to laugh at. Sam ridicules him at every opportunity, accounting him as a joke rather than a character posing any legitimate danger. Sam’s cocky approach when dealing with these corrupt figures provides humorous moments as he frequently undermines them. His quick-witted one-liners at the expense of the criminals guarantee a few laughs.
There are notable stylistic differences between the film and the subsequent films that made noir an identifiable genre. In noir fashion, the majority of the film is shot in interiors, which complies with the stifling and claustrophobic world of the characters. However, some features, now synonymous with the cinematic style of noir, which developed as the genre matured, are not present in the film. Defining features such as voice-over narration and flashbacks are absent. In addition, the film is well-lit and does not employ high contrast and black shadows – characteristics of the genre’s visual style.
What makes the film a must-watch is that, as one of the first film noirs, it does not possess the widely known, highly stylized noir conventions that eventually came to fruition. Without these elements we have grown accustomed to, it is very interesting to observe a noir narrative unfold at its most naked state. While noirs such as THE DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE BIG SLEEP are cinematic greats that deserve equal attention, they consist of intricate plots that are difficult to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is composed in a manner that provides an easy viewing– delivering comedy, mystery, and drama. For anybody beginning to explore the realm of noir, this film is definitely the place to start. For anyone like me, who has watched other noirs but never had the opportunity to view the THE MALTESE FALCON, I guarantee experiencing the film that lay the groundwork for the genre will be intriguing and worthwhile.