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"Bogart's Best? What makes
The Maltese Falcon Unique."

For many, the Maltese Falcon is the quintessential Humphrey Bogart film (and for some it is the definitive ‘40’s era adaptation of a hard-boiled detective story). But break down the film – element by element – and it is fairly easy to argue that any number of other Bogart films best it. For example, despite having darker content than Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep has superior comic relief, a richer story, and gripping ending. Key Largo also has a more exciting climax and, thanks to the undeniable spark between Bogart and Bacall, true romance. Across The Pacific – with much of the same cast as Maltese Falcon – has a more compelling setting, a larger stakes plot and more action (well, at least what passed for ‘action’ back in the day). Bogart is also tougher in any number of other films – Sahara to name one – than he is in the Maltese Falcon. To Have and Have Not has Hoagy Carmichael. And of course, there is Casablanca, which is in a category all its own. 

So why does Maltese Falcon have such a seeming inordinate role in defining the Bogart legacy? Why is it Bogart’s Sam Spade character that is parodied by Peter Falk in Murder By Death? What -- if anything -- is different about the Maltese Falcon or Bogart’s performance? 

Others have said that the heart of Bogart’s appeal was (and is) America’s love for and identification with competency. In other words, that Americans respond to a worldly character who is nonplussed by seemingly overwhelming adversity and circumstances. A tough-guy who is not afraid to break a few rules but always ends up doing the right thing despite the consequences to himself. Any of the characters played by Bogart in the films mentioned above fits the bill (out-of-work veteran, a broke fisherman, a savvy sergeant) – and are as equally resourceful as Bogart’s detective. So, again, what makes Bogart’s Sam Spade character special?

True, with the exception of The Big Sleep, none of the other Bogart films mentioned above are detective stories. And for reasons that I fail to comprehend, audiences always seem more predisposed to identify with a detective – even if that character at first seems to have dubious morals and motives. Suffice it to say, the genre’s requirement that the detective be at odds with all legal authority adds an especially compelling reason for audiences to identify with the character. In this aspect, The Maltese Falcon clearly surpasses [the wide-release version] of The Big Sleep. Sam Spade is in it deep in The Maltese Falcon and he is in it deep largely due to his own past actions (namely his affair with his partner’s wife). 

But other than the District Attorney subplot, arguably the only other elements of The Maltese Falcon that surpass The Big Sleep or the other films is the music, cinematography – and, of all things, the lack of action in the film. 

With no real gunplay, car-chases or even a good knockdown fight, The Maltese Falcon clearly lacks the action-content of even other films from the period. Watch the scene with the La Paloma burning at the dock. Doubtlessly this was the most expensive scene in the film but the story was not adapted to take advantage of the set – such as a chase and quick escape by Bogart. The action – Wilbur being careless with matches – is simply said, not seen. The climax in The Maltese Falcon unfolds – of all places – during a long night in Spade’s apartment. The violence between Bogart’s Spade and the Joel Cairo and Wilbur characters is mostly played for laughs. And the film’s most menacing images come not from a bona-fide killer (like the Canino character in The Big Sleep) but from the fantastic screen-filling shots of Sydney Greenstreet as he matches wits with Bogart. 

It is precisely this “lack” of action that makes The Maltese Falcon special. The success of the film depends totally on the story and the actors. Every line has to (and is) delivered dead-on. The story must (and does) unfold in such a way as to hold our attention. There are no distractions for the audience. There is a ton (even an excessive amount) of exposition in The Maltese Falcon, and it passes by more readily than the scant exposition in an Adam Sandler comedy. For seventy-five years, audiences have sat through The Maltese Falcon’s fast dialogue and perfectly delivered lines and been entertained by a simple story of greed stopped cold by the smartest guy in the room who comes off as anything but.

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