The Maltese Falcon (1941) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

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Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Damien of Flashback/Backslide. Thanks for all the reviews, Damien! 🙂 Now let’s see what he thinks of The Maltese Falcon, IMDB rank 121 out of 250…

There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list of remaining films HERE. See the full list & links to all the reviews that have already been done HERE. Also, if you’d like to add a link to your IMDB review(s) on your own blogs, feel free to use any of the logos I’ve used at the top of any of these guest reviews.

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The Maltese Falcon

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Reviewing a classic like The Maltese Falcon reveals the absurdity of online film reviews. The endeavor asks us to focus our gaze on a film created before most of us were born, before many of our parents were born in fact, not to mention before countless cultural shifts, artistic fads and genrefication. And of course before the invention of the internet which allows vast hordes of people to weigh in on old classics. What I say here, positive or negative, will have little bearing on the fact that The Maltese Falcon is and always will be one of the greatest films ever made. But reviewing the greats, which is the spirit of the IMDB Challenge that inspired this review, provides the perspective needed to judge new releases.

And without a doubt, The Maltese Falcon is one of the greats; it is listed at #31 in the updated AFI Top 100 Films rankings (down from #23 on the original rankings), #6 on the AFI Top 10 Mystery films, and widely considered to be the first major film noir made. Five other noirs released between 1941 and 1954 would land on the AFI Top 100 rankings (See Footnote) but The Maltese Falcon helped open the doors for the genre and inspire later films. This is especially notable since films released at that time were generally more upbeat and include several classic musicals. To be sure, the genre’s momentum was already trending up by 1941. Just one year prior Strangers on the Third Floor and They Drive By Night hit theaters and showcased Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart respectively, both of whom star in The Maltese Falcon. What helps the film stand out from those predecessors is its early use of the so-called “hard-boiled detective” character already found in pulp magazines for years. Bogart’s portrayal of private investigator Sam Spade would become the standard for all noir leading men and helped propel his career forward after his breakout role in High Sierra, a film co-written by John Huston. Huston served as the writer/director of The Maltese Falcon and would team up with Bogart again in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948).

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Our film starts like many other noirs. Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are hired by the beautiful Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to find her missing sister who left home and traveled across the country with a suspicious character. Archer takes the case and by morning Spade finds himself in the center of two murder investigations and a decades-long search for a mysterious statue. As the story unfolds each character works to outmaneuver the others either by charm, violence or the occasional poisoning, all culminating in an extended confrontation by all involved. Unlike most modern films, the film revolves not around plot but character development. Each plot reveal deals more with unraveling the intentions of the characters than it does with propelling the film forward. This development is made possible by excellent acting, strong writing, and precise direction. As we’ve already learned, Bogart’s role not only pushed him to another level of notoriety but his wry smiles, misleading outbursts and redirections will become the stuff that noir dreams are made of. Spade’s ploys allow him to keep a seat at the table with other characters who inevitably hold more cards. Lorre provides the antithesis to Bogart’s slick Spade with awkward exchanges and ill-advised shows of force. Spade’s tactics are more in line with the shrewd Kasper Gutman, played by Syndey Greenstreet in his remarkable first role which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 14th Academy Awards. It will come as no surprise at this point that Greenstreet would join Bogart and Lorre again on the cast of Casablanca. In an interesting film history side note, Mary Astor would be honored in those same 14th Academy Awards in which Greenstreet earned a nomination. Astor won the Best Supporting Actress award that year, not for The Maltese Falcon but for her work in the Edmund Goulding directed film The Great Lie. Goulding later directed the film noir classic Nightmare Alley in 1947. Looking back we remember Astor less for her award-winning work in The Great Lie than we do for her role in The Maltese Falcon. Just as Bogart’s work defined the film noir lead, Astor’s portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy shaped the image of noir’s femme fatales, balancing cunning with feigned weakness.

With over seventy years spent appreciating The Maltese Falcon and the genre it helped prop up, it is odd to think that the film was nearly never produced. Huston was not the first director to adapt Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel. He wasn’t the second either. Two other adaptations had already been made, one in 1931 under the same name along with 1936’s Satan Met a Lady. Transitioning from Warner Brothers writer to Warner Brothers director, Huston chose Hammett’s novel for his directorial debut even with those two other adaptations. Huston believed he could properly bring the novel to the screen and improve on the poorly received predecessors. With hindsight we know Huston was correct and his meticulous direction not only surpassed the earlier films but was met with resounding applause. Accolades continue to be collected for the film, not the least of which is inclusion in the IMDB Top 250 challenged and the praise of internet bloggers.

Rating: 10/10

Classic Film Scale: 7/10

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Bottomline: The prototypical film noir classic featuring early roles by now legendary actors, The Maltese Falcon will continue to be remembered for many years to come. It seems a bit unfair to rank a classic film like The Maltese Falcon on the same scale as The Hunger Games and American Hustle so I’ll use a more appropriate scale with only the all-time greats earning a 10/10.

Footnote: The six films released between 1941 and 1954 which are generally considered examples of film noirs and earned a spot on the AFI Top 100 rankings are as follows: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), A Place in the Sun (1951), The Third Man (1949), On the Waterfront (1954).

Thanks for reading!

Flashback/Backslide

Casablanca (1942) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

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Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Josh of JJames Reviews. He’s already done a review of Apocalypse Now (HERE) and Inglourious Basterds (HERE). Thanks so much for the reviews, Josh! 🙂 Now let’s see what he has to say about Casablanca, IMDB rank 25 out of 250…

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Casablanca (1942)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Written By: Julius and Phillip Epstein, and Howard Koch

Starring

Humphrey Bogart
Ingrid Bergmann
Paul Henreid
Claude Rains
Conrad Veidt
Peter Lorre
Dooley Wilson

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Plot Synopsis

In the midst of World War II, a Jewish leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergmann), come to the city of Casablanca, part of unoccupied France, hoping to escape Nazi influence and reach the United States. Standing in their way are Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Nazi military man, and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt French police officer. Even more troublingly for Laszlo and Ilsa is that they need Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) help, but Rick is seemingly self-serving and withdrawn. That he has history with Ilsa complicates matters, as well.

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My Take

Casablanca is one of the best movies ever made, which means listing its merits proves more difficult than detailing its flaws:

  1. Rick’s final actions are cleverly foreshadowed and brilliantly executed, but Renault’s last decision makes less narrative sense. We can understand why he might help Rick, but why would he choose to leave Casablanca?
  2. In the finale, Renault’s subordinates are so stupid as to be almost unbelievable. Even though their boss orders them to round up the usual suspects wouldn’t one of them ask, “Were you a witness? What happened?”
  3. Um. Maybe. Peter Lorre doesn’t have enough screen time? Sure. Why not?

And that’s it. Even those flaws, of course, are terribly nit-picky, as the first two span the picture’s final thirty seconds and have zero impact on the preceding magic, while the third is not, in reality, a mistake.

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Casablanca’s screenplay is its foremost merit. With much memorable dialogue that has become part of Western culture, it is one of the most quoted movies in history.

  1. “Of all the gin joints in all the world she walks into mine.”
  2. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  3. “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”
  4. “(Yesterday) is so long ago, I don’t remember.”
  5. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  6. And so many more.

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Yet, the script’s greatest strength is not quotability. It’s character development. Rick, Ilsa, Renault and Laszlo are complex individuals, about whom we care, no matter their flaws. Sam (Dooley Wilson), an African American pianist, is layered by loyalty to Rick and emotional acuity, while Major Strasser, the antagonist, is not a comic book villain. Because he’s a Nazi, we do not like the Major, but director Michael Curtiz and his writers are smart enough not to make him stereotypically evil, instead opting to develop him as determined and efficient. Because all of the characters are so genuine, the filmmakers earn our emotional investment, and thereby ensure that Casablanca’s limited action is not a flaw.

It helps that the movie is not predictable, despite being character centric. Rick’s final gambit surprises us, as does some of Ilsa’s behavior. Even more impressively, however, is how well Bogart, Bergmann and Curtiz sell Ilsa and Rick’s romance, in two short scenes, no less. The first: Ilsa asking Sam to play “As Time Goes By,” a request Sam reluctantly accepts, knowing that Rick will respond badly. The second: a ten-minute in medias res flashback. We don’t see the beginning of Ilsa and Rick’s relationship, but we don’t need to, as the flashback shows us their depth of feeling. Therein is why Rotten Tomatoes fittingly calls Casablanca “Hollywood’s quintessential statement on love and romance.”

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Curtiz’s technical decisions are just as good as his writers’ screenplay. This black and white film is lit so well that it is never less than visually stunning. Moreover, the director’s establishing shots set tone in every scene, especially when Laszlo and Strasser have a sing-off in Rick’s bar, when Ilsa surprises Rick in his own home, and when Rick is left heartbroken at a train station. Additionally, Curtiz cuts the movie as to surprise us and increase our anxiety, especially in the film’s climax.

Finally, all of the performances are excellent. Without Humprhey Bogart and Ingrid Bergmann’s soulful performances, Casablanca would not be half as good as it is. Peter Lorre steals his two scenes, as does Dooley Wilson, who makes us wish Sam had a bigger role. Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt are equally note perfect.

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Conclusion: Almost flawless, Casablanca deserves its title as All-Time Classic. It is one of the best movies ever made.

My Rating: 9.75/10