The Maltese Falcon review – dreamlike tension and the greatest MacGuffin of all time

<span>Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

John Huston’s adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, as well as having the greatest MacGuffin of all time, is a ringing disproof of Raymond Chandler’s belief that detective stories depend on men coming through doors with guns. People arrive with guns a good deal in The Maltese Falcon, but mostly without them; Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade makes a point of telling us he prefers to be unarmed, and he has a very cool line in disarming other people. And what a superb performance from Bogart: darker, steelier and more ambiguous than his Rick in Casablanca, with all the world-weary cynicism, but none of the romantic sacrifice – just a strangely opaque manipulative streak, a need to use the women that cross his path. It’s a tough wised-up routine, involving pantomime displays of furious anger to intimidate people, which shifts to jaunty, unconcerned whistling when he is alone, and finally flowers into anguish and defiance.

He plays San Francisco private detective Spade, who in time-honoured style is approached by a shady lady in his office: this is the highly-strung Brigid O’Shaughnessy, played by Mary Astor. She spins Spade a line about needing him to tail someone in the city. Spade isn’t buying it but allows his excitable partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to take the job, and Spade remains sociopathically unmoved at the news that Miles has been shot dead. By who? It just so happens that Sam has been carrying on an affair with Miles’s wife Iva (Gladys George) and this tough, cool customer is soon kissing Miss O’Shaughnessy full on the lips. From a shoal of red herrings emerges a slippery fellow called Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, and heavy-set businessman Kasper Gutman, played by Sydney Greenstreet. They are all after the same thing: a staggeringly valuable jewelled ornament, the “Maltese Falcon”, once offered in tribute by the Knights Templar in the 16th century to the King of Spain.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that the one woman whom Spade does seem to respect is his good-natured secretary Effie (Lee Patrick), whose loyalty may have been an inspiration for Miss Moneypenny, and Sam’s cruel detachment may have inspired the British secret agent she pined for. The scene in which Sam takes Joel’s gun off him and beats him up, all without removing the cigarette jammed into the corner of his mouth, is a comic triumph, topped off with Sam sportingly returning Joel’s gun to him and then bursting out laughing when Joel once again threatens him with it.

The strange, dreamlike tension of the film escalates with each new confrontation, each new tailing, each new beating, with Gutman and Cairo shot from a queasy low angle, and the nightmare culminates in a gripping series of closeups on each strained face. Spade acidly dismisses the falcon as “the stuff that dreams are made of”, an anti-Prospero of cynicism and survival.

• The Maltese Falcon is released on 17 September in cinemas.