Revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’

blogopener2TCM in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon on February 21 and February 24, exhibiting the film at participating theaters. John Huston’s masterpiece, which shows at 2:00pm and 7:00pm on both days, will be introduced by Ben Mankiewicz in a brief filmed commentary. Check the Fathom website for more details.

Last fall, I showed The Maltese Falcon as part of a course on film noir. Though it is considered one of the earliest examples of noir, and therefore important as a foundation, I struggled with whether to show a film I had seen so many times. I thought of showing the less-familiar Stranger on the Third Floor, because it would be more interesting to me. But, I knew that the majority of the students had not seen The Maltese Falcon. As I began to pull together the course material, I grew more excited at the implications of introducing them to such an iconic film. This was their introduction not only to The Maltese Falcon but also the genre of film noir. They would be seeing it with the freshness and excitement of first-time viewers, and I had a part to play in that.

Film noir developed in the studio system during the Golden Age, and yet it defied many of the norms and conventions of that era. It was the genre that broke the rules—a big deal considering how entrenched certain norms, conventions, and formulas were during the Golden Age. For young people unfamiliar with the systems and practices of the studio system, noir’s defiance of those systems and practices would not be readily apparent.

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A YOUNG JOHN HUSTON CLOWNS AROUND WITH HIS CAST: BOGART, ASTOR, AND FATHER WALTER HUSTON.

A few students had heard of the Production Code, the self-censorship system that was part of the Hollywood industry during the studio era. But, none of them realized the Code not only controlled images of sex and violence but also prevented negative depictions of America’s social institutions and ideology. However, film noir challenged those institutions with its depiction of widespread corruption that went unchecked. Though this is not as obvious in The Maltese Falcon as it would be in later films, institutional corruption does lurk in the details of the plot: When Brigid O’Shaughnessy asks Sam Spade to keep her name out of the papers after the murder of Spade’s partner Miles Archer, a veiled conversation in Sam’s office reveals that he paid off someone (the police?) to keep her out of the limelight. In discussion, students mentioned that this detail and its implications would not have registered with them if they had watched the film on their own.

Students expressed surprise at the melancholy ending of The Maltese Falcon, in which Sam sends Brigid “up the river” for the murder of his partner. Because it was an “old movie,” they expected romance to prevail, redeeming Brigid of her sins and relieving Sam of his bitter loneliness. The typical happy ending, in which the protagonist ends up with the leading lady, was yet another rule that film noir broke. Generally, a Hollywood film ended in “the clinch,” which was industry slang for the concluding kiss, hug, or embrace that not only signified a permanent relationship for the couple (i.e. the institution of marriage) but also that other social institutions had come through to help solve the problem or meet the goal. The conclusion of The Maltese Falcon is the opposite of the clinch, signaling something is rotten in the state of Denmark. . . or at least in the state of holy matrimony.

SENDING BRIGID UP THE RIVER

SENDING BRIGID UP THE RIVER

Most of the students were familiar with the phrase hard-boiled, but they didn’t know its derivation, or what it meant in terms of a protagonist’s personality. Like a hard-boiled egg, which is hard all the way through, noir protagonists do not go soft when they are beaten down by whatever life throws their way. The students liked this archetype, particularly as depicted by Bogart as Sam Spade. They found his cynicism and his ability to verbally put other characters in their places relatable, because they are accustomed to movie anti-heroes who toss off one-liners as part of their hip personas. Their appreciation increased at the understanding that noir protagonists deviated from the heroic leading men of other genres. Unlike their heroic counterparts, noir detective figures are marginalized and alienated. There is little hope that they will change and assimilate into mainstream society. Like Sam Spade, it’s not unusual for the detective figure to be worse off at the end of the film than he was at beginning. In general, he has no money or social standing, no family or friends, only the job. Though flawed, and easily tempted by the femme fatale, he claims a personal code of honor. He is morally flexible but not morally bankrupt.

TRUSTED SECRETARY EFFIE PERINE'S BOND WITH BOSS SAM SPADE IS SIGNALED BY LIGHTING HIS CIGARETTE.

TRUSTED SECRETARY EFFIE PERINE LIGHTS SAM SPADE’S CIGARETTE.

The convention of film noir that made the biggest impression on the students was the use of cigarettes (and sometimes drinking) to reveal what the protagonist really thought about another character. The noir protagonist rarely says what he thinks or feels. His attraction to the femme fatale or his trust in another character is often suggested through the offering and lighting of a cigarette. In an era when smoking has been demonized onscreen, this convention fascinated the students and became an easy one to spot and interpret.

BAR SHADOWS FROM VENETIAN BLINDS TELL US THE CHARACTERS ARE TRAPPED.

BAR SHADOWS FROM VENETIAN BLINDS TELL US THE CHARACTERS ARE TRAPPED.

I introduced Humphrey Bogart as the King of Noir, largely because of his identification with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in the genre’s early years. I explained that the genre attracted stars that did not always fit the mold of the strong, attractive leading man. Bogart was not classically handsome. Shrapnel injured his face during WWI, tearing a muscle around his mouth resulting in a grimace-like smile. But, in film noir, that was not a problem, because noir protagonists rarely had anything to smile about, and they were not expressive. They were cynical, cool, and hard-boiled. Actors tended to play these characters very tight, with minimal gestures and slight expressions. When John Huston cast Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, it cemented the actor’s star image as the reluctant hero or the anti-hero—the alienated cynic with a tarnished code of honor. The students enjoyed the fact that they were seeing the birth of Bogart’s star image.

HUSTON COMPOSED HIS FRAME LIKE A RENAISSANCE PAINTING, WITH THE CHARACTERS FORMING PYRAMIDS.

HUSTON COMPOSED HIS FRAME LIKE A RENAISSANCE PAINTING, WITH THE CHARACTERS FORMING INVERTED PYRAMIDS.

At the end of the semester, when asked to name their favorite noir movie, many students selected The Maltese Falcon because it was easy to recognize the conventions and archetypes. Even those students who did not name it their favorite found it useful in appreciating the tropes and conventions of the genre. I know I made the right decision to show this film.

In some ways, I have a similar agenda as the TCM-Fathom series, which brings a classic Hollywood film to the big screen every month. It’s the desire to introduce young audiences to the significance of the classics and their power to move us. One of my best students, Merari Judith Velez Ramos, said it much better than me: “I think [The Maltese Falcon] does hold up today since it has all the elements [of film noir], and it has that twist ending. What I would say to someone who says that old movies are too old-fashioned and are not interesting is that I used to be one of them. [In] taking film classes the past four years, I have come to learn that there is so much more to them. They are highly interesting and if you understand the context of the times (WWII, people’s behavior and attitudes), it will make sense, and we can see how it applies to us today; how we have evolved in our attitudes and views about life. . . . I would say I am a fan of older movies, and will continue watching them.”

 

44 Responses Revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’
Posted By Barry Lane : February 15, 2016 3:50 pm

While the conventional happy ending does exist, boy kissing girl or something like that, in the most successful films of all time, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, and some of the most admired, Citizen Kane, Lady From Shanghai, Ride The High Country, Cry, Danger, and even Foreign Correspondent, do not fit this mold. And many more.The perception is a mistake based on inexperience.

Posted By LD : February 15, 2016 4:17 pm

Last summer I opted to take the film noir course offered by Canvas in conjunction with TCM’s “Summer of Darkness”. Film noir to me was always about atmosphere and it was fun learning about the influences inside the film industry like German expressionism and horror films. Then the social and historical influences outside the industry. I was surprised to find myself studying existentialism though.

There are many films noir that I love but my top three are THE MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMINITY, and LAURA. If pressed to pick one as my favorite it would be THE MALTESE FALCON. A perfect example of the genre (style or movement?). Susan, your class was so lucky to see it for the first time in an academic environment where it could be studied and appreciated for all its components.

Posted By missrhea : February 15, 2016 5:04 pm

Thanks for a great article, Susan. I didn’t know some of the things you pointed out, either. Wish I lived near enough to take some of your classes.

I was never a fan of film noir but “The Maltese Falcon” has become a favorite of mine. I had never seen it until a couple of years ago but I wind up watching it whenever it’s on the schedule. The same applies to “Laura”. I’ve seen some of the others such as “Double Indemnity” and “Crossfire” but don’t find myself drawn to them over and over.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 15, 2016 8:50 pm

Thanks for the kind comments everyone. It would really be a treat to see this one on the big screen.

Posted By George : February 15, 2016 8:57 pm

Check out the current Vanity Fair (the annual Hollywood issue) for Bryan Burrough’s story about the hunt for the statuettes used in the movie. One of them sold at auction for $4.1M, and who knows if it’s authentic?

Posted By robbushblog : February 15, 2016 9:00 pm

Isn’t it actually on Sunday the 25th?

Posted By George : February 15, 2016 9:00 pm

Susan Doll wrote: “Students expressed surprise at the melancholy ending of The Maltese Falcon, in which Sam sends Brigid “up the river” for the murder of his partner. Because it was an “old movie,” they expected romance to prevail, redeeming Brigid of her sins and relieving Sam of his bitter loneliness.”

Downbeat or ambiguous endings were pretty common in dramas during the studio age, and in the ’60s and ’70s. It was in the ’80s that tacked-on, studio-mandated happy endings became the rule, at least for mainstream Hollywood movies. FATAL ATTRACTION may be the most famous example.

Posted By Emgee : February 15, 2016 9:03 pm

The reason that the movie could not have a typical happy ending is that Brigid O’Shaughnessy is guilty of murder, and therefore, according to the Code, must pay the ultimate penalty.

“Shrapnel injured his face during WWI.” He never saw any action, so that’s highly unlikely.It was probably a childhood injury.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 15, 2016 9:20 pm

Emgee: I know Bogart didn’t see any action but according to the bio I looked at (which wasn’t great), he did serve and spent time on a vessel, where there was an accidental explosion. Something metal cut his face — maybe I was wrong to use the word “shrapnel.”

Posted By Susan Doll : February 15, 2016 9:22 pm

Rob: It says the 21st and 24th on the Fathom website.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 15, 2016 9:30 pm

George: Actually, the happy ending was a major convention during the Golden Age.\–not a hard and fast rule, but a convention. It is one of the defining features of Hollywood movies in that era. While it is easy to come up with exceptions, based on the great examples of A-level dramas from the period that were a cut above the norm, this type of ending (narrative closure plus emotional satisfaction at that closure) was a convention for the hundreds of everyday movies that made up a studio’s releases. Hence, the nickname “the clinch” in which the leading actors hug, kiss, embrace, etc. at the end to give us a visual signifier of such an ending. I have read studio memos in which producers discuss the clinch, and I have heard old-time crew members from the era joke about it. I have read reviewers complain about it. L.B. Mayer, for ex., was particularly wedded to two things: (1) a happy ending; (2) stars should always look beautiful and glamorous, even if going through a horrible ordeal.

Posted By robbushblog : February 15, 2016 9:36 pm

Sorry, I’m getting my dates all mixed up. The 25th is a Thursday and I’m seeing CITIZEN KANE on that date at my local indie theater as part of their 101 Years of Welles series.

Posted By Barry Lane : February 15, 2016 9:40 pm

Susan, at MGM certainly, but not hard and fast at any of the other majors.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 15, 2016 10:14 pm

Barry: I didn’t say “hard and fast.” I said, conventional and typical. The narrative conventions of western storytelling go all the way back to the ancient Greeks– i.e. heroic protagonist; linear stories; and a closed ending that was emotionally gratifying. Doesn’t mean all stories followed the model, but when you teach any kind of narrative study, you start with a model that you can describe so students learn how to recognize characteristics and interpret their use. Granted, some genres did follow the model more than others. But, I have sifted through a lot of text books, bios, reviews, articles, memos, etc. in my time, and the Hollywood model of storytelling is definitely defined by an ending with narrative and emotional closure. Now, certain directors and writers may have railed against it; European directors still make fun of it; many reviewers called it a cliche. However, producers still asked for a clinch when there wasn’t one in the script. It was such a norm that some films noirs have a tacked on happy ending to satisfy this convention. And, it is conspicuous by its absence in some films that deliberately didn’t use the clinch.

Posted By LD : February 15, 2016 10:26 pm

An example of an MGM film noir with a tacked on happy ending is LADY IN THE LAKE. I don’t remember why I know this, but Robert Montgomery, who both starred and directed in the film, was supposedly livid after being told he would have to use a happy ending. But, ultimately, he did as he was told.

Posted By Barry Lane : February 15, 2016 10:30 pm

MGM noir’s without tacked on happy endings include The Asphalt Jungle and Rogue Cop. So what. Just the way those projects were approached at the time of production.

Posted By Autist : February 15, 2016 11:56 pm

On the ending of The Maltese Falcon: the movie follows the plot of the book very closely. Sam Spade’s speech to Brigid at the end is right out of the book. “I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it–and because–God damn you–you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others. … I won’t play the sap for you.” If only more film noir heroes had said that to the femmes fatale!

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : February 16, 2016 12:16 am

This is something I brag about on a regular basis. Dashiell Hammett was my first cousin twice removed. My maternal grandmother was his first cousin — and her name was Effie Miles.

Posted By George : February 16, 2016 1:29 am

“Susan, at MGM certainly, but not hard and fast at any of the other majors.”

Yes, MGM was notorious for demanding happy endings for almost all of its movies. The 1927 version of “Anna Karenina” (LOVE) let Anna live. The alternate ending, where she jumps in front of a train, has surfaced and been shown on TCM. Don’t know if this is true, but I read that MGM gave exhibitors a choice between the happy and unhappy endings. Most chose the happy one.

But Warner Bros. seemed to revel in downbeat or wistful endings, and not just in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Check out HEROES FOR SALE. Or SAFE IN HELL. At other studios, see what happens to Dietrich in DISHONORED or Nils Asther in THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN.

Of course, if we’re talking about comedies, musicals or routine B movies, the happy ending with the “clinch” was pretty standard. But unhappy endings were allowed in ambitious dramas. And sometimes in ambitious musicals, as in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 16, 2016 1:38 am

Majorie: That is very cool, esp. your grandmother’s name — Effie.

Posted By George : February 16, 2016 1:42 am

“Majorie: That is very cool, esp. your grandmother’s name — Effie.”

And her last name, Miles — the inspiration for Miles Archer?

Posted By Donald Liebenson : February 16, 2016 2:27 am

Susan, your blogs are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Posted By Arthur : February 16, 2016 4:56 am

Yes, film noir jousted with the production code, but the version of THE MALTESE FALCON made 10 years earlier, starring Ricardo Cortez, long before the production code went into effect was far more risqué. Also, the plot here in the 1941 incarnation is very difficult to follow. The same can be said of THE BIG SLEEP, but for some reason, is it the synergy between Bogart and Bacall, I find it much more enjoyable.

In the same vein, I found TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT a much better film than the similarly plotted, much more lavishly produced, CASSABLANCA. As for my favorite noirs, to the former add OUT OF THE PAST, WHITE HEAT, RAW DEAL and THE HIGH SIERRAS. Though not in the classic noir era, but inspired by and derivative of that genre, I would add VERTIGO, BULLITT and POINT BLANK.

T

Posted By Emgee : February 16, 2016 9:21 am

According to the bio i read, which was very good indeed, no-one really knows why his lip was damaged, but the army doctor who signed his discharge papers didn’t notice any scars on his face.
He did note several other minor scars. Ok, this belongs in the trivia section, but still.

“MGM noir’s without tacked on happy endings include The Asphalt Jungle and Rogue Cop.”Which confirms my point: according to the Code, criminals have to die when they commit murder.

Posted By Bruce : February 16, 2016 10:42 pm

There is much more to be learned from this film. Comparing it to the 1931 original film (The Maltese Falcon aka “Dangerous Female”) shows the effect of the Code on films, and how, even with the Code restrictions, and some scenes and dialog almost directly from the 1931 version, the 1941 “remake” version is clearly a superior, darker and classic film.

Posted By Barry Lane : February 17, 2016 12:54 am

History and prisons are filled with murderous criminals who end up behind the eight ball, including Joe Adonis, frank Costello Al Capone. Bugsy Siegel got his head blown off. these are not happy endings when depicted in film, they are reasonable conclusions created by life and experience. n Rogue Copy, Robert Taylor plays a man on the take, but he is also the protagonist and in no way should be dismissed as a murderer. Certainly in Pitfall we have compromised morality at the conclusion, just as in Johnny O’clock a compromised happy ending which does not play nearly as well as in the other pictures I’ve mentioned. Nothing much to do with a code, but rather common creative sense.

Posted By Barry Lane : February 17, 2016 12:55 am

History and prisons are filled with murderous criminals who end up behind the eight ball, including Joe Adonis, Frank Costello Al Capone. Bugsy Siegel got his head blown off. these are not happy endings when depicted in film, they are reasonable conclusions created by life and experience. In Rogue Cop, Robert Taylor plays a man on the take, but he is also the protagonist and in no way should be dismissed as a murderer. Certainly in Pitfall we have compromised morality at the conclusion, just as in Johnny O’clock a compromised happy ending which does not play nearly as well as in the other pictures I’ve mentioned. Nothing much to do with a code, but rather common creative sense.

Posted By swac44 : February 17, 2016 2:10 pm

I love Stranger on the Third Floor, but if most of your class hadn’t seen The Maltese Falcon yet, I’m guessing they would probably enjoy the earlier film, but dismiss it as a curiosity with a few interesting sequences and a fine turn by Peter Lorre. With Falcon, they get that film noir “gateway drug” and will hopefully be hooked on this style of film in no time.

I got to see Stranger again recently as part of a film noir series at a local art gallery, but it was mostly an older crowd who had likely seen Falcon, and very few had seen Stranger. There was a fun discussion afterward, most found it interesting and loved Lorre, but the general feeling was that it was a flawed proto-noir rather than definitive title like Falcon or The Big Sleep.

Sadly, we don’t get the Fathom events in this neck of the woods, but the art gallery series continues tonight with Out of the Past. I’ve already seen the film a number of times, but on a large-ish screen (digital video) with a crowd should be a treat. As long as no “ironic laughers” turn out, that is.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2016 2:28 pm

You should come on down here, Swac. My local indie theater is beginning a monthly Orson Welles series next week. Among the titles they will be showing are, AS FOLLOWS:

Citizen Kane 35MM Feb 25th & 28th
Magnificent Ambersons 35MM March 17th, 20th
Journey into Fear 35MM April 21st & 24th
The Stranger May 12th, 15th
The Lady from Shanghai 35MM June 9th, 12th
Chimes at Midnight DCP July 14th, 17th
The Third Man DCP August 11th, 14th
Othello DCP Sept 15th, 18th
Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report) 35MM Oct 13th, 16th
Touch of Evil 35MM Nov 10th & 13th
Macbeth DCP Dec 14th, 17th
F for Fake 35MM Dec 15th, 18th

Posted By Doug : February 18, 2016 11:42 am

Through someone posting about it here at Morlocks I have read the most ‘herd boiled’ noir which would make a great film:
“Solomon’s Vineyard” by Jonathan Latimer.

Posted By Stephen White : February 19, 2016 6:41 am

Is that really Bogart standing between John Huston and Mary Astor as the caption indicates? The face seems totally unrecognizable to me.

Posted By Emgee : February 19, 2016 7:53 am

Yes it is; maybe the smile is unfamiliar.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 19, 2016 4:39 pm

Stephen: Bogart is the one in the suit on the left smiling. Huston is the one next to Astor.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : February 21, 2016 10:55 pm

To Susan Doll — yes, the use of the names Effie and Miles — kind of a coincidence, no???

My great grandfather had been a sea captain and his last ship was named “Effie Marie.” He named his daughter after the ship.

I wish I had been born sooner, I might have gotten some stories out of my grandmother. (An aunt of mine quoted a few stories, but she has the rep for being someone who remembers things that may not have happened.) Several things I was told which seem true — he was said to be an avid reader (he and my grandmother corresponded as teenagers, mostly about books. Little is known of his childhood in Southern Maryland (St. Mary’s County — there’s a little Hammett graveyard that is entirely surrounded by a strip mall. I imagine he had kind of a fishing/playing hooky/Huck Finn kind of boyhood.

Once I asked my mother if the family wasn’t proud of the fact that we were related to a famous writer and she said “No — they disapproved of him because he drank too much, wasted his money, and chased women.” “Well,” I said, “how does that make him different from all the other men in that branch of the family?”

No reply.

Incidentally, the family pronounced his name “Dah-SHEEL” not “DASH-ull”. “Dashiell” was his middle name and his mother’s maiden name — Southerners do that a lot. (Which is why I have cousins named Bevans and Temple.)

Posted By Joe Mastropolo : February 23, 2016 1:29 am

I attended a showing of “The Maltese Falcon” on 2/21 at a theater in Danbury, CT. It was a great experience! Even though I’ve seen this movie a hundred times (at least), it was great to see it the way audiences did 75 years ago. I also noticed things that I never saw on the small screen, and, wow! Sydney Greenstreet looked huge on the big screen. Thoroughly enjoyable experience and would definitely do it again.

Posted By Lee Peterson : February 24, 2016 6:44 am

Gentlemen:

You have been publishing for weeks that “The Maltese Falcon”
would be shown February 21 and 24 – - yet when I checked the TCM Guide for tomorrow (24 hours) – February it is not mentioned.
What gives????

Lee

Posted By Lee Peterson : February 24, 2016 6:46 am

P.S. What time will it be shown on TCM?

Posted By Susan Doll : February 24, 2016 1:33 pm

Lee:The Maltese Falcon is being shown in movie theaters nationwide. If you look at the fine print in the ad on the TCM website, it says that. TCM is sponsoring the special screening of the film, which is a chance to see the movie on a big screen like it was intended to be seen. Unfortunately, not every city has a theater that is participating in this event. You will have to check your local theaters to see if they are participating.

Posted By LD : February 24, 2016 1:56 pm

Lee: THE MALTESE FALCON was shown on TCM Friday, Feb. 19th @11:00 a.m. ET. It is scheduled to be shown again on Tuesday, May 10th @ 10:15 p.m. ET.

Posted By Paul Dionne : February 27, 2016 6:02 pm

I did indeed go to a showing on February 21 at a multi-plex of the Maltese Falcon. And even though I have seen it many times, I greatly enjoyed the experience, and the showing I went to was well attended.

As @Autist points out, the ending in the film adheres closely to the plot of Hammett’s book. In fact, The Maltese Falcon 1941 film is a beautiful script that follows the book as close as the code would allow in the entire movie.

The Maltese Falcon is a great book, and Huston’s film is one of my favorites. But I don’t really consider it noir. it’s hardboiled mystery to me.

Posted By George : March 1, 2016 3:28 am

Re the above discussion about happy endings:

Here’s the original, somewhat upbeat ending of ELECTION (1999), one of my favorite movies. Test audiences actually REJECTED this (somewhat) happy ending and PREFERRED a more bleak ending! Must be the only time that has ever happened!

This crappy copy is apparently all we have of the original ending. Someone found a VHS workprint in a yard sale and put it on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhezOPupmj4

Posted By Tom Snyder : April 6, 2017 7:17 pm

Good article, Suzi!

Posted By Tom Snyder : April 6, 2017 7:24 pm

FY: The TCM people at their fest in Hollywood told the press yesterday at a press conference that FALCON was Fathom’s most popular classic movie screening. I’ve tried double-checking that but couldn’t, although I have no reason to doubt what they said.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 6, 2017 9:57 pm

Thanks Tom

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