The Maltese Falcon

Earlier this week, as I passed by TCM, there was a promo on for classic Humphrey Bogart movies being shown this weekend. I set the DVR. One, Casablanca, I had seen before. The other I had not. Tonight I watched The Maltese Falcon.

I am 54. For 54 years I’ve heard about this movie – what a classic it is. I am so unhappy to have watched and felt it fell short – very short.

The Maltese Falcon is a detective thriller. It is a perfect example of film noir. From

The primary moods of classic film noir are melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt and paranoia. Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains include down-and-out, hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, crooks, war veterans, petty criminals, and murderers. These protagonists are often morally-ambiguous low lifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they are cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual or otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive and ultimately losing.

Black and white in this case is more than the film stock. The movie itself was shot to produce stark scenes with little gray. I was surprised to see at least a few jump cuts (film editing errors) in the action scenes. Even at the theater they would have been obvious.

The story itself is very complex and in some ways implausible. I’ll look past that. It’s the dialog, not the story, that upset me the most. It is stilted – and not just because the movie is over 60 years old. The words were trite.

Bogey is fine. He was better in Casablanca, the African Queen and a bunch of others. There’s less to like about Mary Astor and Elisha Cook Jr. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are the best parts of the movie.

I am so used to seeing these two ‘done’ by impressionists that I forgot what they were really like. Both men put real life into over-the-top characters. Joel Cairo (Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet) could have become comic strip characters had lesser actors played the roles.

About halfway in, I started looking for a way out. I fought the urge and watched until the end. It just wasn’t satisfying.

Back in the 60s, I used to listen to albums by the Firesign Theater, a comedy troupe. One of their albums featured an entire side called, “Nick Danger: Private Eye.” It wasn’t until tonight that I realized they were doing The Maltese Falcon!

I feel like a fool, having missed the joke for all these years.

There is one very memorable line, always associated with this movie. As Bogart is carrying the Falcon out of his office, a police detective asks what it is. “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

I wish I’d said that.