The original film noir

  • Anupama Chopra, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 04, 2015 18:39 IST

What: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Direction: John Huston

Plot: A story filled with crime and intrigue, as private detective Sam Spade is embroiled in a case brought to him by a gorgeous, mysterious woman — he must find the bejewelled The Maltese Falcon.

The hottest thing in the movies this week is Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy — which makes it the perfect time to revisit the original hard-boiled, arrogant, occasionally mean and perennially unsentimental sleuth — Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

The film is 74 years old but its pleasures are still deep and abiding. Dashiell Hammett’s story of a San Francisco detective who gets embroiled in the hunt for a priceless artefact, had been filmed twice before in 1931 and 1936 with little success. But in the hands of debutant director John Huston, the material became an instant classic.

What still startles is Sam’s brittleness — here’s a man who doesn’t shed a tear when his partner is brutally murdered and yet he adheres to a code of honour regarding the partner that prevents him from walking off happily into the sunset. Spade seems amused by his own wickedness and he doesn’t give an inch to anyone — especially not to the woman he loves. At the end, he tells Brigid: You’ll never understand me.

The other characters in the film are equally memorable — Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo and Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman bring an elegance and icy menace to the story. And savour the dialogue — at one point, as Brigid pleads with Spade to help her, he accuses her of being a performer. He says: You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think — and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr Spade.”

The Maltese Falcon is considered to be the first film noir. Dark shadows, anti-heroic heroes, untrustworthy femme fatales and grim textures became standard tropes of the genre. The film has aged beautifully — revisit it and relish Mr Spade. Truly, they don’t make them like this anymore!

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