The Maltese Falcon, made in 1941, is a classic movie which has been held by many to be one of the best films of all time. Based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, the movie is set in San Francisco in the early 1940s. Watching The Maltese Falcon is a reminder that the classics are classics for a reason. More than that though, it shows the significance of these old classics is not just in their own quality, but also the quality of the movies they have influenced and inspired.
In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays Samuel Spade, a private detective who takes a simple case from Brigid O’Shaughnessy, played by Mary Astor. When his partner is murdered, Spade learns there is much more to the case than he initially thought. He becomes wrapped up in a plot to steal the Maltese Falcon, a bejeweled statuette whose origin dates back to the crusades. As it turns out, O’Shaughnessy knows the location of the falcon, after betraying the man who hired her to safely take it to San Francisco. As these two square off, other men interested in the statuette get closer to the falcon. Spade eventually plays four different sides against each other, in order to work out the most advantageous deal for himself.
Without a doubt, The Maltese Falcon has earned its place in history. Any impressive special effects are out of the questions in movies from the ‘40s, so the acting and writing must carry the entire weight of the film. The movie certainly does this, the writing is sharp and witty and Bogart and Astor pull off their roles tremendously. The plot is consistently engaging, with unexpected twists and turns that keep anyone watching on their toes.
After over seventy years of fame, The Maltese Falcon has become a window into the culture of America in its era. This becomes immediately apparent in the style and speech of the characters, which are both far away from the style and communication of the 21st century. The clothing is far more conservative than what has been seen for decades, and even hostile interactions have an air of formality that is no longer common. Another obvious sign of how culture has changed is the relationship between the male and female characters in the movie. The movie is set in an era where sexism is not only commonplace, but expected. Even the strongest female role would be considered weak by today’s standards. To a modern audience, this is shocking and seems almost satirical.
Influence from The Maltese Falcon can be seen in numerous movies, stretching across a variety of genres. The most significant is the entire film-noir genre, a French term referring to the popular American crime movies, consisting of movies such as Sunset Boulevard and Strangers on a Train. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered the first of the genre, or at the very least the film that solidified the genre’s place in Hollywood and history. The frequent betrayal and double dealings of The Maltese Falcon are also still incredibly familiar in modern movies. Perhaps Frank Underwood may have even learned a thing or two from Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon.
Photo: Harrington Smith via Wikimedia Commons