Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Twists and surprises to a classic mystery
Cons: Too fast paced, dated acting
The Bottom Line:
Story changed genre
Movie making is dated
It's still worth watching

Follow Sam Spade on the Trail of the Maltese Falcon

Three and a half years ago, I listened to Dashiel Hammet's classic novel The Maltese Falcon on tape.  I fully intended to watch the movie so I could compare the two.  Flash forward in time, and some friends invite me over to watch this classic film.  Yep, that was the first time I finally saw it.  But I must say I mostly enjoyed it.

It's mid-afternoon when a woman (Mary Astor) walks into the detective agency of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) with a tale of a wayward sister she wants them to track down.  This sister has taken up with a no good named Thursby.  Archer agrees to do the stake out and hopefully follow Thursby to the sister.

In the middle of the night, Spade is wakened by a phone call.  Archer has been shot.  A little later, Thursby is also shot.  The police seem intent on pinning one of those crimes, if not both, on Spade.  Meanwhile, the client has disappeared and a man (Peter Lorre) holds Spade a gun point demanding the Maltese Falcon.  What in the world is going on?

Since the story from the book isn't fresh in my mind, I can't say for sure how closely the movie follows the book, but it has to be pretty close.  I remembered most scenes as they happened.  And as the movie advanced, I started the dread the final couple of scenes, which I remembered as being drawn out way too long in the book.  Either my memory was wrong or they condensed them for the movie because they moved much faster here.  One time a plot element came up that never made any sense to me, but for the most part I was able to follow as Sam got from point A to point Z.

And the story does keep moving.  You are just given enough time to process the latest clue or revelation before moving on to the next one.

This is a rather dark film, and I'm not referring to it's black and white picture.  In fact, this story and character were the foundation of the noir genre of books and film.  While today the loner PI who gets involved with a sad case because of a pretty dame is a cliche, it wasn't when this movie was made in 1941.  So try to view it with fresh eyes.  Even with the cliches in mind, the characters do work.

The biggest problem with the film is the acting.  It suffers at times from the overacting that was prevalent in many films of the age.  It seems to hit everyone at one time or another.  Yes, even Humphrey Bogart.  The worst offender is Mary Astor who over reacts to everything.  This is worst when she is called on to get hysterical.  Her overacting makes the climax less than it could have been, in fact.

Another problem is the speed of the dialogue.  Mind you, I love fast, witty dialogue.  But here, it is fast for no reason.  And people are often responding to something before the last line really has time to sink in.  There's a big revelation, and Sam is off about how that changes everything instead of taking five seconds to let it sink in.  Or my favorite example, Sam has just asked a probing question.  After giving the suspect one second (literally) to think about it, he starts in on him for not responding at all.

But this isn't to say all the acting was bad.  In fact, there were some brilliant moments involving the supporting cast.  Lee Patrick is great as Sam's secretary Effie.  And Elisha Cook, Jr. has some perfect reactions as Wilmer.  The rest of the cast does fine most of the time.  It just could have been better over all.

Despite my complaints, there is a reason The Maltese Falcon is a classic.  The story is good and the characters are strong.  It changed detective stories in a huge way.  And for that reason alone, it deserves a place in our cinematic history.

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