‘The Maltese Falcon’ Defining the Film Noir Genre

Film Noir”, for many of us, brings to mind specific visual styles, possibly a sepia-toned color palette wrapped around established, grittier than not, themes or visual motifs. Yet an exact definition of this very specific Genre’ can often seem as elusive as the dreams and desires of its characters. Equally difficult to define, is the exact period for the Film Noir era. Its influences span several decades and countries. However, The Maltese Falcon, first released in 1941, is widely regarded as the ’Godfather’ (pun intended) of major Film Noir in what some consider its classic era.

Regardless whether you can specifically trace the emergence of Film Noir as its own distinct style to The Maltese Falcon, you may likely agree that it is prototypical for the entire Genre’. It provides an excellent introduction to its world with expressionistic lighting, cynical characters, base motivations, and questionable moral codes: much like the world that existed for many in 1941 … and possibly remains relevant, today. Humphrey Bogart is the perfect embodiment of Private Eye, Sam Spade. However, it’s not the Private Eye that defines Film Noir. Instead, Film Noir may be better defined by the story about a Main Character unwittingly, if not involuntarily, caught in the midst of two worlds that could be defined as Good and Evil. The story arch, however, doesn’t permit the audience to draw black and white distinctions between right and wrong; or, good or evil. Following good, in the story, may result in an immorality. Like its color palette, Film Noir forces the audience to recognize there are shades of grey (no pun intended) that permeate real life. For Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, legal is presented as, shall we say, less than legal. Sam Spade, as a Private Eye very naturally moves the plot forward as he must live and work with both ‘Cops’ and ‘Criminals’. The Sam Spade convention employed by The Maltese Falcon is probably why many people associate Private Eye storylines with Film Noir; despite that the majority of Film Noir Screenplays simply don’t feature a Detective Character. Mary Astor, as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, portrays a prototypical femme fatale, an ever-duplicitous antagonist seemingly effortlessly using her attractiveness, sexuality, and feigned emotions to serve her unbridled self-interest. You may ask yourself where Dashiell Hammett, a Hollywood Novelist upon whose book the film is based and Hollywood Writer-Director John Huston, who wrote the Screenplay – Two men steeped in 1940s Hollywood, would come up with a Character such as Brigid O’Shaughnessy … or possibly not.

The subject of The Maltese Falcon; its characters and storyline, has been the subject of dozens of reviews relating to the Film Noir style and Hammett’s Novel in general. One thing that may stand out today, is the portrayal of women – not simply femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; but all the female characters. It’s as if we’re watching the Grandmothers for what will become Reality TV, albeit an admittedly unfair and overly-broadly-brushstroked observation of the TV Genre’ (… just saying).

Let’s take a look at The Maltese Falcon’s Three prominently featured female characters. Brigid O’Shaughnessy is motivated exclusively by self-interest; which makes her dangerous. She’s not above resorting to murder, as expediency for what she wants. Arguably, Brigid is the mold for all future femme fatale. Iva Archer is no saint, either. She is a cheating wife and needy widow whom Sam wants to avoid, even though (possibly especially because) they have a romantic history. The only female character in the film seemingly not corrupt in some way is Sam’s Office Assistant, Effie Perine. The audience will either see Effie as the perfect, reliable partner (read “wife material” of the1940s – because bad, over-sexed, non-virgin Girls don’t find husbands; and, in 1940s era movies, married couples sleep in separate beds) stripped of any real sexuality. As if to place an exclamation point behind it, Effie is rendered innocuous for the audience, with Sam’s famous line – “You’re a good man, sister”. Some may argue Effie is actually a Sister/Mother figure. Lacking any Psychiatric credentials, however, I’ll leave Effie’s analysis (pun intended) at this juncture.

The role of women may have been more impactful during my most recent viewing of The Maltese Falcon because of the drastic difference between its female characters and those found in Kingsman: The Secret Service, for which I wrote a recent Movie Review Article (below). Today’s female characters are portrayed, as well they should be, as strong and working side-by-side the male characters. The Maltese Falcon, while a splendid achievement from Hollywood’s Golden Age, unfortunately also represents an interesting period truth about the role of women according to 1940s society. Fortunately, there has been – and hopefully will continue to be – a development of society’s view for female characters. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Characters were Gender interchangeable for purposes of storyline; you know, like the Starbuck Character in the 2004 iteration of TV’s Battlestar Galactica?

Revisit The Maltese Falcon and let me know if you agree. You may find the movie well worth it.