Private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is chain-smoking his way through the afternoon when in walks a beautiful woman (Mary Astor) seeking his help to follow a man she claims has abducted her sister. But unless her sister is a priceless bejeweled falcon she’s lying, as Spade is drawn into a web of murderous intrigue driven by pursuit of the bird (falcon, not lady). Will it prove to be the falcon of the millenium, or are they just bluffin with their MacGuffin?
While limited in scale and location, The Maltese Falcon loses nothing in its twisty complexity. As with much of the genre a strong moral code is largely absent. Spade’s involvement in the case seems to be out of nothing more than curiosity, and mild attraction to his client, although it’s a decidedly unromantic film. But it’s likely that in this case noir merely refers to the colour of Bogart’s lungs.
It effectively tells its dense story, tightly packing in plot developments at a fast pace. However, it lacks the suspense of Touch of Evil, iconic visuals and music of The Third Man or the sheer, over-the-top noiriness of The Woman in the Window. And given the story’s almost farcical silliness, its main contribution to cinema is launching Bogart’s career, who brings Spade to life with an easy charm which keeps him the right side of likable. But as a lover of films of this era, it’s impossible not to enjoy the smoky atmosphere, flippant sexism and tomfoolery which made this the best Maltese thing until this year’s Eurovision entry.