The Mise en Falcon: Examining ‘The Maltese Falcon’

From left to right: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in 'The Maltese Falcon'
From left to right: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in ‘The Maltese Falcon’

Director John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon was made in 1941 and starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre.

Within the realist-classicist-formalist continuum this film would fall under the classicist with formalistic tendencies. For example, the film makes use of low angles, especially when the main characters are in the same room together and interacting at pivotal moments. Plus, when Mr. Guttman’s knocked out gunman awakes to realize they have all sold him out to become the fall guy, we see a low angle close up point of view of the four other people in the room. This gives an unsettling view of the action that will come to his man.

Another, maybe more noticeable scene, is when Bogart first encounters Lorre. Lorre threatens him with a gun, but Bogart manages to get it away from him. As Bogart pushes Lorre back into a couch we see a low angle of Lorre’s character backing away into the sofa at the corner. Bogart dominates Lorre, and Huston uses the low angle to make Bogart larger than life.

The film’s physical setting is San Francisco, but the film’s temporal setting is that of low key, high contrast lit underworld where all the characters are fighting for their own gain. This is natural of film noir, which I believe this film is, and we get a sense of the darkness around us, which makes us unsure of what is going to come or what will happen next to these characters. It also makes us unsure of which character to believe.

'The Maltese Falcon' poster
‘The Maltese Falcon’ poster

The main prop of The Maltese Falcon is, of course, the Maltese Falcon. The significance of the Falcon is to drive to story. It is in a sense what the film is about; it brings all the characters together. But more than that it is what drives the characters.

Bogart has a famous line describing the Falcon as “the stuff dreams are made of,” because essentially all the characters have put their hopes and dreams into it. When the Falcon is first opened and looked upon, we the audience get a full, 360-degree view of the bird as Guttman spins the Falcon around to fully take it in. Huston uses this, not for Guttman to see the Falcon, but for the audience to see the Falcon. The director knows that we have been sitting through a movie in which we were promised to see the Maltese Falcon, so rather than show us a quick glimpse, or an over the shoulder shot, Huston gives us a full view, not from the point of view of one of the main characters, but of an objectionable third person view.

We have been waiting to see this Falcon and we get to see it in all its glory. And when the realization comes that the bird is fake, we know why Lorre’s character breaks down. We, too, are sad because we have been on this incredible journey only to be let down as the characters are let down.

Another smaller prop I took notice of was the sign of Spade and Archer. After Archer’s death, Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, has the Archer removed symbolizing his lack of feeling for the death of his partner.

While Sam is trying to understand to complexities of the case, I took notice that he was generally framed in the middle of things, like door and window pains, anything that would box him in. Also while the police are questioning Sam, he is usually framed in the middle of the two detectives with no escape around him. And, while I know there were many more examples of the props used, the final one I will talk about takes place at the very end of the film.

As Mary Astor’s character is being taken into the elevator, the gate closes which makes a “cage” around her. She is also framed in a close up, which further symbolizes the prison that she is going to.

The Maltese Falcon makes use of mise en scene in a formalistic way, which enhances the film. I, personally, have gotten more out of it now knowing things the director and cinematographer might have wanted me to notice. This has always been one of my favorite films and I’m always happy that I can now get more out of the movies I love.

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