Many popular film noir movies are now available on DVD, but what is film noir? What places a film in the "noir" category? What do you look for? Ask 10 people, "What is film noir?" and you will get 10 different answers. Whenever there is a conversation about film noir, the one constant you will hear is that The Maltese Falcon ranks as one of the best, if not the very best example of a noir film.
There are books and visuals that can give you some guidance and insight to understand this genre. It should be noted that film noir is more of a style or feel rather than a true genre, such as romance or comedy movies. The name means film black or dark. Dark film or black film suggests the mood or texture of a film. Newer movies such as The Grifters (1990) starring Anjelica Huston and John Cusack and Chinatown (1974) with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston have a noir feel.
Some authors wrote novels that were perfect for interpretation into film noir. Dashiel Hammett, who wrote The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Curse and The Thin Man was excellent in his craft. Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely, whose protagonist Philip Marlowe was tough but honest to the core, and James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice all were just what the doctor ordered when it comes to noir. Their heroes or anti-heroes were tough and hard-boiled. They were often from the wrong side of the tracks, their school was one of hard knocks and they sometimes straddled the line between law-abiding citizen and thug. It is interesting that all three of these authors were born in the late 1800s.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) is true film noir. It has all of the noir elements: A hard-boiled detective just eeking out a living, shady characters and criminals, corruption on both sides of the law, double-crosses and a pretty woman. Its hero is private investigator Sam Spade, played brilliantly by Humphrey Bogart. This role fits Bogart like a good pair of gloves. His interpretation of the savvy, streetwise P.I. is one that is still used today.
Spade has an eye for the ladies. He is presently courting his partner's wife (Gladys George as Iva Archer and Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer, Spade-s partner). Enter pretty and manipulative Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), who tearfully asks for help in recovering a statue. The premise of the movie is simple. Find a black statue shaped like a falcon and return it to its rightful owner. But first Spade must prove that he did not kill his business partner Miles Archer. Then he has to find out who actually owns the bird and why people are willing to kill to get their hands on it.
John Huston (Angelica Huston's dad) handled the screenplay and detective movies were never the same. The cast is splendid. Peter Lorre is Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet is Kasper Gutman and Ward Bond plays detective Tom Polhaus. Actress Lee Patrick is Sam Spade's secretary, Effie. Effie takes care of Sam; she fends off bill collectors and blocks unwanted telephone calls from women and apparently does not mind working without a paycheck. She is the good woman of noir, fast-talking, good-natured and a heart of gold. Also in the movie are William Hopper (later of the Perry Mason TV show), who plays a reporter, and Walter Huston as a police captain. Their names are not shown in the credits and you have to look quickly to spot them, but for those who love movies, that is always fun to do.
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