Sam Spade (Bogart), private eye, is harassed by the police when his partner is killed trailing a man. The woman who put them in pursuit is not the person she says she is and Spade finds himself entangled in a chase for the one-off statue The Maltese Falcon.
It’s almost a rule of cinema that remakes are a bad idea — but in 1941, screenwriter John Huston defied this conventional wisdom and made his directorial debut with a novel Warner Brothers had already done twice. Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 private eye page-turner was first adapted in 1931 as a racy pre-Hays Code thriller (aka Dangerous Female), with Ricardo Cortez as an oversexed Sam Spade leering at Bebe Daniels, and first remade in 1936 as a knockabout comedy entitled Satan Met A Lady, with goonish Warren William as the shamus ensnared by pert Bette Davis.
Sam Spade is a key role in Humphrey Bogart’s career, permanently shifting him from thug roles to battered romantic leads, and the 1941 Falcon defined the style of American crime melodrama which would be labelled film noir, with bizarre eccentrics lurking in every stylised shadow. It also established Huston as one of the great writer-directors — demonstrating his career-long knack of picking perfect little literary works, from Treasure Of The Sierra Madre to The Dead, which can be turned into outstanding films simply by shooting what’s on the page (admittedly, he overextended with Moby Dick and The Bible) — and gave a clutch of Hollywood supporting players (Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr.) their image-defining screen roles.
Besides being important, The Maltese Falcon remains endlessly rewatchable because it’s fun. Hammett was credited by Raymond Chandler with bringing realism to the mystery field, but he also loved plots of Jacobean intricacy and the kind of dialogue Noel Coward might have written if he’d packed a gun in his dressing-gown. The storyline is built around the search for an elaborately nonsensical prize (its fabulous backstory delightfully elucidated by the voluminous Greenstreet) and scene after scene has dubious characters getting together in anonymous hotel rooms and apartments to scheme, double-cross and lie to each other. It is as much a straight-faced comedy as it is hardboiled thump-fest (though watch Bogart’s fast moves and slick grin when disarming Lorre or Cook), murder mystery (and multiple viewings still don’t quite explain why Sam’s partner gets shot in the first reel) or doomed romance (but the final “I won’t play the sap for you” scene is a heart-breaker). Arguably the finest remake ever.
The perfect movie experience.