Looking back at Bogie and Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"


"hmm, Bogie". That's what Jean-Paul Belmondo's character in Breathless silently utters to himself as he spots a Humphrey Bogart movie poster on his way out of the movies. That pretty much explains in a nutshell the influence that Bogart had on screen acting. Godard's French New Wave masterpiece is known as the first "modern" movie in the history of cinema. No coincidence it is heavily influenced by Bogart's movies, specifically The Maltese Falcon. Directed by John Huston, this 1940 masterpiece features an astonishing performance from Bogart as Samuel Spade, a private detective that enters a case that involves three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous pathological liar and a golden statuette that everybody wants a piece of.

 Huston and Bogart put plot in the backseat for character. What we get is the story of a man that isn't your typical hero, in fact he isn't a hero at all. Spade is a man that has his own moral code. His own rules of the game. The whodunit becomes less important than how we respond to the strong screen presence of Bogart and his co-stars. That's what makes `The Maltese Falcon' a classic. We see more and appreciate more each time we watch it. Huston invented what the French called film noir, in honor of Hollywood films (often `B' movies, cheap to make, second movies in double features) that took no-name stars into city streets to pit tough guys, often with a vulnerable streak, against dangerous dames.  Bogart was luckier than most noir heroes, but it cost him. Struggling to maintain his own independence – against the claims of love or his own penchant towards dishonesty – the Bogart hero can do little better than surrender, with a rueful shrug, to the irony his survival depends on.  

For Huston, telling this story posed a different problem. Telling it straight wasn't possible – too many twists.Plot is irrelevant here. Small, unique touches are of the upmost importance instead.
 Huston chose to focus on characters. One way to appreciate Huston's choices is to LISTEN to the movie. Hear the voices. Notice how Huston relies on the exotic accents of his characters to keep us interested. Could we endure the scene in which main villain Kasper Guttman explains the history of the Maltese falcon unless his clipped, somewhat prissy English accent held our attention? Same with Joe Cairo, his criminal associate and a man with almost indescribable accent. There are clues throughout that the 3 male villains of the piece might also be gay, Cairo is mocked by Spade for having a "perfumed Handkerchief" and we all know what that meant back in 1941. 

 All of this leads to the ending, minutes of screen time in which more goes on, gesture by gesture, than a million words could summarize. He loves her, maybe, but he won't be a sucker. After the film, we're left with Spade, whom we like and loathe, a man whose sense of justice squares, just this once, with our own, maybe but who's moral code conflicts with our own. At least he follows that moral code. Take this for example: Spade didn't much like his murdered partner to begin with, after all he had an affair with his partner's wife. But he wanted to find the person that ousted him. "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.” It seems to be a street code, a rule of the game for Spade, even if it means bringing the woman he loves to jail. With all the harsh things Spade is capable of doing we still respect him for sticking by the set of rules he has chosen to live by. He seems to be living in his own world of ethics and scenery. Bogart plays Spade rough, playful and with more than his fair share of demons stirring up inside him. That we never see these demons make's Huston's film all the more haunting.

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