(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday. Will she make it? Keep following the site to find out!)
I would love to see a remake of The Maltese Falcon with Bill Murray in the role of Sam Spade. Well, maybe not the Bill Murray of today because he’s getting a little bit too old to play a hard-boiled private detective who is as good with his fists as his brain. Instead, I’m thinking more of Lost In Translation era Bill Murray, when he was no longer young but could still probably beat up any sniveling punk who came at him with a gun.
Now, that may sound crazy to some but think about it. Bill Murray is one of the great deadpan snarkers and so is Sam Spade. Last night, when I watched the famous 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon (the story was filmed twice before, once with Bette Davis as the femme fatale), I was struck by how much of the film really was a comedy. It may have been a murder mystery that featured death and betrayal and a lot of people getting beaten up but, ultimately, The Maltese Falcon is really about Sam Spade reacting to all of the crazy and strange people around him. No matter how weird things get, Spade always responds with a smirk and a quip. It’s a role that, at times, seems to be tailor-made for an actor like Bill Murray.
Bill Murray wasn’t around in 1941 but fortunately, Humphrey Bogart was. Humphrey Bogart may have grown up wealthy and attended private schools but, on screen, nobody was tougher than Humphrey Bogart and nobody was better at delivering sarcastic, snark-filled dialogue. After spending years as a villainous supporting actor, Humphrey Bogart got his first starring role when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. His performance, of course, would set the standard by which all future cinematic private eyes would be judged.
And, of course, Spade was tough and he was cynical and he has that wonderful moment at the end of the film where he explains that nobody’s going to make a “sap” out of him. But for me, Bogart’s best moments come when Spade is alone and thinking. It’s at those times that Spade suddenly becomes a human being. A slight smirk comes to his lips, almost as if he’s sharing a private joke with the audience. You can tell that he’s thinking to himself, “Can you believe how weird my life is?”
And it is indeed a weird life. The film opens with Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), being murdered. The police believe that Archer was murdered by a man named Thursby and that Thursby was subsequently murdered by Spade. Spade, however, suspects that both Archer and Thursby were killed by his latest client, a woman who introduced herself as Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Except, of course, that’s not her real name. Her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and, as she admits to Spade, Thursby was her partner. She claims that Thursby must have murdered Archer but that she doesn’t know who could have possibly killed Thursby.
What’s particularly interesting about all this is that no one really seems to be that upset about Archer’s death. Spade’s main motivation for investigating the murder is to clear his name and there are several lines of dialogue that reveal how little regard he had for Miles. In fact, when Archer’s widow (Gladys George) suggests that Spade might be Archer’s killer, you can understand why she might think that. But then again, that’s the world of The Maltese Falcon. Only the tough survive. Getting sentimental or allowing yourself to care is the biggest mistake you can make.
The murders are connected to the hunt for a valuable statue of a bird. (This is the famous Maltese Falcon of the title.) As Spade tries to clear his name in the two murders, he also finds himself getting caught up with a strange group of treasure hunters. There’s the obsequious Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). There’s the ruthless “fat man,” Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet). And then there’s Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), Gutman’s young henchman who spends the entire film trying to convince everyone that he’s tougher than he appears. Wilmer is a born patsy. Whenever Spade gets annoyed, he beats up Wilmer. And he usually smiles afterward.
Along with being the directorial debut of John Huston, The Maltese Falcon was also one of the first great film noirs. It’s one of the most influential films ever made and, even seen today, it’s a lot of fun. You really can’t go wrong with Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Cook all in the same movie. Bill Murray may never get a chance to play Sam Spade but that’s okay. Humphrey Bogart’s the only Sam Spade we really need.
The Maltese Falcon was nominated for best picture. However, it lost to How Green Was My Valley, a film that literally seems to take place in an entirely different universe from The Maltese Falcon.