A little while ago I read and re-watched the tale that many discuss as being the peak of film noir (and its literary equivalent hard-boiled), The Big Sleep. With the down at heel detective, glamorous femme fatale and tale of intrigue and murder it’s hard to argue against it.
However, four years before that film got its release a very similar but at the same time rather different movie had hit screens that to me is the superior – John Huston’s version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon.
Like The Big Sleep it stars Humphrey Bogart as a hard-boiled private investigator and features the usual tropes of noir, but really there the similarities end.
Being comparatively low-budget and under the radar, made before either lead actor or director had become household names, The Maltese Falcon is a far more honest picture with a much darker and more enveloping feel to it.
The story centres on the titular maguffin as we follow P.I. Sam Spade (Bogart) as he unravels a web that begins with the story of a missing girl that quickly becomes a double murder and then something far more complex.
Bogart at the heart of all this is masterful.
Even though only four years before The Big Sleep he feels far more youthful and vital as the detective, matching the energy of the film, as he dashes around downtown San Francisco as the four threads of the plot spin around him like web around a fly.
As well as the energy, his portrayal of Spade is far more nuanced than his take on Chandler’s Marlowe – while this may be in how the character is written it feels like a lot of this also comes from a less cynical, less ‘star vehicle’ approach from the actor and his director.
The supporting cast, from Mary Astor’s femme fatale Brigid O’Shaugnessy on down, is tremendous.
Bogart and Astor spark off each other suitably well to keep up the energy while Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo brings a brilliantly mysterious quality that nicely never quite resolves itself even as the closing credits roll.
While the film is fairly stagey and talky, as one would expect of the time and the style, the dialogue fizzes and the action scenes are handled in astonishing fashion helping develop the brisk but never rushed pace.
What really sets the film off on top of all of this is its use (and apparent institution) of one of the big stylistic tropes of film noir, as it takes a big nod from the German expressionism of two decades earlier using darkness and shadow to set not just a mood but actively further the character, story and overall style of the film.
In combining all these factors The Maltese Falcon is to film noir what Die Hard is to modern action movies or Halloween is to the stalk and slash horror film and Huston therefore is to the style what John McTiernan and John Carpenter were to their’s making the film not just historically fascinating but still an essential piece of viewing for anyone with even the mildest interest in cinema.