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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #273: The Maltese Falcon

People who don’t like black and white movies don’t know what they are missing. Sure, most of the times it means the movies are very old, the dialogue and attitudes are dated, and there is a lot less action compared to today’s hyper-frenetic blockbusters, but many of those films are timeless classics. Case in point: The Maltese Falcon (1941) the first major film noir stars screen icon Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade who is trying to stay ahead of a bunch of shady characters who want to get their hands on a mythical jewel-encrusted bird. Hallmarks of the genre include low-key lighting, a complicated plot, and of course a femme fatale.

I first saw The Maltese Falcon on a boring Sunday morning while in college in Quebec City. It was playing on the CBC, probably because they thought many old people would be watching at that time of the day, but since I like movies new or old I had no problem with diving back to the 1940s. Also I was curious to see it since this is such a classic you have heard of it one way or another in pop culture. As it is a Warner Bros. film it was eventually parodied in an episode of Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries called The Maltese Canary. Same general plot, only Sam Spade never had to deal with Sylvester the cat chasing the bird. 

The story begins with a scene that is a staple of the noir genre. A beautiful woman (Mary Astor) walks into the office of San Francisco private investigators Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) asking for help. She says her name is Ruth Wonderly and is looking for her sister, who is hanging out with a man called Floyd Thursby. She has arranged to meet Thursby, but pays Archer to follow her to the meeting and find her sister. So far, this is just another simple missing persons case.

Only that night Spade gets a call telling him is partner has been fatally shot. In another classic scene the police take Spade down to the station where the investigators give him a grilling because they think he is involved neck-deep in the whole thing. Not only was Spade’s partner shot, but Thursby was also found dead that same evening. The police think Thursby shot Archer and Spade shot Thursby in retaliation. Archer’s wife is no big help, as she thinks Spade could murder Archer to be with her.

The plot thickens even further when Space finds Wonderly who says her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Thursby was actually her partner and he most likely killed Archer. Later at his office Spade meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a slippery fellow who wants to pay Spade to find a black bird, only to pull a gun on him. What is the black bird, and where is it? That is the question on everyone’s mind. During a meeting with the shady Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), a.k.a the “Fat Man,” Spade learns all about the Falcon’s history and the many people who have died trying to find it. Gutman, Cairo, Thursby, and O’Shaughnessy are in a long line of poor saps who have been looking for the Maltese Falcon for hundreds of years.

The movie may be black and white, but the world Spade inhabits is certainly a grey one. All of the characters he meets during his investigation lie to him and are willing to commit murder in order to find the priceless artefact. In the midst of it all Spade stays cool under pressure and even has time to romance the femme fatale.

If you are confused by the time the credits are rolling it doesn’t really matter. With film noir, the plot is notoriously hard to follow, but the atmosphere is easy to enjoy. Here was era where men wore sharp suits and hats every day to work, damsels in distress had deadly secrets, cigarette smoke blended with the low lights, and cool cats like Bogart said lines like “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”

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