The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The common wisdom about Bugs Bunny is that he was modeled after Old Hollywood hunk Clark Gable; the only reason we even have the misconception that real-life rabbits love to eat carrots is because Bugs Bunny parodied Gable doing so in It Happened One Night and the image stuck. However, Gable’s slick, fast-talking, devilish pranksterism is just as much of a reflection of Studio Era sensibilities as they are a personal quirk. His rapid-fire dialogue delivery screams “Turner Classic Movies” more so than seeming specific to him, as if he were speaking a language called “Old Movie” that just happens to sound a lot like sped-up English. I’m saying this mostly because Bugs Bunny was the only thing I could think about while recently watching The Maltese Falcon for the first time, even though that’s a film that stars Humphrey Bogart, not Gable. The Maltese Falcon is a film with an absurdly prestigious pedigree: it’s the directorial debut of Studio Era legend John Huston; it’s cited as the first “major” film noir (as opposed to the smaller, independently produced noir pictures that preceded it); it’s one of the most defining examples of the MacGuffin as a literary device; etc. Still, all I could think about for the entire duration of the film was how funny Humphrey Bogart was in the lead role, and how much he reminded me of Bugs. Bogart is fluent in the same Old Movie language Clark Gable speaks (Bugsy Bunny also parodied him in the Casablanca poof Carrotblanca), and I feel as if I already owe the film a re-watch, not being able to keep up with each joke as fast as they were flying at me in Old Movie dialect.

As the film’s reputation of typifying a MacGuffin may suggest, the plot of The Maltese Falcon does not matter all that much. Bogart stars as a hard-drinking detective who gets sucked into a thieves’ quarrel by a dangerous dame (Mary Astor). At the expense of his partner, his freedom, and potentially his life, he aids this sultry stranger in their quest to obtain a highly valuable ornament ([whispering to my date while watching The Maltese Falcon when The Maltese Falcon first appears on the screen] “That’s the Maltese Falcon”) while avoiding the bullets of a small ring of thieves who also desperately desire to possess it. Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, The Killing’s Elisha Cook Jr, and everyone’s favorite pervert Peter Lorre round out the main cast as that trio of gun-toting thieves, each taking turns backing Bogart into a corner so he can promptly talk his way out of it. It’s Bogart lashing out in that fight-or-flight position that makes The Maltese Falcon such a consistently fun watch. Whether talking to the dame, the cops, or the crooks, Bogart’s hardboiled detective delivers long strings of uninterrupted sass at a machine gun’s pace. Bogart knows he’s being lied to & bullied from all directions, but he finds the danger & mystery of that set-up to be a gas, taking great delight in calling everyone out in their deceits as his hypersensitive bullshit detector goes haywire. When Sydney Greenstreet’s would-be criminal mastermind repeatedly tells Bogart, “You are a character,” out of a gamesman’s delight, it the most honest sentiment shared by any of the film’s various players. This is a film built entirely on Bogart being a comically oversized character, in the colloquial sense of the word.

I don’t want to oversell The Maltese Falcon as a laugh-a-second yuck ‘em up comedy. Based on a very serious crime novel, the second adaption after a 1930s original (Hollywood remake culture has gone too far!), the film’s surface-level details deliver everything you’d want to see in a classic noir. Our “hero” is a hard-drinking adulterer who inserts himself into deadly criminals’ schemes for amusement & personal profit. He dons the classic suits & fedoras combo that inspire those wretched “Men used to dress classy” MRA memes. He’s framed with the intense lighting & drastic angles of classic noir while simply rolling a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, a handsome personification of gruff masculinity. This is directly contrasted with the fey, sexually devious energy of Peter Lorre, playing a character explicitly described as homosexual in the source material. Bogart gets into some S&M play with Lorre (who is introduced practically fellating the handle of his cane), dominating him with some Kung Fu action and barking “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” There’s a serious, even tragic romanticism to this Alpha Male masculinity, typified by his fawning secretary’s plea “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good.” Unfortunately, that macho posturing was something that trickled down into the zeitgeist just as much as Bogart’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” pranksterism, influencing descendants as disparate as the wise-cracking meatheads of French New Wave staples like Breathless and 1980s action spectacles like Commando. There’s a danger in making your troubled antiheroes out to be such slick charmers; they end up being so lovable they’re practically children’s-entertainment cartoon bunnies.

At this point, you probably don’t need to hear from me or any amateur film blogger that The Maltese Falcon is well-made & worth seeing. Catching it for the first time on the big screen (thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series) mostly just confirmed for me what I had already assumed from its name recognition & its heavy rotation in corners like TCM: it’s a handsome, well-crafted noir with a talented cast & a distinct Old Hollywood charm. The only thing I didn’t know to expect was that it would be so damn funny. Even its score often reinforces the humor of the dialogue, with chipper flights of orchestral whims incongruously accompanying a murderous plot about greedy, gun-toting thieves. It’s practically the same accompaniment you’d expect to hear in a Merrie Melodies cartoon while Bugs Bunny cracks wise in an Old Movie cadence to talk his way out of getting shot by Elmer Fudd.

-Brandon Ledet

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