John Huston Allen Eyles - Essay

Allen Eyles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Maltese Falcon] Huston displays a rare talent for the film medium is in his exact manipulation of his actors, cameraman, set designer, and others, to capture such a rich, near flawlessly correct mood, not just at moments and scenes but throughout the length of the film. It is an extremely powerful and richly suggestive work and has a rare solidity as a whole. It is a great film. (p. 49)

[Huston's hand is] obvious in his superb relating of actors to the camera, as in the way the latter closes in on Spade's bulk so that it cuts between Brigid and Cairo at their first meeting to suggest how he is in the middle, listening in to pick up what he can. There is the beautiful economy of the handling of Miles' death: a shot of a signpost, then of Miles Archer below it, his smile vanishing as a gun is brought up just inside the frame and fired at him; and lastly Miles' body tumbling down the slope behind the fence, the change in mood punched home by the score, changing from its earlier, vaguely unsettling, rather eerie quality….

Huston particularly exploits contrasts of shape and size: Spade jammed between two large policemen questioning him; Spade seeming to tower over Cairo in a low-angled shot as he slowly advances, hands clasped to the back of his head, clearly about to regain the advantage from his gun-wielding visitor (whose body bounces as it falls after a delayed punch, making him seem even more helpless); or the emphasis on Greenstreet's girth by the low-placed camera shooting past it onto his face in conversation with Spade.

Continually the director enlarges our understanding of characters and makes us feel more forcefully the mood of a scene without carrying it too far so that his effects are ostentatious decoration….

More than just a private-eye picture, this is a compelling study of human frailty. It is almost satirical (which is why it is so entertaining) but always truth-observing. Never ponderous, superbly balanced, it works as a whole and its magic can never be finally explained. (p. 50)

Allen Eyles, "'The Maltese Falcon'" (© copyright Allen Eyles 1964; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 2, November, 1964, pp. 45-50.