Yes, Virginia, it is.
Though clearly indebted to the Dashiell Hammett source novel, The Maltese Falcon represents the first appearance of all the components of classic film noir. Falcon had been filmed twice before: in 1931, before the Production Code deemed that version too spicy for general consumption; and in 1936, as Satan Met A Lady. The latter version was so radically rewritten that it ended up as a light romantic comedy. The kind with murders!
This was John Huston’s first film as director. (His father, Walter Huston, makes an unbilled cameo appearance offered as a “good luck charm” to his son—try to spot him next time you watch the film!) Apparently, Huston so wanted to be a good director that he meticulously planned the film, writing an adaptation crammed with detail so the actors could do their jobs without a lot of fuss and feathers. He even storyboarded every scene for the crew (a rarity at the time.) Huston figured that he would be asked back to direct as long as he didn’t go over budget or over schedule.
Between Hammett’s terrific crime novel as source material, Huston’s lean, intuitive direction, and Bogart’s career-making performance as Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon stands as the first American film to define noir, a full five or six years before the genre took off after World War II. Here we find all the hallmarks of the genre: the cynical, bruised hero; the lying femme fatale; the other shady, desperate characters looking for a break; and, foremost, the pervasive sense of futility and hopelessness that underlies the entire enterprise.
It is in Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the hard-boiled Sam Spade that we find another hallmark of film noir: the protagonist who skirts the line between hero and villain, between sincerity and irony. He is a unique addition to American film and indicative of the peculiar “ironic schizophrenia” of the modern age—we are both in our lives and outside our lives, commenting on them. Why else would film noirs be so dependent upon incessant voice-over narration?
(referring to the falcon, multiple times)
“Your little dingus…”
(referring to a male cop and his male boss)
“You brought your boyfriend over here…”
(referring to Mary Astor’s playacting, multiple times)
“You’re good… you’re very good.”
(referring to the fact that he will not be tricked by a dame, multiple times)
“I won’t play the sap for you.”
Director Huston highlights the fact that it is Bogart’s film (Bogart is in every scene, save one) in several subtle ways, including the film’s then-groundbreaking use of optical wipes as a transitioning device. When Huston uses the vertical wipe, I noticed that, more often than not, he uses Bogart’s body in motion as a starting point. That is, the wipe will “follow” Bogart from screen right to screen left, almost implying that Bogart’s power and charisma is so great, it is somehow influencing or controlling the mechanics of the film itself. Not only do we follow Bogart on his dark adventure, but the film literally follows him as well.
As important as Bogart is to the film as a whole, he almost has the film stolen right from under him by the great Sydney Greenstreet. It’s difficult to believe that The Maltese Falcon was Greenstreet’s first film—at age 61! Sydney Greenstreet is how I imagine that I will look and sound in about ten years. Do you hear me, Hollywood?
That decision seems stage bound, but it works. Huston has a strong directorial perspective that he transfers onto film to become the intense, controlling perspective of protagonist Sam Spade. As the film progresses—and as if stealing the falcon itself wasn’t enough—Greenstreet’s character, in his uniqueness and evil energy, almost manages to steal our protagonist’s perspective (the male gaze, if you will) along with it. In the end, Sam wrenches it back.
As a first-time director, maybe Huston didn’t know that his unique methods were creating a new genre of film, or maybe that was his intention all along. Either way, I find his treatment of perspective to be a brilliant way for Huston to underscore what would become a defining theme of film noir: in our modern age, the truth is infinitely malleable. There is no objective truth, only versions of the truth. Story (not plot, but each character’s perspective of it) is everything—story and style.
You know… the stuff dreams are made of.