Maltese Falcon, The (1941): John Huston’s Impressive Directing Debut

the_maltese_falcon_posterBased on an outstanding detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon is John Huston’s first film as a director; he began his career as a screenwriter.

Preceding Casablanca by two years, the film offers Humphrey Bogart his first great staring performance as Sam Spade. Rest of the excellent ensemble includes Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, and Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman.

Private investigator Sam Spade learns that his partner is murdered, and discovers a conspiracy to steal the Maltese Falcon, which is worth a fortune because it is encrusted with jewels. Spade doesn’t allow his personal feelings, and temptations for Brigid O’Shaughnessy, to sway his professional commitment. When Spade deduces that it was Brigid herself who killed his partner, he says in a cold cynical tone that he “won’t play the sap” for her, and he grimly hands her over to the police.

An obsessed professional, Spade is a proud man who will adhere to a principle unto death. His moral code is superior to that of the legitimate order and its representative detectives; society itself is shown to be full of corruption. Yet, at the end, Spade’s code coincides with the law and he turns in the murderess he loves.

Critics continue to hold The Maltese Falcon in high regard, not only because it’s the movie that catapulted Bogart into stardom, but also for the high standards of technical filming that director John Huston brought to Hollywood.

The Maltese Falcon was the directorial debut of John Huston. In this picture, Huston boldly explored his style of framing, setting up the shots like canvases of painting. Thus, the characters often face fill half the screen while they are listening, not talking. To Huston, the reactions of the person listening was more important than the one speaking or moving.

The astute mise-en-scene of Huston, who would become one of Bogart’s most favorite and frequent directors, helped placed Bogart among the top rank of Hollywood stars. Huston was able to show Bogart as a fine, well-rounded actor, instead of just a gangster-villain type that he played in many Warner pictures in the 1930s.

Running Time: 100 minutes