Though Dashiell Hammett’s novel had already been filmed twice before, it is this 1941 version that many consider to be the first noir picture. Bogart defined the tough, fast-talking hero as Sam Spade; Mary Astor had three parts in one as the mysterious and alluring femme fatale; and director John Huston, making his debut, set his action almost exclusively on dark streets and in claustrophobic, smoky rooms. The role of Spade put Bogart on the path to becoming an icon. Cool to the point of being cruel – ‘Don’t get excited,’ he tells his secretary after learning of his partner’s murder – Spade navigates a murky moral universe with reassuring confidence. We may not always think he’s doing the right thing, but at least he seems to know what he’s doing. The muddy waters here are stirred by a cast of expert supporting characters, all of whom are scheming to get their hands on a precious falcon statue. Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy kicks off the action, wandering into Spade’s office with a sob story full of holes, while Peter Lorre ups the ante as a squirmy thief on her trail. Later, the jovial yet sinister Sydney Greenstreet, who would later work with Bogart and Lorre on Casablanca, arrives to further confuse the situation. It’s about at this point that you’ll gladly give up on trying to follow the details of the plot and instead enjoy the movie’s immense character and style.
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