No one hard-boils glamor like Humphrey Bogart. And here in the inauguration of his peremptory charm, first-time director John Huston gives film noir the slanted shadows to match the ones under Bogart’s eyes. Raymond Chandler slashed it with rain before sticking its romance in the cold corner pocket, like Dashiell Hammett (who pens the book Huston adapts), a man of mean streets and smoky rooms, of loose broads and heroes who charge by the hour. Huston gets it. He gives a hard-drinking city its cool hilarity, that crease-faced ire of Bogart turning whiskey glasses to dust in a fit of rage, storming out, and grinning in the hall, too pleased with himself. He gives it the broken bottle dreams that would pass to Rick Blaine. He’s no story, all character. If he doesn’t make the first noir, he makes the first that knows itself.
Approaching the film now, you can tell it was too new to click with the cult of happy endings and knights in shining ardor. “A story as explosive as his blazing automatics,” the poster reads, picturing the seminal private eye of the movies firing a couple off into the pastel border, not knowing (or caring to) that Sam Spade doesn’t carry a gun. “I don’t like them much,” Spade says with measured breath, gruff as his name. He’s no pacifist. He’ll whip effeminate art dealer Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) for sticking him up, for carrying a scented kerchief, or maybe just because he doesn’t like him much. No—he doesn’t carry a gun because they muddle things up, confuse the issue, leave less time for talking. Spade himself seems to know more about movies than most viewers. That poster shows how right he was even then.
The poster’s like that because it’s what people expected and thought they understood (or what marketers assumed they did). Brigid O’Shaughnessy begs Spade’s services and the signs of romance start fluttering, but something’s not quite right. “You’re good, real good,” Spade says as she avoids a telling question by shuffling a cigarette case and pacing the room. “I deserve that,” she says. Mary Astor gives Brigid (or Ruth or whatever her real name is) a secret greed completely without romance, chillingly immodest. No skirts fly in Huston’s steamy yet sexless love-grind between thieves and liars. Yet the words “I love you” are said exactly one time. Something happens in the shoot-from-the-hip streets beneath the grim windows and the spectral lamp glow subbing for the moon, something that approximates love in a cloying world of ruthless men penned up in the dreams they’re too street-savvy to believe in. We just never see it.
It happens around a pivotal artifact, a black falcon statue encrusted with Crusader’s jewels, widely rumored but rarely seen. If you follow Spade’s progress in understanding and seeking out the bird, you come as near to a story in “The Maltese Falcon” as you’re likely to get. But it’s never really about treasure, and the twice-told tale of the falcon’s history is the foil on our expectation that it’ll get around to it. Really, the statue’s a point on the horizon of a film purely about character. Huston makes a ghetto of barbed rhetoric and booze-crossed lovers. He makes it about their linguistic affairs in back rooms, tongues sharpened, eyes smoldered like reefer glow. He pares us down to size before the largeness of Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who booms over Spade’s cut-corner rhetoric and spritely entrepreneurship while his bulb-eyed henchman fumes in the corner. Gutman’s so delighted by his intriguing new playmate that he gets shiny with amusement, planetary before Huston’s intimate, unflattering lens.
Spade leans into this imposing figure and shunts him with a plume of smoke. He play-acts as the hot-tempered boy and grins over it because the Fat Man wants treasure and men after treasure always get cornered by men after truth. And Spade is his own truth. Even as his partner dies he takes it as inevitable, kisses his widow and next leaves her to dry. Sure, he shows concern for the murder, but he doesn’t take the case for vengeance, not even as a courtesy. He’s just supposed to do something about it. “Fair enough,” he says at one point. Fair enough is how Spade does everything.
Bogart’s the usher of a new filmic age, the first of the anti-men scowling in their streets, for whom taking a broad by the arm is rough stuff and a kiss is worse than a bullet wound. Huston meets the British on their own baize battlefield, and from Reed and Hitchcock wrests the man of mystery back onto native American streets. He and cinematographer Arthur Edeson hue their cinema with dusk, shoot shadows with the hard-lined grace of a graphic novel, leave the ceilings in, take the audience through long, cloying shots, room-to-room with urgent men whose business is death and truth and, only occasionally, love.
In Spade we find the perennial dark hero, the guy with toughness stitching up all the broken promises and empty bottles. Here’s the lusty dame with her own agenda. Here’s the story-less plot of dialogic violence. An occasional fit of rage in the leery streets. A villain like a plaster figure of deadly sins. A love like gods circling-never-touching in a fresco. A night capped by the hardest goodbye of the movies.