Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Film Noir Goes to School: THE MALTESE FALCON Tonight at the Normal Theater

In addition to Tuesday Night Classics and Friday Night Late Shows, the Normal Theater is hosting a Film Noir series on six selected Wednesday nights, airing classic film noir goodies accompanied by post-show discussions led by William McBride, Associate Professor at Illinois State University.

This new series opens tonight with a quintessential piece of film noir. That would be The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart at his most sardonic and iconic in the role of private investigator Sam Spade. When a mysterious damsel in distress shows up in Spade's office to hire an investigator, he finds himself in murky waters, full of guns, goons, felons and femmes fatales.

Mary Astor is the bad girl in this one, weaving a web of desperation and deceit around everyone she touches. That's her looking languid in the orange dress on the poster above. Who is she? Is she looking for someone to track down the man who kidnapped her little sister? Does she even have a sister? What's her connection to creepy Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), "fat man" Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) or Spade's unlucky partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)? And what does any of that have to do with a piece of art, a rare, jewel-encrusted bird that supposedly dates from the 16th century and the Knights of Malta?

The Maltese Falcon was written and directed by John Huston, who himself starred in a classic piece of film noir when he played the corrupt patriarch in Chinatown in 1973. Huston was a mere 35 when The Maltese Falcon came out in 1941. He'd been acting on Broadway and in films since the 20s and writing for the screen since 1930, but The Maltese Falcon was his first directing job. Over the course of his lengthy career, he was nominated ten times for Oscars, winning two in 1949 for writing and directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and he directed both his father, Walter Huston, and his daughter, Anjelica Huston, to Oscar wins.

His script for The Maltese Falcon adapts a hard-boiled detective yarn by Dashiell Hammett, leaving intact most of its twisty story of crosses and doublecrosses, but losing some of the more salacious bits that couldn't clear the Production Code in 1941. There's still plenty of the cynicism and moody ambiguity that characterize film noir, however.

If you haven't seen The Maltese Falcon, you really need to get to the Normal Theater tonight before 7 pm. These Wednesday night special showings are free, with the added bonus of McBride's film noir discussion afterwards.


  1. There are lots of great, classic film noirs (films noir?), but The Maltese Falcon wins my own personal blue ribbon. It adapts iconic source material pretty much intact, and it must be one of the most perfectly cast such movies ever: Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet just couldn't be better (even if Bogie is not visually the Sam Spade Hammett described).

    The Library of America (a great site to subscribe to) had a good piece about The Maltese Falcon in its "adaptations" series.

  2. It really is the quintessential example. Thanks for the link!

  3. Those Library of America essays are really good. I just spent a couple of hours down that rabbit hole, but I'm not sorry!

  4. I don't know if you're keeping up, but the newest entry in the series, on The Member of the Wedding, seems especially good. Now I need to see the movie!