I've been studying up on the genre of film noir because I am writing a noir-esque screenplay. But I think that it is something of a misnomer to call film noir a genre, in that it's not so much a genre as it is a visual and narrative style. This allow for the style of noir to be superimposed on more established genres, most commonly detective fiction and thrillers, but it can also work with everything from fantasy to horror to romance- anything but comedy I reckon, unless you're going for a parody (scribbles down idea). But to get to the point, The Maltese Falcon is the quintessential film noir, but does that mean it's any good? Hard to say. I suppose it has a good visual style, but the set up lacks somewhat in subtlety. But let's handle the premise first.
The Maltese Falcon tells of an episode from the life of Sam Spade (Humphey Bogart), a private detective in San Francisco who is approached by a mysterious woman (Mary Astor) about a job shadowing some guy named Thursby, who she initially says is running around with her sister. Spade finds out that there's more to it than that when his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan, who played the District Attorney in Miracle on 34th Street), and Thursby turns up dead shortly after. This is all done in rapid succession, with the two deaths happening within seconds of each other in real time. Anyhow, Spade learns that the woman, named Brigid O'Shaughnessy, is actually competing with three shady treasure hunters for possession of a MacGuffin called the Maltese Falcon, a fabulous, jewel encrusted statuette. This is a tale of danger, deception, murder, marital unfaithfulness, greed, crime, and general mystery. As it is, though it is visually pretty tame, it's still a moderately dark film (both literally and figuratively) in tone. Indeed, it was pretty risque for its time.
Noir films are, by definition, cynical. There's no easily defined hero (Roger Ebert said in his review of Batman Returns that noir's message is that there are no heroes, making it difficult to make a noir superhero film, for obvious reasons), nobody gets what they want, the world is cynical, the characters are cynical in worldview and demeanor, everything's poorly lit, and a host of other things. Even the policemen in this movie (Detectives Dundy and Tom Polhaus, played by Barton MacLane and Ward Bond, respectively) aren't exactly portrayed as likeable, or even fairly competent, though there's a noticeable aversion of Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop at the end (TvTropes overload!).
Firstly, this film, the second noir film ever made according to tvtropes.org (Stranger on the Third Floor was the first) and John Huston's directorial debut, is very melodramatic. I feel that this may have been unintentional just because not a whole lot of time is spent developing the characters or on important plot points, such as Archer's sudden death. It's not a spoiler, mind you, since it happens pretty early on in the film. Like I said, there's very little set up, so there wasn't much time to drive the point home. But the point of this film isn't to portray sympathetic characters with detailed motivations, but rather to give us a decidedly unlikeable protagonist in the jerkaholic Sam Spade, who's cheating with his dead partner's wife, and generally treats Brigid like dirt. The only person he seems to genuinely get along and likes is his loyal secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick). Also, I should let you all know that this movie is based on a book, so that's usually a good sign. Not this time, I'm afraid. It's also the third film adaptation of the book, so maybe that negates the whole "based on a book equals a good thing" factor.
I'll admit, the film is visually interesting, with a trio of semi-compelling villains and an edgy protagonist, and it's got some good suspense, but that's about it. It's all style and no substance, kind of like Green Lantern (which I thoroughly disliked); it's pretty cool if you see a trailer for it or watch it on mute, but once you stick in the dialogue and actually hear what's going on, there's not a whole lot to it. Nonetheless, this movie was nominated for three Academy Awards (!) and has been reviewed by Roger Ebert as one of the best films of all time. But why? I think it's because, despite its flaws, this is a genuinely enthralling tale. We want to see what happens to Brigid and Sam, we want to see who killed Miles and Thursby, and why, and we want to know why on Earth do the Fat Man, Cairo, and their "gunsel" (played by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr., respectively) as Sam calls him want the statuette, (apart from its obvious monetary and historical value, though that's never elaborated upon)?
I would have appreciated some more action in this film, which is more of suspenseful thriller (if melodrama can be "thrilling") than an action oriented film like I'm used to. A gun fight, I suppose, would be out of character for the firearm-eschewing Sam Spade, and the (slightly) more guile-based villains. But nevertheless, one of the posters of this film makes Spade look like the trigger-happy sort, so I would have liked to see some truth in advertising.
Because of these things, The Maltese Falcon wasn't one of my favorite films, but it had an okay plot, just not the best execution. And like I said, this was one of the first film noirs ever made, and the director's debut, so maybe that contributed to it. I guess if you like long, drawn out conflicts and melodrama, melodrama, melodrama, then you'll like this. But I think that a more sharp, more deliberate remake is in order. Given the decent plot and interesting characters, plus a good director and writers and talented actors, and just a tiny bit more action, that movie could be a pretty sweet film.
Image courtesy of dvdbeaver.com
Fun fact: Coruscant police official Pol Haus from the Star Wars: Coruscant Nights trilogy was obviously based off of Detective Tom Polhaus from this film. Indeed, Coruscant Nights is a pretty good example of a melodramatic fantasy/science-fiction noir, albeit an only fairly good one.