Humphrey Bogart held guns. His posters would often offer him up, staring off into the distance with a wry, troubled smile on his face, a shooter in one hand and a trilby on his head. Casablanca, The Big Sleep, Angels With a Dirty Face, alternate posters for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Maltese Falcon. What does that mean for him as an actor? It means he is always in the primed and ready position. Prepared for the worst at all times, and such an odd little poster fact makes the world of difference when his leading performance as Sam Spade is sallied with two guns on the poster instead of one. Double the business, I suppose. You’d think so when John Huston is in the directing chair.
Or, at least, you would hope so. The Maltese Falcon is a fine film, with emphasis on “fine.” Fine, in the sense that it does no harm nor good. It is a good Bogart vehicle, which sees him portray the private detective seeking out the just and rightful owner of a priceless statue. He brushes shoulders with hard hands of the law, and to little avail. His performance is a strong one, as expected, but it is not close to those that would define him soon after this one. Spade is a hard-to-crack detective, something Bogart would flutter with time and time again. The cold man against the colder reality. It suits him well, and he performs with exceptional merit here, but does not stick in the mind as best he should.
Much of that comes down to the reliability The Maltese Falcon has as a narrative. I am a sucker for static shots, where the camera lingers on the man with a gun, delivering a speech of self-interest. For whatever reason, I always have Bogart in mind when thinking of such scenes. This story of ancient artefacts and double-crossings has strong intentions, but never quite realises them. It is mired by unhelpful, forgettable supporting characters. They are nowhere close to bad but are an equal distance away from being inspired. It may have aided the film noir movement, but as a concept standing on its own, Huston cannot fix the problems of relatively half-baked dialogue.
Showcasing the talents of its leading man, The Maltese Falcon can do little else when the supporting players feel uninspired by the wrought and dense dialogue. It is a story of magnificent discovery, the tropes are laid out for all to see, plain as day. Huston does well to include and destroy them in sequence, and it gives much room for the genre to grow. But therein lies the problem, the offerings beyond The Maltese Falcon are far superior, and while it is nice to travel back and view the sketch marks, nothing is better than a fully realised project. The Maltese Falcon is fully realised, and an enjoyable one too, but there are still jitters and clunky components within that stop it from hitting the highs the genre would soon find.