The first article of TCM's Film Noir class states: "Pay attention to the first few minutes of a film. Right after the studio logo is prominently displayed, a filmmaker has a job to do: namely, to establish the film's story world and get you in a certain frame of mind. While many opening sequences might seem perfunctory, they are your entrance into the narrative and evince a visual style that fits the tale to be told" (Into the Darkness: Entering Noir Country). The Maltese Falcon is no exception. Let's take a look at some of the noir aspects found in the film.
The opening shot of the film, and the first in which we see its central "live" character (I say live because the Falcon is really the central character), Sam Spade. At first, it doesn't look much like a noir film. It's daytime and Spade is performing the mundane task of rolling a cigarette.
His office that he shares with his partner, Miles Archer, certainly doesn't look threatening. In fact, it looks pretty nice: lots of windows with sweeping views of the city; lots of space to walk around in, high ceilings, leather swivel chairs. Not bad!
Then the camera pans down to the floor for this shot. It seems a little ominous.
Six minutes into the film, Spade's partner is murdered while on the job. Spade is awakened by the phone call. During the short conversation, the camera stays pointed towards the window so that all we hear is Spade's voice. It's a fantastic noir shot.
Next, Spade visits the scene of the crime. He is shown looking down on the spot where Archer's body rolled. Angled shots like these became the norm in noir films. They are not used too frequently in The Maltese Falcon and when they are, they are more subtle than the some of the later noir films so as not to call attention to themselves but rather to enhance the atmosphere of the film without the viewer noticing it.
Here's a shot that's used twice: first when Spade is questioned by the police and later at another confrontation between Brigid O'Shaughnessy (an early representative of the femme fatale) and Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre). This is almost a point-of-view shot (POV) and includes the viewing audience in the circle.
Newspaper clippings help move the story along quickly.
Let's take a look now at the main characters along with some analysis from the book Film Noir FAQ (2013) by David J. Hogan:
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
"Huston and Bogart's interpretation of Spade became a template that's still used today: the private dick as tough, concise, strangely principled, and unafraid to take a beating" (84).
"Bogart set the tone for the era when he played Sam Spade in Huston's 1941 film version of Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon. He was neither hero nor villain, just a cynical detective navigating a corrupt world. Morally, Spade was on the fence. Not above having an affair with his partner's wife, but generally trying to do the right thing—when it suited his purposes. Plenty of imitations followed, characters with a savvy attitude and a smart mouth modeled on Bogart/Spade—and when they tumbled off the fence to the dark side, you had a truly noir protagonist" (Low Company, High Style: The Eternal Allure of Film Noir. Eddie Muller).
Everybody has something to conceal.
Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy
You won't need much of anybody's help. You're good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like
"Be generous, Mr. Spade."
"Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy immediately defined the duplicitous beauty that every subsequent PI, in books and on the screen, has had to deal with ever since. In this, Huston's film has become archetypal and folkloric. We've come to know these characters" (84).
Sydney Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman, also known as "The Fat Man"
There's never any telling what you'll say
or do next, except that it's bound to be
Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo
You have always, I must say, a smooth
I won't continue with a scene by scene description. I just wanted to look at some of the aspects of the film that make it a Noir film. They do finally recover the Falcon. But is it the real one?
Now, after seventeen years...
In the end, somebody has to take the blame for all the murders. Sam Spade, even though he loves Brigid, turns her in to the police. He is NOT going to take the blame for any of the previous events. This particular shot of Brigid being taken away, is symbolic in two ways. The shadows that the bars of the elevator cast across her face signify the bars of a jail cell. The shadow they make - a black bird, the cause of her downfall.
The film is based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. You can read a review of the book here. It has been made into a film three times: the first time in 1931, in 1936 as Satan is a Lady starring Bette Davis, and the most famous version written and directed by John Huston.
The dialogue in the film is amazing. Huston's full screenplay can be downloaded in pdf form here.
The film has a propulsive quality that denies the viewer the time needed to process all the plot points - but then, plot hardly matters because The Maltese Falcon is a morality play and character study (83).
Huston's picture definitively established what a private-eye movie should be (84).
Week 2 of TCM's class also features an optional podcast on The Maltese Falcon. You can listen to it here. Click on the thing that says POD before the title. It will open in your media player. There are lots of other noir podcasts on this site from previous classes.
Here is an interesting article on Film Noir and the Hard-Boiled Detective that talks about the character of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.
Be sure and read host Eddie Muller's Film Noir Overview of TCM's Summer of Darkness site (he wrote one of the noir books I mentioned in my first Summer of Darkness post). It's very interesting and was part of the required reading for the 2nd week of the class (if you're wanting to get a certificate). It's still not to late to join the class! You would just have to catch up!