AFI Countdown Challenge #23: The Maltese Falcon

My paternal grandfather wasn’t a man given to talking much about himself.  He was a quiet man, and he apparently didn’t care much for kids.  Once those kids became adults, that was another story, but he didn’t care for kids.  I can relate since, despite the many, many digital words I’ve spilled here, I consider myself a pretty quiet person.  As such, most of what I know about a man who died when I was in my late 20s comes from things my father told me about his father after the older man passed on.

One of the things I learned was The Maltese Falcon was his favorite movie.  Grandpop had good taste from the looks of things.

What is it about Humphrey Bogart working with John Huston?  They went well together, with this, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and one more still to come, and that’s just what I know about off the top of my head.  This one here is the prototypical film noir.  Bogart plays the world weariest of world weary detectives Sam Spade.  He’s a private eye with a partner, Miles Archer, and noir means even the good guys are less than moral figures.  Spade, for starters, seems to be having an affair with Archer’s wife.

That’s fine.  Archer seems intent on hitting on the pair’s new attractive woman client (Mary Astor).  Don’t get too attached to Miles.  He’s killed by an unseen assailant while working what he was told was a simple missing person’s case.

How do people feel about this?  Miles’ widow wants to make time with Sam.  Sam doesn’t want to deal with her and keeps instructing his loyal secretary Effie to get rid of her.  He also wants Miles’ name and desk removed from the office immediately.  Yes, it seems Sam didn’t even like Miles that much.

But who killed Miles and why?  That’s what Sam wants to know as he does what he can to avoid the police who want more answers than he is willing to give.  And that means getting answers from the woman who eventually gives him the name Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  What does she want?

The Maltese Falcon!  A statue of a bird, commissioned centuries earlier, covered in valuable jewels with a black coating over the top to make it look less than valuable.  It’s a priceless, legendary treasure wanted by the likes of Brigid, the weaselly Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and the wealthy and weighty “fat man,” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

By the by…Gutman may be the most appropriate name for a big fat guy I have seen in quite some time.

Further, I love how Huston always shot Greenstreet from an angle to emphasize his weight.

Like this.

So, who has the bird?  Who will get it?  What does Spade want with it?

To answer those questions:  I don’t know, nobody, and he doesn’t.

All Spade wants to know is who killed his partner.  He may not have liked the man, but Miles was still a partner, that has to mean something.  He eventually reveals Brigid killed Miles, and even though he is in love with her and she with him, she’s a noir girl and that isn’t going to be healthy.  She has to go away to prison.  It’s probably the only moment in the film when Bogart shows even a trace of emotion.  Up until then, he’s all calm and cool, just plain smarter than everyone around him, even the pompous, self-important Gutman who assumes he’s somehow above the petty concerns of “law enforcement”.

So, while these greedy, desperate people all put in claims for the bird, the sudden appearance by a dying man delivers it to Spade’s office (that was convenient, and it was Huston’s father Walter in a quick uncredited appearance).  But the thing is, this Maltese Falcon isn’t the real thing if there even is a real thing.  As Gutman desperately tries to peal off the enamel to show the valuable stuff underneath, his usual cool demeanor disappearing as he tries to scrape off the black to the jewels beneath, it becomes clear there isn’t anything valuable underneath.  The thing these people were hunting and killing for in San Francisco was a fake.  That would mean moving on if Spade hadn’t already called the police on them.

When people who know how stories work talk about MacGuffins, an object or objective that is really just there to start a plot off and doesn’t actually mean anything, is there any more obvious example than the Maltese Falcon?  The one that appears in the film is a worthless statue, and when asked about it, Sam says it is the stuff that dreams are made of, echoing a play by Shakespeare, The Tempest.  That play is about a magician who uses magic to conjure spirits to do his bidding.  It’s a fantasy, and that’s what the desperate characters giving Sam Spade trouble in this film are ultimately doing:  succumbing to a fantasy.  There may not really be a Maltese Falcon.  If there is, it wouldn’t matter.

Furthermore, how ironic is it in a noir people with dark souls are looking for something which has value only if you look beneath the surface, and then the one that shows up doesn’t have it.  It’s as worthless as the corrupt interior lives of most if not all of the characters in the film.

As such, Sam goes home, losing the potential love of his life because he won’t be a patsy.  Good for him.  Say, that Effie seems like a sweet woman.  She may be the one woman in the film not treated as an object of sexual attraction by the male gaze that is Bogart and the other men who aren’t asexual losers like Cairo.  The one thing I think I wondered the most was why Bogie didn’t hit on her.  She’s loyal, dependable, and as near as I can make out, not married.  She’d be perfect.

Of course, that sort of thing doesn’t work in a noir.

NEXT UP:  We got a weird one with the 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Oddessy.  It’s not every film that inspires conspiracy theories about the moon landing.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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