Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Maltese Falcon


It was a lot of fun to see this, probably the greatest hardboiled detective movie of all time, right after seeing the original version, also released as Dangerous Female. In my review of that one, I mentioned the static camera, the noisy sound track, and the old-fashioned silent movie acting. Watching this one now, I realized that the most important thing the 1931 version lacked was music. Synchronized sound was still in its infancy, and what you recorded on the set was what you got. Not very much dubbing afterward, and very often these films had no background music. It was technically just too hard.

And it is amazing how much of a difference that makes. It is certainly possible to make a film with no background music; many wonderful films have been made that way. But in a story like this, in good old noir black and white, you really, really need it. It does so much to enhance the tension, the mood, a sense of menace, a feeling between two lovers. Try to imagine the final scene of Casablanca without “As Time Goes By” playing behind the actors. You can’t, any more than you can imagine George Raft as Rick.

Not much else to say here, except of course to mention all the fantastically good supporting players. Peter Lorre (birth name László Löwenstein) is so good at playing creepy or sycophantic cowards and madmen, going all the way back to his third film, M, where he played a pedophile serial killer. Sidney Greenstreet, possibly the most jovial villain ever to appear on the screen. “By gad, sir, you are a character!” Mary Astor, as possibly the biggest liar. And the often overlooked Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer, the “gunsel” who couldn’t hang onto his pistols every time Sam Spade encountered him. He was so good at being a pathetic wannabe hood, as he did again so memorably in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. BTW: I had always assumed that gunsel meant a gunman. And it does … but it also means a homosexual. In the book Wilmer was explicitly referred to as a “queer.” Slipped that one past the Hayes Office!

On this viewing I noticed for the first time that Captain Jacoby, who staggers into Spade’s office, mortally wounded, holding what we assume to be the Black Bird, is played by John Huston’s father, Walter. He co-starred with Bogey in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Oh, and this happens to be John Huston’s first film as a director. It was plain to see that he was going to be a major one.