When “The Maltese Falcon” debuted in the fall of 1941, it was to a country of movie fans raised on a simple idea: The good guys wear white and the bad guys black.
But this was at the tail end of the Great Depression and a war was raging in Europe. Things were tough all over, in other words, and American cinema — still little more than a decade into the sound era — was undergoing rapid change. White hats vs. black hats wasn’t going to cut it.
Enter Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the blueprint for Hollywood’s most enduring male character: the antihero.
If you see “The Maltese Falcon” tonight at the Louisville Palace as part of its The Directors Series of summer films, Bogart’s Spade will seem familiar. That’s because this guy has been everywhere in the 70 years since “Falcon” — conflicted, damaged, loose with the law, violent, cynical and yet possessing a code of honor.
In 1941, this kind of Hollywood leading man had only been hinted at, and Bogart’s compelling, influential performance is but one of many reasons that “The Maltese Falcon” has endured as a cultural milestone and significant moment in Hollywood history.
“The Maltese Falcon,” adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, also marks the following:
It began the era of film noir, one of Hollywood’s greatest periods, with gritty — even savage — stories of frequently doomed men and the dames that love and kill them. Or both.
John Huston, an accomplished screenwriter, made his directorial debut here and went on to create one of his generation’s most celebrated resumes.
The short, sweet film career of Sydney Greenstreet began here, and he’s a revelation. He was joined by the veteran Peter Lorre in the ensemble cast, and their chemistry was such that they made nine more films together.
The ascendance of Bogart as tough-guy superstar.
Towering above all else, however, is one simple, unimpeachable truth: This movie is an absolute blast, on first viewing or 50th.
Louisville writer Chip Nold has been a fan since he finally saw “The Maltese Falcon” in college after hearing about it for years via parodies such as “The Maltese Bippy” on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” The movie got him hooked on film noir.
“It is just such a great movie,” Nold said, emphasizing each word as if still in awe of the film. “In film noir, there are a certain few that really tower above the rest as the best. ‘Maltese Falcon,’ ‘Double Indemnity,’ ‘The Big Sleep,’ ‘The Killing’ and, if you count it as noir, ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ which I kind of do.”
Bogart is technically the star of the film, but the entire cast is crucial, with Mary Astor as the duplicitous dame; Lorre as the oily, tightly wound Joel Cairo; Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, a gunsel who’s in over his head; and Greenstreet as The Fat Man, Kasper Gutman, in a performance that manages to be simultaneously extravagant and deliciously subtle.
They all take enormous pleasure in chewing up Hammett’s dialogue, which flies by so fast you can barely keep up.
“You’re good,” Spade tells the dame when she tries to con him a third time. “It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like, ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.’”
“Thursby die?” Spade playfully asks a couple of cops who want to pin him to a murder. “How’d I kill him? I forget.”
At one point Spade has just disarmed Wilmer, handily, in the hallway outside of Gutman’s room. Inside, he hands the two pistols to The Fat Man.
“You shouldn’t let him go around with these on him,” Spade says. “He might get himself hurt.”
“Well, what’s this?” replies a delighted Gutman.
“A crippled newsy took ’em away from him,” says Spade. “I made him give ’em back.”
Gutman is beside himself with joy. “By gad, sir, you’re a chap worth knowing. An amazing character.”
Greenstreet nearly steals the movie, but it is the glorious sum of its considerable parts that makes “The Maltese Falcon” so entertaining 72 years after it was made. That’s how it works with game-changers, and Hollywood spent the next 15 years trying to duplicate its success.
“I’d be willing to bet that much of film noir was people saying, ‘Make me a movie like “The Maltese Falcon,”’” Nold said. “I bet that got said a thousand times in Hollywood. That portrayal of Sam Spade was just such an important step in this whole century-long project of eliminating the unrealistic, upstanding hero.”
Or as The Fat Man says, “By gad, sir, you are a character. That you are! There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, but it’s bound to be astonishing.”
At least that.
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160.