NOIRVEMBER FILM FEST #1: THE MALTESE FALCON

Director John Houston’s classic noir The Maltese Falcon is known as one of the first noir films. It is stylish, full of iconic shots, and there are incredible performances by Humphrey Bogart (as Sam Spade) and character actor Sidney Greenstreet (Mr. Gutman).
Apart from its style and camera work, the movie’s greatest strength is its ability to slowly reveal the characters as the story progresses. Their complexity keeps us engaged as we figure out what they want, why they want it, and how they are working to get it.

THE STORY & ITS THEME – A PICTURE OF EMPTY PURSUITS

The Maltese Falcon is the story of detective Sam Spade, a San Francisco private eye who runs a detective agency with partner Miles Archer. One day Brigid O’Shaunessy walks in and offers them two hundred dollars to trail a man named Floyd Thursby. Archer is killed after he jumps at the chance to help Brigid.
Spade is forced to find out what happened to Archer after he is harassed, and even accused of the crime, by police investigators. He goes to see Brigid and agrees to help her even though he knows she is a liar. As the case unfolds, Spade learns that Brigid, and several other treasure seekers, are looking for the Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel encrusted statue of a falcon.
As Spade unravels the mystery of the bird, he interacts with this small group of treasure hunters seeking it. Cairo, Gutman, and O’Shaunessy are all angling to take the bird before the others can get to it. They have been tracking it down and feel as if they are on the verge of finding it. Each of them try to manipulate Spade into helping them find the bird and Spade manipulates them in order to find out more information about Archer’s murder.
Spade is motivated by one thing above all else: to clear his name by solving the case.
The treasure hunters track the bird to an incoming ship. The ship catches fire and the falcon seems to have disappeared. But it shows up at Spade’s detective agency. Spade meets up with the treasure hunters and convinces them to give him a fall guy for Archer’s murder in exchange for the falcon. They agree but during the big reveal, it turns out the bird is a fake. They have all been tricked into believing it was the real thing, but it was a cheap replica of the real thing.
Despite the fact the bird they have found is a fake, the group is convinced they are on the verge of finding the falcon and they leave to pursue it.
Spade convinces Brigid to reveal how she murdered Archer and Thursby. She tells the truth and he turns her over to the police.

The Maltese Falcon reminds us that we are all chasing something. And that something may or may not have any worth. In fact, what we think will bring us the answer often remains out of our grasp. The small group of treasure hunters do not find what they are looking for and there is no indication they ever will. In fact, in the end, Sam recognizes their empty quest, refuses to join them in pursuit of the falcon.
At the end of the movie, one of the police detectives asks Sam about the falcon, “What is it?” Spade answers, “The stuff dreams are made of.” It is clear those dreams are fantasies without fulfillment, shadow without substance, the pursuit of the wind.
Jesus hit on a similar theme when he said, “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

THE CHARACTER SAM SPADE – A PICTURE OF MODERN ISOLATION

What are we to make of Spade? After all, he is the only character who is not chasing after the falcon. He is the only character strong enough to taste of the possibility of a large pay off and let it go. He rejects the invitation to join the others in their quest for the treasure. At first we are tempted to say that Spade is above chasing money. He knows a fool’s pursuit when he sees it.
But Spade’s refusal to pursue the bird is more a result of his disengaged life than some moral code. In fact, Spade is isolated from all of life. Consider Spade in light of his relationships:
The police accuse Spade of murder, yet he is not interested in working with them to make sure they understand his innocence. He toys with them the entire time but never relates to them in any real or substantive way.
He is alienated from his partner (he is having an affair with Archer’s wife). In fact, when he hears of Archer’s death he says he should investigate it because that is what partners are supposed to do. He is not interested in catching the killer out of friendship. In fact, he immediately has Archer’s name removed from the agency without much thought.
He has an affair with Archer’s wife, but as the story progresses it becomes obvious he doesn’t want anything to do with her and he even despises her.
He has an obvious attraction to Brigid. Yet he never lets it cloud his judgment. He is more than happy to turn her over to the police once he finds out she murdered Archer. He even taunts her at the end saying he hopes they don’t hang her by that pretty little neck of hers.
Spade is always manipulating relationships. Every relationship in the movie involves Spade playing an angle. In fact, his own secretary says, “You’re too slick for your own good.”
He might have brief connections with people (the affair with Archer’s wife, the romantic flirtation with Brigid), but ultimately he grows to despise those with whom he connects. He is a thoroughly modern man. Our world is full of people who cannot connect with others on a meaningful level for a long period of time.
Spade’s unwillingness and inability to connect serve as flaws that make his life harder. This is why, even though he behaves heroically in resisting temptation of the femme fatale Brigid, his deeds cannot be called heroic. His moral center – refusing to compromise his work and give in to a completely amoral world – is not based on doing right, it is based on his unwillingness to engage the world around him.
This all-encompassing isolation is Sam’s weakness, not his strength. When he sinks deeper and deeper into trouble, he has no one to help him. All of his relationships have brought him pain so he finds little joy in relating to others unless it is to outwit them or use them to chase down whatever he is pursuing.
Perhaps that is why Spade has aged so well. It used to be Spade was an outsider in a world that could connect. But we have all become outsiders, failing to connect with others and too caught in our own isolation to really relate to each other. As theologian David Wells said, “The children who have grown up or are growing up in the post-modern world bear its mark. They are cut loose from everything, hollowed out, patched together from scraps of personality picked up here and there, leery of commitment, fixated on image rather than substance, operating on the seductive elixir of unrestricted personal preference, and informed only by personal intuition.”
Spade appeals to the anti-social in us all. The one who plays by his own rules. The one who brushes off social pain because he remains above connecting with others.
But in the end, Spade walks out alone.

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