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A Video Review of The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Copyright 2003 Glenn Walker
The third screen version from 1941 of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is quite possibly the best film noir ever made. Not only is director John Huston’s screenplay nearly word for word identical to the novel the film has a nearly perfect ensemble cast.
The famous story involves private investigator Sam Spade on the track of both his partner’s killer and an elusive jeweled statuette called the Maltese Falcon. Where the 1941 version succeeds over its predecessors is in the casting. Hammett’s work is about off the wall, colorful characters that just weren’t properly brought to life previously.
Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade. He plays it with a cynical disconnection almost giving the effect of not actually living his life but watching and enjoying the ride. The female lead is Mary Astor one of the few actresses to make the leap between silents and talkies successfully. Her Brigid O’Shaughnessy isn’t as tough as she should be but still exquisitely done.
The skill demonstrated here is immaculate. Gladys George as Spade’s partner’s sexy wife Iva, Barton MacLane as big time prick Dundy, Peter Lorre in one of his most famous roles as Joel Cairo – all wonderful and flawless in their parts. I didn’t care much for Lee Patrick as Effie but that’s just my personal preference. I found her foxy but unconvincing at times, not as charming as previous Effies.
The parade doesn’t stop there. Sydney Greenstreet is the sinister fat man Kaspar Gutman perhaps his most memorable role, Ward Bond famous for TV’s “Wagon Train” plays amiable cop Tom Polhaus and film noir veteran Elisha Cook Jr. known as Hollywood’s lightest heavy is the decidedly evil Wilmer Cook. Blink and you’ll miss the director’s dad Walter as Captain Jacoby. As I said this is a perfect ensemble cast.
It’s rare that such a combination of perfect script and cast happens but when they do it’s a joy. Add in the beautifully fitting score by legendary composer Adolph Deutsch and you’ve got possibly one of the best film noirs ever made and probably one of the best of that decade. 1941’s The Maltese Falcon is a masterpiece.