A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Maltese Falcon

June 8, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

It’s shameful admission time. Tonight is the first time I’ve ever seen this movie. It’s one of those classic movies that everybody has heard of and if you’re a movie fan people kind of assume that you’ve seen this sometime. It’s got the WB stable of forties actors. Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre would all be back in one year to make Casablanca, which I have seen many a time. My sister went through a Humphrey Bogart phase at one point in our youth and rented every one of his films, but I must have not been home when she watched this one.

Having finally seen this I have to admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. It’s not a bad movie, and it has some fun performances, but it’s not really all that. Maybe the problem is that the movie is so commonly praised – my expectations were set too high.

I did really enjoy Bogart’s Sam Spade. It’s not as though Bogart is a stranger to the role of a hard-boiled detective, but this was not quite what I was expecting. I’m much more familiar with his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and I was pleasantly surprised that this character is so different and distinctive. It’s the sly kind of humor he brings to the part that I find so enjoyable. As a character Sam Spade is what Amanda would call Methosian – he’s a survivor and although the other characters in the movie seem to have a lot of trouble figuring out whose side he’s on it’s pretty clear from the very beginning that Sam Spade is on Sam Spade’s side.

He finds himself embroiled in a situation filled with danger, double crosses and avarice. When a woman hires Sam and his partner to tail a man that she claims her sister has run away with everything very quickly gets bad. Sam’s partner ends up dead, as does the man he was tailing. The police figure that Sam himself is the prime suspect in at least one of those murders. Sam’s a canny man though, he figures that he’s being played by the mysterious woman who has lied to him about everything from why she wanted a man tailed to what her name is.

Part of the problem with this movie for me is that I never for a moment saw any hint of romance between Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy Mary is convincing and manipulative. She’s a woman who never once seems to tell the whole truth, and the Sam is well aware of this. And yet there’s supposed to be some attraction between the two of them. The climactic moment at the finale of the movie relies on there being a connection between the two of them which forces Sam to make a choice between self preservation and love for Brigid. I don’t sense that necessary conflict, and it robs the movie of its power.

The other bad guys, however, are plenty of fun. Peter Lorre with his distinctive look and accent is fantastic as the weaselly and somewhat effete Joel Cairo. Then there’s Sydney Greenstreet as the corpulent Kasper Gutman, who seems honestly to enjoy Sam’s antics almost as much as the audience does. Perhaps even more so. I enjoyed watching both of them throughout the film.

This movie has everything you’d expect from your hard boiled detective drama. Double crossings. Mickey finns. Irish police officers. Murders. Tails. Guns. Even a kickass loyal dame who helps Sam out at every turn (and I really wish that the character of Effie were featured more prominently.) But I couldn’t help feeling at every turn that I had seen these cliches used better – even in some cases by the same actors we see here. I do wonder, though, if maybe they weren’t so cliched at the time. Perhaps the movie would have been more powerful to me if I had not been raised on so many stories that clearly used this movie as their inspiration. When you’ve seen Captain Picard playing on the holodeck as Terrance Dicks so many times in clear spoofs of precisely this kind of movie it tends to lessen the impact of the source material.

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June 8, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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