1941 marked an important turning point in Humphrey Bogart's film career as during the 30's he was in prominent films though usually in supporting roles, and most often as a thuggish criminal. His transition though began with High Sierra where he was the lead in the film, but he still played within type. The last step to full leading man status was found in this film with his second most iconic role as private detective Sam Spade. The film opens in the now very remembered way of Sam being visited in his office by a particularly distressed woman Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) who comes to Sam, and his partner, for help. In the opening scene Bogart shows why he was able to strip himself of his gangster only typecast through the way he establishes Sam in the opening scene. Bogart actually treads fairly lightly in this early scene as he presents Spade to almost to be somewhat bemused by the story, even more so by his partner's lusty reactions towards the woman, making it fairly obvious he is not buying into her story even though he's willing to set that aside for a certain fee. Of course the woman and the case are indeed not as they seem and on the very first night on the job Spade's partner is gun downed as is the man he was suppose to be following.
After this point Humphrey Bogart sets his course out and takes over the film with his portrayal of Sam Spade. Bogart, more than any of his other performances which is saying something, has a considerable sense of cool here. One of the earliest scenes is when he is called to the murder scene of his partner, and later is given a bit of interrogation. Bogart is terrific in the way he portrays that incisive stare of Sam as he seems to constantly be examining the factors around the mystery though he never gives away his methods to others. Bogart is great in the first scene where he is interrogated for the murder of the other man by a cop buddy of his and another cop who seems as though he's wanted to get Sam on some charge for some time. Bogart delivers his consistently snide remarks, always at the expense of the cop, with such exceptional timing. Bogart earns wholly that Sam is the smartest man in any room as Bogart makes it simply a fact with such an effortlessness in his performance. Of course showing up a pompous detective is one thing, but Bogart and Sam Spade have a greater challenge in the form of a trio of oddballs after some elusive treasure known as the Maltese Falcon.
Now the reason the three present a challenge to Bogart as much as old Sam Spade is because it would be easy enough to be overshadowed by them especially when two of them are played by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, no offense intended towards Elisha J. Cook. It would even be easy enough to be completely put to the side by Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid O'Shaughnessy who is just as duplicitous as the others, if not more so, she just happens to be a bit better at then all of them. Bogart is not overshadowed by any of them though and never let's a single scene be stolen from them even though Spade has be less flamboyant when pressed set against them. Bogart though is completely brilliant in the way he plays off of every one of them. Against Lorre's Joel Cairo Bogart does particularly well just how somewhat perplexed Sam is by the man and his odd mannerisms to the point that he can't help but laugh at some of his actions. With Sydney Greenstreet's aptly named Gutman Bogart suggest Spade recognizing a worthier foe who has to be constantly matched in his wits. Bogart brings a striking intensity in his scenes together as he almost seems to be trying to decipher the man who seems pleasant yet is truly evil.
Now against poor Elisha J. Cook Bogart just simply bring at the true bad ass side of Sam Spade as he slaps around the wannabe tough guy every which way. I particularly love the scene where he disarms him by wrapping his arms up into his own coat. Bogart's smile after that moment is just perfection as he is absolutely convincing in showing just how out of league the man is compared to Sam. The most complex relationship though is with O'Shaughnessy. Bogart is again strikes up the right town for the relationship in the manner in which Spade handles her as well. Bogart's excellent as he again shows Spade to see through her as he never becomes truly entranced by her act by any means. When affection is given though Bogart is particularly good in the way he does make it genuine though very hesitate. Even in the moment he's most pulled in by her sway Bogart still keeps a certain distance not of Sam not truly caring for her, but rather suggesting his better judgments forcing him to stay smart. Now handling them one by one might seem easy enough I guess, but then again there is the final extended scene where Sam has to handle them all at once.
The final sequence of the film is an amazing one to watch with all the key players now in one room. Again the flamboyant nature of the others could overwhelm Bogart, but that never happens at all. In fact Bogart completely commands the scene and it is something special to watch. Bogart does a particularly good job of presenting the method of Sam's investigation. That being he portrays him as always being a step above the whole affair. Not for a moment does Bogart portray an interest in the Falcon himself rather he portrays it as an enthusiasm for the game which involves solving all the murders while avoiding being killed himself. This comes most importantly into play in this last scene as Bogart brings such a thrill into his performance as he shows Sam setting everything up just the way he needs while figuring out every detail of the sordid affair. One of my favorite moments in this regard is when he brings the falcon in capturing the attention of three of them to such a degree. The reactions such are outstanding as the first three present the lust for the treasure, whereas Bogart again does well to show Sam seems far more fascinated by their uncontrollable desire.
Watching this performance makes it abundantly obvious why this brought Bogart to super stardom. The film simply becomes his show which is no small feat considering the cast around him. Bogart's screen presence here is tremendous and something to behold all itself as he becomes such a compelling lead to maneuver through the film's mystery. He plays every angle in the film without a hitch. Whether it's a more comedic moment involving his secretary or the bumbling police Bogart hits ever comic mark without a question. When being the hero against the shady villains Bogart is never up shown and always firmly stands his ground to create some very memorable moments in the incredible face-offs between Spade and his suspects. Even the most weighty moments, such as the ending where Sam has to make a painful decision Bogart nails it. He even brings the gravitas to the idea of what the Falcon represents beautifully in essentially just a moments notice. When someone asks for the appeal of Bogart. The most unadulterated appeal of what made him the film legend he is today one should never hesitate and point to his work in this film. This is a great performance and the very best example of what Bogart became known for.