Ebert sort of brings this point up towards the end of his essay, and he says it better than I can, writing, "To describe the plot in a linear and logical fashion is almost impossible. That doesn't matter. The movie is essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It's all style. It isn't violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak and embody their characters. Under the style is attitude: Hard men, in a hard season, in a society emerging from Depression and heading for war, are motivated by greed and capable of murder" (The Great Movies, 283). Noir is mostly about characters - not so much who did what or why or when or where. Just that it happened, and you judge them and know them by how they react to it.
I love the falcon - it's what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, which I am pretty sure I have gone on about before. It doesn't matter what the falcon is. It doesn't matter if it's really covered in jewels or if it's a fake made of lead. All that matters is that the characters want it. It fits so well with the sort of vague, unimportance of the plot. If you didn't know a lot about how to react the to film, the falcon can help to give you the sense of the tone. You can see that it doesn't matter why the falcon is important other than the fact that it is wanted, and you can apply it to other parts of the movie.
It was sort of funny to watch this movie after M - Peter Lorre is in it, playing another slightly creepy character. In this, he is Cairo, the vaguely-implied-to-be-gay character. In the novel, it is blatant, and Hammett calls him sort of offensive names in his writing. Because of censorship, there couldn't be a gay character in a movie, so they had to sneak it by the board. He is effeminate but not over the top enough to really give it away - unless you can relate or you know. I took a class where I watched a documentary just on these sort of hidden, gay characters, called The Celluloid Closet. It brought up Cairo as an example of this. I became really interested in them after seeing it. They were often slipped into the movie by other gay people, who wanted to give their community characters that they could relate to. There are a lot of characters that I started to notice and look at differently - but Cairo is one that, I think, most everyone can detect, especially in modern times.
I hope that you check this out. I have a weakness for Bogart and I adore film noir, and this movie reminds me of so many exciting film discoveries in college. It's worth your time, and it's a fun watch. Let me know if you see it!
Have any of you seen The Maltese Falcon? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Maltese Falcon