In many (if not most) cases, noir style is like red lipstick. You’re supposed to notice it. That’s the whole point. The Maltese Falcon, however, opts for a stealthier (though no less sizzling) shade of noir.
Its self-effacing yet slyly cynical camerawork and découpage approximate the hardboiled assurance of Dashiell Hammett’s gripping prose. For instance, consider the scene in which Brigid O’Shaunessy confesses to Spade that she’s been bad, “worse than you could know.” From the moment Spade enters her apartment to the dissolve wipe that closes the scene, the action unfolds in 4 elegant shots.
As Spade sits down, a smooth, mid-sentence match-on-action gives us a cozy two shot of Spade and Brigid. The cut adds a jolt to the Spade’s accusatory remark, “You, uh, you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?”
The space of the room has contracted at this moment of truth. We can see the wicked glint in Bogie’s eyes as he leans forward and chips away at the enamel on Brigid’s society-matron-of-the-underworld schtick. Once Brigid admits to her checkered past, Spade leans back in his chair, apparently satisfied, and suddenly we have some breathing room again.
Next Huston cuts to provide a view of Brigid’s reaction—or suspicious lack thereof—when Spade drops the name Joel Cairo. Without batting the proverbial eyelash, she asks, “Do you know him?” She’s good alright. Too good. Sangfroid and honesty seldom keep company. Composure belongs to the crooks of this world. It’s the rest of us who fret.
But the shot of Brigid doesn’t last long, as though she can’t take the heat of Spade’s up-close scrutiny and knows it. And so begins the long take that’ll carry us to the end of the conversation.
As the two characters bluff each other out, Spade trying to figure out how much Brigid knows, Brigid trying to betray as little as possible, the camera gives us a prime orchestra seat to this duet for murderess and shamus. Our focus can drift back and forth between planes of action, Spade reclining in his chair wearing a wry grin (until he isn’t) and Brigid fidgeting in the foreground, facing more towards the audience than towards the man she’s trying to manipulate.
The long take keeps the lid on the hystrionics; in the hands of a more flamboyant director (and other actors) this material could turn into pure potboiler brisket. Flurries of edits would undermine the cagey reserve of the characters. Instead they stay tough and defiant even when locked in one of noir’s most erotic clinches—which crowds the frame alarmingly after more than a minute dominated by comfortable open space.
By not cutting, Huston also refuses to release the simmering tension between Brigid and Spade. It’s the kind of effect that works on your nerves regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, as does the flickering light of the fire that Brigid stokes to feign nonchalance. Not unlike a good private eye (or any self-respecting femme fatale), The Maltese Falcon gets to you without you fully realizing it.
The Maltese Falcon sounds like a film that was as fun to make as it is to watch. No doubt the actors’ breezy onset camaraderie contributed to the movie’s enduring freshness.
As Astor recalled in My Story, Huston “had the picture well organized so that we got things done in a miraculously short time. And we had fun—zany, lighthearted fun. We were an unusually ‘close’ company; players usually like to get away from each other at lunch time, but we would all go together across to the Lakeside Golf Club, where a big table was set on the patio for us. The normally frowned-on pre-luncheon drink was a must. We often took an hour and half, and still we stayed ahead of schedule. I remember one scene near the end of the picture, very complicated technically; it ran about six minutes—and six minutes of script an average good day’s work. We rehearsed the scene before going home one evening, and all the camera moves were carefully plotted. The next morning we shot it in one take and went swimming at Lakeside for the rest of the day.”