I do like a Film Noir. I love all the high-contrast lighting, the femme fatales, and the cynical anti-hero detectives with their own moral codes and well-stocked home bars. Humphrey Bogart is the archetypal detective, hard-boiled and flawed. I couldn't believe I'd never seen The Maltese Falcon, often cited as the first true Film Noir, so when we spotted it on VHS in a charity shop we snapped it up. (Tip: VHS is amazing for getting to watch videos of old films, you can pick up a player for around £5 in charity shops etc.).
Released in 1941, the Maltese Falcon is directed by John Houston and co-stars Mary Astor, who I hadn't come across before, but I discovered that she started out in silent movies. Bogart is the Private Eye, whilst Astor is the shifty client who is acting the role of her lifetime as she tries to get Bogart to help her. There are murders from the start, and a few unsavoury characters emerge over the course of the story, all trying to get their hands on a priceless statuette.
From left: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet
I was pleased to see Peter Lorre, whom you'll know if you've seen Arsenic and Old Lace, and Sydney Greenstreet, who went on to play opposite Bogart again in Casablanca.
It's a bit of an odd film because it's all about conversations; there really isn't that much action, despite the murders (we only get to see one of them briefly on screen). The tension in this film is in the dialogue between the characters. The murders, the falcon, they're all backdrop. There are some gems in the dialogue, especially in the monologues that Bogart gets to deliver, and there's some wonderful humour (my favourite is Lorre's second attempt to search Bogart's office). I have to say that I didn't warm to Astor. I found her character a bit tiresome, particularly in comparison to Bogart's stalwart secretary (Una Merkel).
It's an odd film on another level, in that it's a remake that on paper was never going to be a success. Bogart had been typecast previously in a series of gangster films. Mary Astor hadn't transitioned well from the silent movies, she wasn't deemed 'sexy' enough for this role, and the script was the same as that used in the 1931 version ten years earlier, as they couldn't afford a re-write. Against these odds, the direction and acting came together to produce a film that spawned a new genre.
I have to say that it wasn't my favourite Film Noir. I'm glad to have seen it, but I have seen far superior films in the genre, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). If you want to see the 1931 version then try this link here (I haven't watched it all the way through, so please let me know if it works!).
Have you seen this film? What did you think? Have you a favourite Film Noir?