The first in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.
“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” – Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
When I first decided to take on the task of watching and reviewing all the films on the AFI Top 100, part of me was worried that the older films wouldn’t hold up to modern viewing. Over the years, I’ve watched a handful of old movies and I’ve always found the pacing just wasn’t fast enough to keep my interest. The dialogue wasn’t realistic, the acting was too reminiscent of what you’d see in a community theatre stage play, and don’t get me started on melodrama. As someone who grew up in the eighties and nineties, anything that didn’t have the spectacle of Star Wars or the rawness of Clerks wasn’t worth watching. In a way, I was glad when The Maltese Falcon came up first when I randomized my viewing list. It’s a crime drama and considering my love of movies that show a bunch of gangsters doing a bunch of gangster shit, my mood was optimistic. I was not disappointed.
The Maltese Falcon follows detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) as he searches for the man who killed his partner, gets involved with a group of hoodlums who seem pathologically unable to tell the truth, and tries to sell off the titular solid gold statue (a task made more difficult by the fact that he doesn’t possess it). Along the way, while cracking wise and punching guys, he gets involved with a dame (Mary Astor) who clearly isn’t who she says she is. He runs afoul of the police for his lack of cooperation. In their defense, though, he’s their prime suspect in his partner’s murder. It’s all very convoluted and a prototypical film noir. It moved along at a pretty good clip, and at no time did I lose interest or feel the desire to fast forward to the next scene. The acting was a little more over the top and stage-like than I normally prefer, but I settled in after a few minutes and barely noticed it after that. I think there was a shift in the 1950s toward a more natural acting style and anything before that is just going to be more melodramatic. Moving forward with this project, I’m curious to see if that hypothesis bears out.
There are some subtle bits too, mostly hinted at because of the Hays Code, that would be much more obvious and on the nose in a more modern film. Sam is probably having an affair with his dead partner’s wife. She thinks Sam may have killed him in order to be with her. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre at his skeeviest) is most likely gay. Wilmer the goon (Elisha Cook, Jr) may be as well. These are all dealt with in touches as subtle as a business card that smells of gardenia and a sideways look. I’m not suggesting censorship is a good thing, but it forced a level of subtlety that’s missing from more obvious, modern filmmaking. Bogart is the real treat here. He moves through the world in much the same way Ferris Bueller did, always the coolest guy in the room, quick with a quip, though with an air of danger just below the surface. He has another couple films in the Top 100 and after this, I’m really looking forward to them.
In short, The Maltese Falcon turned out to be a wonderful first film for this series. I hadn’t seen it before so I had no preconceptions. It was a genuine joy to watch, and I’m likely to watch it again some time in the future. I get the impression there might be even more subtle bits that I missed the first time. I can’t think of any greater compliment to pay a movie other than wanting to watch it again.
Up next in the queue, 1959′s Some Like It Hot, in which our hero sees what all the hubbub is behind a certain 20th-century bombshell.
Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.