Film noir was
a film classification not defined until most films in the noir
style had already been made. It was a term (translated as
"dark film" or "black film") coined in the mid-1950s by film critics
writing for the French periodical Cahiers
that referred to certain post-war American films that shared such
common trademarks as trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing detectives and
reporters (usually world-weary but anchored by their morals), gunplay
and violence, duplicitous femmes fatale, shadowy and atmospheric
lighting, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked streets at night, and an overall
pessimistic tone. Although some may contend, therefore, that
is not a proper genre -- the makers of such films, after all, made
"crime pictures" and "social melodramas" -- the films themselves share
more common elements than any other "properly" defined genre such as
comedies or Westerns. And the film that started it all was
Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON.
Although not as shadowy in visual style as later films noir, it was the prototypical "hardboiled detective" film, in which cynical gumshoe Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) confronts typical noir-world denizens (from venal bigshot Sydney Greenstreet to misfits and small-timers such as Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr.), and falls for a double-dealing dame (Mary Astor) in the process. Although a bit plodding in spots, THE MALTESE FALCON is still one of the best-loved and most-imitated motion pictures of all time. It was also one of the films most instrumental in establishing Bogart as a major star -- which, in addition to its many classic qualities, more than justifies its existence. - JL
Cagney and Robinson found stardom at the beginning of their careers. Bogey had to wait longer. Although he could shine in the occasional good part, he was essentially a third-stringer, prone to be the other tough guy in Warner Brothers films, or even the other other tough guy. He had screen presence and a memorable voice, but so did Cagney, Robinson and Raft, and they were already stars, so Bogey had to remain patient and wait his turn. HIGH SIERRA seemed to be the turning point, Bogart scoring in a superior part, one that George Raft turned down. Soon after came THE MALTESE FALCON, Bogart once again the beneficiary of another boneheaded refusal by George Raft.
Look at THE MALTESE FALCON now and you wonder why it took Warners so long to see the talents of Humphrey Bogart. He acts in the film as if he had always been a star. He's Bogey - slapping people around, tossing out tough guy quips, remaining the absolute center of the film as events whirl and swirl around him. Of course, credit must also go to first-time director John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay. Bogey and Huston would collaborate several times more over the years, resulting in classics like THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, KEY LARGO and THE AFRICAN QUEEN.
Oh, and the movie? One word: crackling. Crackling dialogue, crackling performances, clean, crackling direction. The standout performer, aside from Bogart, has to be Sydney Greenstreet in his first film, playing "The Fat Man". Any scene featuring him and Bogart is worth watching on repeat several times. "By Gad, you are a character!" Peter Lorre is also perfect as the oily, fussy Joel Cairo, whom is pushed and slapped around by Bogart throughout the film. I am on the fence about Mary Astor, but she does nothing to hurt the film. But she is almost outacted by Elisha Cook, Jr as Wilmer ("The Gunsel"), playing the part of "the other tough guy" that Bogart might have played had George Raft decided to take the part of Sam Spade. - JB
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Satan Met a Lady (1936)
The Black Bird (1975)
(With George Segal as Sam Spade, Jr. and Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook reprising their original roles as Effie and Wilmer.)