The Maltese Falcon is not film noir

The Maltese Falcon is not film noir.

The term “film noir” gets bandied about today to a point where the term is almost meaningless. Nowadays, every crime thriller with a flawed hero is “film noir.”

But that’s a post for another day.

Today, why The Maltese Falcon is not noir.

The Maltese Falcon has a widely held reputation for being the first film noir.

So why isn’t it?

First, it wasn’t directed by German. That’s a joke (sort of).

But the reason is that Sam Spade isn’t a noir protagonist.

The typical noir protagonist is half-cynical and half-gullible, which makes him an easy mark. He’s not anywhere near as smart as he thinks he is, which makes him a patsy. A fall guy. A sap.

Sam Spade, the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon is nobody’s sap. He’s sharp, he’s cunning, he’s unemotional, and he’s always ahead of the game. Film noir usually ends badly for the protagonist (often very badly) because of his character flaws. But at the end of The Maltese Falcon,” Sam’s not going to prison. Brigid O’Shaughnessy is.

So, if The Maltese Falcon is missing the essential component of film noir, why is it so often cited as film noir?

First, The Maltese Falcon was one of the films originally identified in 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank as film noir and the label stuck, whether deserved or not.

Second, it does have a noir look. There are a lot of odd camera angles and low-key lighting.

Third, noir often features characters with ambiguous sexuality and the characters of Kaspar Gutman and Joel Cairo are nothing if not sexually ambiguous.

Fourth, and most importantly, the theme of the movie is failure. Everyone wants the priceless Maltese Falcon, but in the end, it turns out to be a fake. Failure and defeat are certainly central themes in noir; however, they are also central themes in the films of the director John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon. In addition to The Maltese Falcon, other Huston films where the main characters end up defeated include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The Night of the Iguana, Fat City, The Man Who Would be King. It was only proper and just that Huston should eventually end up directing “Moby Dick.”

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon

Make no mistake, Sam Spade is a flawed character. He’s a cynic and a misogynist. His flaws, however do not lead to his downfall and that is why he is not a noir protagonist and that is why The Maltese Falcon is not noir. The author of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett, described Spade as, “a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”

That is not a noir protagonist.