So …where’s the falcon? Who shot who and for how much money? Who’s responsible for this insane chain of events? Can any human being really process information this fast? Do you really only talk about people using their last names? And Jesus, would you just slow the hell down, Gutman?!
Those are the thoughts any normal person would have in the midst of the action in The Maltese Falcon. Everything is so preposterously complicated that the big reveal makes even less sense than the mystery itself. People we’ve only tangentially heard about suddenly become central to the plot and shady figures we’ve never met betray each other in second-hand testimony like it’s a big scandal. The whole thing can be dizzying.
But that’s the whole idea. If you’re watching The Maltese Falcon to solve the mystery along with Sam Spade, you’re doing it wrong.
Big, dumb action movies often get criticized for concealing their lack of plot with loud explosions and intense action. But that never really bugged me, especially when noir films like The Maltese Falcon (and to a lesser extent Double Indemnity) double down on the whole idea of an irrelevant story by making it twice as complicated and then ignoring it entirely. In both types of films, the plot is incidental because it’s just eating up time until it gets to the good stuff, and that’s just fine by me.
If you want a modern example of how noir films work, think of The Big Lebowski. What’s the story? What’s it really about? How did they solve it? How were the pornographer, the police chief, the nihilists, Julianne Moore’s character, and that kid who stole the car involved? Nobody really gets it, least of all the characters themselves; they’re just along for the ride while they act like they’re in total control. That’s noir in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.
The Maltese Falcon has become something of a template for both parody and homage in noir, beginning with the very first scene: private eyes, classy dames, suspicious husbands, shady deals, and obvious ulterior motives. Humphrey Bogart plays master sleuth Sam Spade, who assigns the case to his partner. The partner is promptly killed, setting off the chain of events and uncovering a sophisticated smuggling scheme involving a priceless statue from the Crusades (a textbook MacGuffin).
What makes Sam Spade so good at his job is not his ability to solve cases. His real gift is in making things happen.
For the first half hour or so, Spade hears talk of the “Fat Man,” whose role in the whole affair is unclear. He knows he needs to talk to this person, but he doesn’t know exactly how or why. The way he finds the Fat Man isn’t by having a moment of clarity; he just stumbles around until he finds what may or may not be clues, then pushes his way through until they either turn out to be false leads or he end up where he wanted to be all along. When he finally does meet with the Fat Man, he’s still not entirely sure what’s going on, but that doesn’t stop him from playing along and acting like he has the upper hand. He bluffs his way through the conversation, acting insulted when the Fat Man doesn’t take him seriously, storming out of the room in order to prove that he’s a force to be reckoned with.
All of this seems seems fairly random and pointless when described so dryly, but that’s where two aspects of what makes The Maltese Falcon so great become indispensable. First is Bogart himself. Even as Spade blusters his way through, he never loses control. He’s not out of his depth like Holly in The Third Man, who acts like he can fix everything by being enough of a pain in everyone’s ass; Spade can actually back up his threats, though threatening is usually enough. When he barges into an unfamiliar situation, he has enough faith in himself to come out with the advantage. When he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he still plays along until someone spills the beans on the secret he’s missing.
And when a risky decision proves fruitful, he gives a wry smile that reveals his true motivation in all of it:
this is fun for him. He really doesn’t care about money, statues, romance or sentimentality. He’s just content to go through life knowing that, wherever he is, he’s the smartest one in the room.
Second is the entire idea of noir itself. The defining features of noir are the mood and atmosphere, the plot is incidental. The reason for it being so hopelessly complicated isn’t that it’s so good and subtle you’ll want to watch it again to understand, like The Godfather. It’s difficult to understand so that you won’t pay attention to it. Noir plots revolve around MacGuffins. MacGuffins don’t matter. It could be diamonds, jewels, microfilm, a treasure map, anything that makes the people in the story go to such lengths.
But is it art?
The Maltese Falcon was the directorial debut of legendary the John Huston, and the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Bogart (including two films in this series, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen). It was not the first time Dashiell Hammett’s story had been filmed, though; a 1931, pre-code adaptation had been a relative success. The problem was that the Hays Production Code was not yet in effect, and some of the seedier parts of the novel were more scandalously portrayed: bisexuality, sexual desire, stockings, what have you. Rather than edit it to conform to new codes, the studio decided to just make a new movie that did fall within Code regulations. The original can still be found by the name Dangerous Female.
It’s easy to watch The Maltese Falcon and see it as a bit broad and hokey and full of tropes we’re entirely too familiar with. But noir is about the experience, not the story. Crimes go unsolved, villains go unpunished, life goes on. Nobody’s life is better at the end of Double Indemnity, and there really isn’t any justice to speak of.
In The Maltese Falcon, Spade doesn’t really deserve to come out on top; he’s as cold and uncaring as the bad guys. He’d been sleeping with his dead partner’s wife and he didn’t even wait until the burial before he had the name on his office repainted. He just won because that’s what he knows how to do. He might have run off with the girl and the money, but the girl had been lying and was involved in his partner’s murder.
Maybe it was his good side coming out. Maybe it was him realizing that this is all silly, life doesn’t actually work this way. I tend to believe that it was self-preservation; she’d killed before, she might do it again.
If nobody else ended up with the upper hand, Spade may have walked away a rich man. But in the end, it was more important that he won over these other people than that he blew a fortune over some sense of fairness. Man, this is good stuff.
Comments: This is classic noir; morally ambiguous, hyper-real, cynical but never hopeless, and even the most serious situation is just one big cosmic joke.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. Noir doesn’t get much better than this.
Inspired: Not the first noir, not the best, but probably the most consequential and archetypal. Once you’ve experienced your share, check out the classic Steve Martin movie Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
Next Week: #22 2001: A Space Odyssey
Last Week: #24 Raging Bull
AFI 100 IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY THE FINE FINE PEOPLE AT MOVIEWORKS BOSTON WHO HAVE A SHITTON OF MOVIES. IT’S WHERE I GET MY MOVIES FOR THIS PROJECT AND YOU SHOULD TOO.
BUY THE MOVIE HERE.
GO TO THE AFI 100 LANDING PAGE TO SEE MORE.
FOLLOW THE EXPLOITS ON TWITTER @DAILYFANBOY.