The Maltese Falcon: Noir Fiction at its Finest

“In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels—but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.”

If you have a thing for private detectives who roll their own cigarettes and consume massive amounts of whiskey on a daily basis, for stories whose twists and turns are just as crazy as their protagonists’ tempers and if you don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble when a femme fatale inevitably walks into your life then look no further than The Maltese Falcon. Written in 1930 by Dashiell Hammett and adapted into the big screen by John Huston in 1941, the Maltese Falcon became a film noir classic, and arguably, the first movie of the genre. In this short review, we take a look at the book first, its complex plot and little oddities, and then at the movie which starred iconic actors of the era including the one and only Humphrey Bogart.

The story is set in a black and white San Francisco, and starts in a private detective agency by the name of Spade and Archer. A young shy girl walks into the agency, telling the detectives that a man called Floyd Thursby has kidnapped her younger sister and brought her here to San Francisco, that he promised to meet her tonight and that he is extremely dangerous. The beauty and the schoolgirl-like manner of young Ms. Wonderly work like a charm on Miles Archer and he promises to tail the man himself that night. A few hours later, Sam Spade is awakened by a phone call informing him that both Archer and Thursby have been shot. Upon trying to contact the client Ms. Wonderly, he learns that she had left her hotel but later gets a call from her and learns that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and that the story she had told him the day before had been complete hooey. She offers no explanation and claims that she is in mortal danger unless Samuel Spade offers her his help. Upon accepting her offer, Spade is launched into a crazy and dangerous adventure that is, as he later learns, all about an artifact called The Maltese Falcon, a bird statuette six centuries old and encrusted with the rarest jewels.

The book written by Dashiell Hammett, a veteran of the detective novels genre and once a private detective himself, was originally serialized in the pulp magazine Black Mask starting in 1929 and later got published in 1930. The novel revolves around Samuel Spade, a private detective described by the writer as “a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached”. You never know what to expect from Spade, and consequently, the story. His actions are impulsive, irrational and sometimes just flat-out insane, and he offers no explanation for that, he is, as his enemy in the story describes him, a “character”. The events he is forcefully pushed into, would have drove any other man nuts, but his character is just crazy enough to make sense of it all with almost no help from anyone. The story moves at a fast and exciting pace, with only a few stale moments here and there, moments so few that they proved to be no threat to my enjoyment of the work. The story never moved according to my expectations, it always managed to surprise me, and I’m sure that I speak for every fan of the genre when I say that that’s always a plus. The ending, which shall stay unrevealed so as not to spoil it to readers who have not experienced this work yet, goes against everything you thought Samuel Spade was, and I’m still trying to make up my mind whether I like it or not.

The movie is an almost perfect adaptation of the novel, with only one or two scenes removed, one of the stale scenes, I might add. John Huston, in his directorial debut, notoriously planned every scene extensively, making sketches and adding even the smallest details to the script. The actors had much time to rehearse as he made sure that everything go according to the schedule, and they eventually even had time to relax and drink together as they had much time to spare. Samuel Spade is portrayed by the iconic Humphrey Bogart, Joel Cairo by Peter Lorre and Kasper Gutman by Sydney Greenstreet, three actors that later worked together on Casablanca (1942). The movie incorporates genre-defining elements of film noir: the story essentials directly adapted from the book such as the private detective, the femme fatale and the abundance of crimes and murders; the jazzy and suspenseful soundtrack and the high contrast lighting which is really just a fancy rewording of cheap light-bulbs due to the limitation of resources in that time. The movie was arguably the first in the film noir genre, and, in my opinion, serves as a great introduction to it.

The Maltese Falcon, both book and movie, is a perfect embodiment of everything that is film noir, its two main characters, the private detective Sam Spade and his femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy are what every character in the genre aspired to be, its soundtrack and mise-en-scène are catchy and memorable, and is therefore a work that should not be missed by anyone, whether new to the genre or a longtime fan. 


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