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"The Maltese Falcon" (1941) - John Huston's Directorial Debut, and Hollywood's First Major Film Noir, Starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade


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It's incredible that I'd never before seen "The Maltese Falcon" (it's one of those films where you're not sure if you've seen or not, but I hadn't). Turner Classic Movies has embarked upon a project where they're slowly releasing classic films in dribs and drabs onto the big screen - one, maybe two, a month - and out here in San Francisco right now, "The Maltese Falcon" is playing only four times (two days this week, twice each day). I am *so* glad I saw this on the big screen.

I really wasn't expecting all that I got from this film, but I thought it was wonderful. It was Humphrey Bogart's first leading role. It was Sydney Greenstreet's first role period (he was in his 60s, and made his Hollywood debut). It was the first major effort in the film noir genre, and I can't imagine anyone but Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade. It was a delightful hour and forty minutes, and I simply cannot compare this with Star Wars: The Force Awakens I saw two days before because I liked this infinitely more.

Stepping out of the theater, I felt like I saw a *movie*; not rode a ride designed by computer-effects specialists at Walt Disney. You can call this film noir if you want, but it was also a character study, with virtually no character being portrayed in black-and-white terms. This was the films 75th anniversary, and oh, how Hollywood has fallen backwards in so very many ways. (I'm not saying in *all* ways; when I say "no character being portrayed in black and white terms," I could have also said "no black character portrayed" except maybe a bellhop.)

At one point in the film, Humphrey Bogart burned a piece of paper in an ashtray, and we couldn't figure out what it was, or why he was burning it - has anyone seen this film recently?

This film is based on Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel of the same name, and was actually the *third* version of the film released by Hollywood (there was one in 1931, and one in 1936 (*) Bette Davis), but this is reportedly the best of the three by far.

(*) To tie this post in with restaurants, I swear to you that the 1936 film, entitled "Satan Met A Lady," featured none other than Arthur Treacher. Yes, *that* Arthur Treacher.

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This was the films 75th anniversary, and oh, how Hollywood has fallen backwards in so very many ways. 

I don't think this is a fair comparison. You're comparing one of the few films to survive from 75 years ago, and one of the great films in history, against a for-the-masses action film. Of course nearly every film made today will suffer against such a film.

But look at the BEST that Hollywood has produced in the past decade, and compare them against MALTESE, and I don't think you can make the same assertion.

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I don't think this is a fair comparison. You're comparing one of the few films to survive from 75 years ago, and one of the great films in history, against a for-the-masses action film. Of course nearly every film made today will suffer against such a film.

But look at the BEST that Hollywood has produced in the past decade, and compare them against MALTESE, and I don't think you can make the same assertion.

But I think in its day, "The Maltese Falcon" *was* a "for-the-masses" film - it's no great work of art, that's for sure - just straight, film noir with a storyline, but of no great value other than being an important piece of mid-20th-century American history (and, of course, a fun story to watch).

Nevertheless, my companion pointed out the exact same thing you did - Hollywood *is* putting out good film right now; it just wasn't this particular episode of Star Wars. The only special effects The Maltese Falcon had were stunt doubles used in the "sock-in-the-jaw" scenes.

Your point is well-taken. The goal of my post was to engage people in conversation; not to make any grand assertions, so please do take it in that regard.

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But I think in its day, "The Maltese Falcon" *was* a "for-the-masses" film - it's no great work of art, that's for sure - just straight, film noir with a storyline, but of no great value other than being an important piece of mid-20th-century American history (and, of course, a fun story to watch).

Nevertheless, my companion pointed out the exact same thing you did - Hollywood *is* putting out good film right now; it just wasn't this particular episode of Star Wars. The only special effects The Maltese Falcon had were stunt doubles used in the "sock-in-the-jaw" scenes.

Your point is well-taken. The goal of my post was to engage people in conversation; not to make any grand assertions, so please do take it in that regard.

If I didn't have a lot of evidence that shows conclusively that you're not an idiot, I would have said that anyone who thinks the 1941 Maltese Falcon is not a great work of art is an idiot. It is one of the finest examples of the film-maker's art ever produced. It's on practically every 100-best list you can find (although such lists also generally include pukefests like It's a Wonderful Life). The script, the cast, the sets, the lighting, the cinematography, the pacing-- all tuned to a point of breath-taking near-perfection. This is one of my favorite movies, all of which are great works of art.

I believe in the scene you mention in the original post, Spade is burning a piece of paper that has the Mary Astor character's new address written on it. He burns it presumably because he doesn't want anyone else to see it. (The character was still Miss Wonderly at that point.)

I've seen both of the earlier films based on Hammett's novel. The first, also called The Maltese Falcon, is a not-bad little early talkie. Satan Met a Lady is a straight-up stinker.

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If I didn't have a lot of evidence that shows conclusively that you're not an idiot, I would have said that anyone who thinks the 1941 Maltese Falcon is not a great work of art is an idiot. It is one of the finest examples of the film-maker's art ever produced. It's on practically every 100-best list you can find (although such lists also generally include pukefests like It's a Wonderful Life). The script, the cast, the sets, the lighting, the cinematography, the pacing-- all tuned to a point of breath-taking near-perfection. This is one of my favorite movies, all of which are great works of art.

I believe in the scene you mention in the original post, Spade is burning a piece of paper that has the Mary Astor character's new address written on it. He burns it presumably because he doesn't want anyone else to see it. (The character was still Miss Wonderly at that point.)

I've seen both of the earlier films based on Hammett's novel. The first, also called The Maltese Falcon, is a not-bad little early talkie. Satan Met a Lady is a straight-up stinker.

No, you're right - I meant a literary work of art. John Huston clearly got his filmmaking career off to a big bang with this film; the story itself takes a back seat to his groundbreaking directorial debut.

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No, you're right - I meant a literary work of art. John Huston clearly got his filmmaking career off to a big bang with this film; the story itself takes a back seat to his groundbreaking directorial debut.

*That* response silenced Herschel?! :wacko::)

Does anyone have access to Turner Classic Movies? In particular, this schedule would be worth a subscription fee for me, but how do you subscribe? (I don't have cable TV, and watch all movies on the internet, except for the rare occasions (twice this week!) I find myself in the actual cinema). There are *so many* great films I haven't yet seen, and TCM seems like it has a wonderful archive that I'd like to get my hands on

I subscribed to Amazon Prime, Hulu, and use a friend's Netflix account so I can avoid paying fees for movies - *now* they all seem like they've baited-and-switched me, and my accounts (which cost plenty when you add them all up) seem to grant me "the privilege of renting these films" - would having no account whatsoever cancel that "privilege" altogether? Why do I bother subscribing?

For example, my Hulu subscription used to enable me to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents ad-free; no longer. Now, I have the privilege of "reduced ads," and if I want commercial-free content, I'd had to pay about 50% more per month. This was absolutely - well, call it what you want: a change in policy, a bait-and-switch ... whatever it is, I don't appreciate being nickled and dimed, and that's what I feel like these companies are doing to me.

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*That* response silenced Herschel?! :wacko::)

I didn't respond because I couldn't figure out what your comment was supposed to mean.

Netflix has streaming episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" for all of season 1. I think they used to have additional seasons, but they don't seem to be there now.

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No, you're right - I meant a literary work of art. 

*That* response silenced Herschel?! :wacko::)

I didn't respond because I couldn't figure out what your comment was supposed to mean.

literary: of or pertaining to literature

Call it the novel, the screenplay, or whatever literary component you want, but this could have been a very ordinary film, given its raw material; it was the casting, the cinematography, and the directing that elevated it into something more than a forgotten piece of mediocrity.

No, not the script. I have no problem in saying "it wasn't bad," but that's as far as I'm willing to go. If you want to equate "The Maltese Falcon" with "a work of art," then I'm going to insist you do it from the filmmaking angle (which you seem to do in the quote below). The fact that it's the first well-known work of American film noir also gives it major historical importance, doubly so since this genre influenced French New Wave Cinema.

It is one of the finest examples of the film-maker's art ever produced.

 
Of course, it also influenced one of the most overrated filmmakers of all-time: Quentin Tarantino - the devil-spawn of David Mamet.
 

"The Maltese Falcon" is also the one movie where I finally felt like I "got" Humphrey Bogart - as I said above, I can't imagine anyone else playing Sam Spade than him, and I now understand why he was chosen for the role of Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," which came out the following year (it should be required that every student of film sees "The Maltese Falcon" *before* seeing "Casablanca" - otherwise, Bogart's romance with Ingrid Bergman comes off as being "forced" at best, "absurd" at worst).

Incredibly, I've never seen "It's A Wonderful Life."

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literary: of or pertaining to literature

Call it the novel, the screenplay, or whatever literary component you want, but this could have been a very ordinary film, given its raw material; it was the casting, the cinematography, and the directing that elevated it into something more than a forgotten piece of mediocrity.

No, not the script. I have no problem in saying "it wasn't bad," but that's as far as I'm willing to go. If you want to equate "The Maltese Falcon" with "a work of art," then I'm going to insist you do it from the filmmaking angle (which you seem to do in the quote below). The fact that it's the first well-known work of American film noir also gives it major historical importance, doubly so since this genre influenced French New Wave Cinema.

 
Of course, it also influenced one of the most overrated filmmakers of all-time: Quentin Tarantino - the devil-spawn of David Mamet.
 

"The Maltese Falcon" is also the one movie where I finally felt like I "got" Humphrey Bogart - as I said above, I can't imagine anyone else playing Sam Spade than him, and I now understand why he was chosen for the role of Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," which came out the following year (it should be required that every student of film sees "The Maltese Falcon" *before* seeing "Casablanca" - otherwise, Bogart's romance with Ingrid Bergman comes off as being "forced" at best, "absurd" at worst).

Incredibly, I've never seen "It's A Wonderful Life."

Don, this (your first couple of paragraphs) is nonsensical, and what I meant when I said I couldn't figure out what you were saying. Of course the film The Maltese Falcon isn't a great work of literature: It's not a work of literature. When you said it isn't a great work of art, and I said oh yes it is, and you responded that you meant it wasn't a great literary work, I couldn't make head or tail of that and still can't. At the same time, of course, Dashiell Hammett's book The Maltese Falcon actually is a great work of literature, and if you haven't read it I suggest you do, as I recommend all of Hammett's work. One of the most original and interesting voices in American letters.

Of Tarantino's work, I've seen only Pulp Fiction, and that was enough to convince me I didn't want to see any more of it. I love Casablanca, but it actually is absurd on many levels, even silly, which The Maltese Falcon decidedly is not. Have you seen The African Queen? Bogart received his one (well-deserved) Oscar for it.

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Don, this (your first couple of paragraphs) is nonsensical, and what I meant when I said I couldn't figure out what you were saying. Of course the film The Maltese Falcon isn't a great work of literature: It's not a work of literature. 

I understand that you're not making sense of what I wrote, and am perfectly content to leave it at that, because I can't spell it out any more clearly than I did.

Not that I need convincing (*), but I'd love to hear what about this film resonates with you so greatly - not in order to sway my opinion, but because I'm interested in hearing yours. Or maybe, you can share with us some things about the movie that we may not know - I, for one, would be very interested in reading what you have to say, as always.

 

(*) I am *so* glad I saw this on the big screen.

...

I really wasn't expecting all that I got from this film, but I thought it was wonderful .... It was a delightful hour and forty minutes, and I simply cannot compare this with Star Wars: The Force Awakens I saw two days before because I liked this infinitely more.

...

Stepping out of the theater, I felt like I saw a *movie*; not rode a ride designed by computer-effects specialists at Walt Disney. You can call this film noir if you want, but it was also a character study, with virtually no character being portrayed in black-and-white terms.

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