The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Written & Directed by John Huston

Film noir is something that I have been slowly introduced to. By no means do I think I know everything about movies or have seen most of the “essentials”, and the film noir genre is something I have only recently uncovered. But I have also discovered that it is something that I really dig. The sleek look of the black and white and the great mysteries that are spun by these cool films are a lot of fun and I’ve discovered that it may just become one of my “go-to” genres. So when I was dictated this noir classic, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart, I was excited to catch another classic.

Sam Spade (Bogart) is a private eye with his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). When the pretty Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) comes in to their office with a story about her sister and mystery man Thursby, they take the case, but soon enough Archer turns up dead, and later that night so too does Thursby. The police suspect Spade may be involved, and meanwhile Spade uncovers a plot where Wonderly is in fact O’Shaughnessy, and a group of questionable people including Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) are all looking for a famed Falcon statue.

To be honest, I was amazed by this film, amazed that it was so boring. I mean I am a fan of Humphrey Bogart and the genre in general, but what I found was something that seemed like it didn’t know what it was doing, which I place part of that blame on director John Huston, whose other two films I have seen (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen) I enjoyed. The biggest problem I found was the pacing of the film. It seemed all over the place with jagged editing that wasn’t used as an effect, but seemed rushed and thrown together; just sloppy work. Another misstep was the music score, which seemed hokey and just did not mesh well at all with the noir genre or the tone of the rest of the film. It was distracting.

And Humphrey Bogart, who I usually like, was particularly poor here. I mean I guess that is a bit of an overreaction, but what I didn’t like was the fact that his performance felt so stale and delivered. I never thought he was the greatest natural actor, and his screen presence and charisma is what makes him the legend he is, but here he is just really mechanical I thought. And I really noticed the sound wasn’t very good, I could never hear Mary Astor deliver her lines because the men spoke so loudly and her parts weren’t mixed up to par with them. The one saving grace was the presence of Peter Lorre on screen. Lorre is one of those actors that pretty much gets a free pass every time I see him. He is just that good and I love seeing him, even if his performance isn’t the best, he is always watchable.

Everything in the review seems to indicate that I hated the film. I didn’t. I just didn’t like it a whole lot and a lot of those complaints were somewhat minor. Huston is working with a good idea for a noir and his screenplay is better than the final product. But the problem is he is a bit to blame for that because he is the director too. I was bored by the proceedings because other than a few nice moments early on in the film, there is way too much sitting around talking about the falcon and those involved and not enough true mystery and action surrounding it. I am not writing off the noir genre. I am not writing off Humphrey Bogart. And I am not writing off John Huston. All I am doing is writing off The Maltese Falcon. On the positive side, seeing something like this gives me confidence that all the classics I have been seeing lately that I have been falling in love with are in fact good because I know I didn’t like this one.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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