The first movie that likely comes to mind when you think about Humphrey Bogart, if you think about Humphrey Bogart, is likely Casablanca (1942). According to the American Film Institute (AFI), there is good reason for such esteem. It is number three on its list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. The Legionnaire celebrated its 500th review by covering it for that momentous occasion. Bogart has many films amongst the AFI’s best, though I am not sure why. I can already hear some of you howling in anger that I would dare impugn such a Hollywood legend. What can I say but taste? To me, he played the same character in all his films. They each have his trademark smoldering intensity, but I feel you could interchange characters without noticing too much of a difference. I stand by that statement with today’s movie, number forty-one, The Maltese Falcon (1941). Throw in a super-complicated plot and you have me less than impressed with what it supposed to be one of the all-time classics.
I had never seen The Maltese Falcon before tonight. This may seem silly of me, but I always assumed it took place on the title island. There is a slight connection, as proclaimed in the opening crawl. You see, the name refers to a priceless avian figurine presented by the Knights Templar to Charles V of Spain, which was subsequently lost to history. But, enough of that, let us go to modern-day San Francisco. Specifically, we come to the offices of private detectives Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Their secretary, Effie Perine (Lee Patrick), tells them they have a “knockout” waiting to see them. This is Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). She has come to them claiming that her sister has basically been abducted by a man named Floyd Thursby (not pictured). It is Miles who agrees to shadow this Floyd fellow, believing it will lead them to the sister. Unfortunately, he is shot and killed. Sam does not seem too concerned, telling Effie to change the name on the masthead almost before Miles’ body is cold. This is one of the reasons why the police suspect him of the murder. Adding to their suspicions is the fact that Thursby is killed later the same evening. They believe Sam is having an affair with Iva Archer (Gladys George), which appears to have some merit and would give him motive. He is innocent, and it points to something fishy about Ruth. When he finds her, he learns that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and that she had made up the story about the sister. A bit more questioning on Sam’s part reveals that she had been in league with Thursby, though this is all she will say at the moment. Instead, she encourages him to look into the deaths. Back at his office, he has another visitor. This is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). He is looking for what he refers to as a black figurine of a bird. He knows of Sam’s interactions with Brigid, which, to Joel, suggests that Sam knows the location of the statue. He does not, but plays along coolly, which leads to the offer of a substantial reward for the return of the figurine. Since this could lead to a large monetary windfall, he goes back to Brigid to confront her. Playing a hunch, he lets in on the fact that she knows Joel. With the police continuing to put pressure on Sam for the homicides, he brings Brigid to his apartment to meet Joel. This is when we learn of a third player in this tangle web of deceit. This other person is Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), though I will not be referring to him by his given nickname, the “Fat Man.” Sam goes to meet Kasper, who fills the private detective in on the history of the eponymous work of art. Kasper also emphasizes its pricelessness, offering Sam exorbitant sums of cash to bring it to Kasper. Kasper makes such an overture because Sam claims that he knows the location of the figurine. It also leads to his drink being spiked and him passing out, while Kasper and his associate, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), leave to conduct their own search. When Sam comes to, he finds a newspaper with the San Francisco harbor ship arrivals listed. One of them circled, indicating the statue must be on it. Yet, when he gets to the docks, he finds the boat on fire. Still, the captain (Walter Huston), having been shot in the back a few times, staggers into Sam’s office clutching the much sought after prize in his arms. Shortly thereafter, he gets a distressing call from Brigid, stashing the statue before going to her. Instead of finding her where she said she would be, she accosts him outside his office building when he returns. They go inside but find Joel, Kasper, and Wilmer waiting. Kasper gives Sam a smaller amount than what they agreed. The only way Sam will accept this reduction in fee is if they give the police a suspect. They decide it must be Wilmer, whom Sam knocks out before the younger man can object. Sam takes this opportunity to have Effie bring the statue, though, after all this, it turns out to be a fake. Kasper departs along with Joel, but trying to get Sam to come with him to Istanbul to continue the quest for the treasure. Wilmer gets away, too, which is just as well. This is because, after everyone is gone, Sam finally persuades Brigid to admit to having Thursby kill Miles. It had been part of her plot to do away with an unwanted accomplice in her own desire to get a hold of the figurine, which she finished herself by shooting Thursby. She would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for Sam’s desire to clear his own name. Thus, the film ends with him turning her over to the authorities.
I have to confess to having trouble following the happenings in The Maltese Falcon. This is because everyone is playing each other, including Sam. I applaud him for acting with integrity at the end, but up to that point there is a whole lot of deception. Because I had trouble understanding it, I will stick to what I do know, and that is Catholicism. In describing the title relic, Kasper talks a bit about the supposed history of the Knights Templar. His brief and laughable summary of their past is typical of what Hollywood would tell you about the order. They were founded as Poor Knights of the Temple, which is how we somehow get the word “Templar.” They come up with this name during that period in Christian history known as the Crusades, which detractors of the Faith like to bring up to tell the world that the Church was, and is, the boogeyman. It is a load of nonsense, of course, despite the verifiable atrocities that did happen. As with most such things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Also, seeing the Templars as being part of some grand conspiracy is nothing new. In the fourteenth century, the French king expelled them from his country because he wanted their stuff, which was basically the beginning of the end for their order. What was left of them scattered to various places, like Malta, which is roughly where Kasper picks up the thread. Despite what the internet, or Kasper for our purposes, might suggest to you, the Templars were not in league with the devil. What remains of their order, which exists in a different form today, does charitable work like any of its other cousins in the Faith. So, please, can we all relax?
Knights Templar aside, The Maltese Falcon is a piece of classic cinema basically because people like the AFI tell you it is so. For now, based on my experience, if you have seen one Bogart picture you have seen them all. There is nothing objectionable in this one, so please feel free to watch it if you must.