"Let’s talk about the black bird, by all means." Hammett’s albatross, from the Knights Templar of Malta to the shamus’ Frisco agency, the fabulous "dingus" at the center of John Huston’s first whirlpool of seekers and patsies. The murder early on is compressed into abstraction, close-up of street sign dissolving to gun firing dissolving to close-up of phone ringing; Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) briefly ponders his dead partner’s vacant desk and orders it removed, he has a case to solve. The continuous flow of malice is drawn so tight as to abut on fatalistic farce, and there’s the perfumed sprite Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and the mountainous collector Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) as the underworld’s Laurel and Hardy. The steadiest alliance is to Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) the fidgety liar with "the schoolgirl manner," such is life in the Möbius strip of greed. "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, huh?" Bogart surveys the noir tangle around him with a snarl and becomes a screen icon—his Sam Spade is an indelible profile of American masculinity on the verge of war, gleefully humiliating Wilmer the gunsel (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and then reciting his code of honor as if in a trance. (In a superb bit, he chuckles at his own trembling hand in the aftermath of a confrontation.) Floating through the murky ether is "a swell lot of thieves," as vivid as Chester Gould panels: Astor’s alluring scent of danger, Lorre’s sublime swivels from civility to giggles to tears, Greenstreet’s jolly follia in the face of failure. "To plain speaking and clear understanding," toasts the kingpin, and Huston toasts back: the clenched lucidity of prose is his goal, the keen technique works an adamantine line of action into one claustrophobic interior after another. "The stuff that dreams are made of" in this netherworld of false idols and sacrificial lambs turns out to be an elevator to hell; The Big Sleep is an expansion, Chinatown an adjustment. Cinematography by Arthur Edeson. With Lee Patrick, Jerome Cowan, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, and Walter Huston. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce