This is probably the 5th or 6th time I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon so I won’t bother with any kind of plot summary. If you haven’t seen it, just watch it tonight.
What strikes me about this film is not only that it’s the perfect distillation of film noir, with so much evil and greed and awful human behavior presented in such a stark way to an audience that didn’t always see a whole lot of that on the screen in the 30s, it’s the great acting.
Bogart is the ultimate noir actor for me because he more than anyone else embodies both the tough guy who has seen the sleaze of the world and wallows in it and the detective operating on his own moral plane. Peter Lorre exudes his version of sleaze better than anyone else in the history of film. Pure creepiness. It’s too bad he didn’t have a bigger career in the U.S., but then someone like that was always going to be limited in the Hollywood of that time. Sydney Greenstreet’s role as Gutman was a bit overwritten and affectatious but then that’s not totally incongruous with the character. This was the great theater actor’s first film role. He was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Even Elisha Cook as the young gunman exudes a sheer hatred and anger that is above and beyond what the usual gun thug would give in a noir.
The only thing I don’t get about this film is whether Mary Astor (who it’s worth noting was a survivor from the silent era) is really worth it to all those men. Maybe I’m comparing her unfairly to Lauren Bacall, but Astor isn’t beautiful enough or charismatic enough or charming enough to really pull off the role as well as others. She’s played as a liar from the beginning, which is fine, but we don’t really see the attractive side of her. Why does Bogart fall in love? Even if he’s not going to act on it and won’t his partner go down without turning her in, why does he even care? Why did Thursby like her?
That’s not to say I have a strong dislike of Mary Astor. I just don’t think there was enough done here to make her seem so worth it. Probably John Huston is partially to blame. And for that matter, Dashiell Hammett may have underwrote the character in the book, although I confess having not read it.
What are the 5 best Bogart movies? This is my order:
1. The Maltese Falcon
2. The Big Sleep
4. The Petrified Forest
Others may disagree.