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Film Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

In 1940s, black-and-white classic The Maltese Falcon, protagonist Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a sardonic private investigator living in San Francisco. A beautiful and mysterious woman (Mary Astor) walks into his office one day with a long-winded story about her sister and a dangerous man named Thursby. Shortly afterwards, his business partner is killed and Spade is pulled into a convoluted case involving eccentric characters, endless deceptions, several murders, and a hunt for the titular statuette: a priceless, jewel-encrusted figure of a falcon.

As the anti-hero, Spade regards everything and everyone at an emotional distance, making him difficult to like at first, but his competence makes him admirable and even alluring. He reacts quickly and smartly in tight situations, easily evades trouble with police and hired guns, and is always the cleverest man in the room. Bogart, with his weary but handsome face, hints at a sad back-story and hidden decency at the core of the cool and clever detective, which makes the character sympathetic, even in his self-serving callousness. At the end, Spade makes an unusually noble choice, giving the story an atypically bittersweet and complicated ending.

The supporting cast of characters includes Peter Lorre as a perfumed, dandy crook named Joel Cairo and Sydney Greenstreet (in his first acting gig) as wealthy, chatty, and obese collector Kasper Gutman. As the film was made in the time of the Hays Code, the homosexual characterization of those two characters is greatly toned down and alluded to in an oblique manner via elegant costumes and a couple lines of dialogue.

Widely regarded as the first film noir, The Maltese Falcon helped launch screenwriter John Huston into his long and successful career as a director and turned bit-role/gangster-playing Humphrey Bogart into a hard-boiled leading man. Huston did a fantastic job with sticking to the source material; the popular novel of the same name by mystery writer Dashiell Hammett is full of vivid descriptions and snappy dialogue, making it perfectly suited for on-screen adaptation. Remarkably, Falcon holds up quite well as a piece of entertainment seventy-five years after its release in 1941; its quirky cast of characters, refreshingly modern, twisty storyline, and radical and distinctive camera techniques marks it as a classic thriller and inspiration for many other noir films.

Rating: 5 out of 5 gardenia-scented business cards

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