For the two people reading this blog that don't know, THE MALTESE FALCON is the story of Sam Spade, a private detective hired by a woman that is looking for a way out. As a result of taking her on as a client, Sam's partner is shot dead, and he is frequently threatened at gunpoint, followed, drugged, questioned by the police, invited to take part in the central crime, and forced to make a choice between love and justice.
But Spade, as played by Humphrey Bogart, is not the upstanding private dick that movie-going audiences had become accustomed to. He is not the Pinkerton hired to protect the shipment, nor the debonair Nick Charles, also a Dashiell Hammett creation, a bon vivant with a knack for detection and staying alive. No, Spade is the kind of guy that will sleep with his partner's wife, assure her that the only thing standing in their way is her husband, then turn his back on her, even when the partner's out of the picture. He's the kind of dick that will take your case if you give him enough money, even if he knows you're lying. He's the kind of guy that will take your gun away and pause long enough for you to see him smile before he punches your lights out, the kind of guy that will kiss a girl in response to her question, "What else can I buy you with, if not money?"
So here is a noir character from the father of the hard-boiled novel. A man with a shifting morality, or only the most basic morality: staying alive and making money. Everything else is negotiable. And I think this is the basis of the film's noir qualifications. Our protagonist is an anti-hero. Although this film isn't seen from the criminal's point of view, our main character is little better than the criminals he is dealing with.
And what of the criminals? Their characterization was new, as well. No longer were they a cohesive unit of evil, but a federation of sociopaths, playing the situation from different angles, depending on the current climate. They joined together with the same dispassion that they betrayed each other.
Except for Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She was the villain that showed the most passion. In fact, it was her most powerful weapon. She had long ago learned that she could manipulate a man into doing what she wanted him to do. With a little intimation and a lot of lying, she could maneuver her men like chess pieces against one another, using them up and moving on, staying above the fray, always finding her way out, until she met her match in the cynicism of Sam Spade.
But beyond the characterizations, there is little to qualify this film as noir. There is little of the low-key lighting that would later become a trademark. The film is not oneiric, strange, or erotic; but definitely ambivalent and certainly cruel.
Next time: Laura