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The Maltese Falcon

At the Brattle


There's a story about an elderly lady who went to see Hamlet for the first time. She liked it all right, except that it was full of quotations. The Maltese Falcon may seem like that after many years of imitations, but it's still one of the finest detective stories ever filmed.

Somehow, Dashiell Hammett picked up the reputation of an ultra-realist. He's far from that. The very picture of a golden falcon, encrusted with jewels, sought by a group of incredible characters who roam the world searching for it, is fairy tale material. The realism lies in Hammett's dialogue, his insistence upon accurate details. Hammett's detectives were never brilliant thinkers; Sam Spade is a tough monkey with a head as soft as the next guy's when it meets a flying blackjack or a loaded whiskey. Hammett's policemen aren't nice fellows; there is little romance in their jobs and they often become upset. Sometimes they even slug law-abiding citizens.

The performances in this movie have become as classic as the story and just as susceptible to imitation--often by the same people. The late Sidney Greenstreet played Caspar Gutman ever after, and Peter Lorre has never quite gotten away from the frightened effeminate man in evening dress, cowering under Humphrey Bogart's open-handed smashes. Bogart, a fine actor in any role, sent a young generation out into the world with inscrutable smiles and tough wisecracks. The line, "If they give you twenty years, I'll wait for you; if they hang you, I'll always remember you," which Spade spits out to the girl he loves as he turns her in to the police, sets him forever apart from the race of love-sick weaklings.

Hammett's ideological stupidities for a time made him persona non grata with State Department libraries, but the old master of the "Black Mask" magazine wrote some of the finest non-political fairy tales before he vanished into obscurity. The Maltese Falcon is among his best.

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