One of the few truly great writer/directors of American film, Sturges had more ideas than he knew what to do with; witness the film's credits sequence showing the main characters (Joel McCrea and a wonderful Claudette Colbert) getting married. There's a race to the altar, mistaken identity, a woman in a bridal gown locked in a closet, and general fast-paced madcappery, all done with music only -- it's an abbreviated précis of what could have made an entirely separate film. Then it's largely forgotten: The whole story is only alluded to near the end of the film, with one character referencing it only to say, "Well, that's a whole other plot."
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Smarts is ultimately what separates Bogart's Sam Spade as clearly from the rest of the characters in Maltese Falcon just as it separates the film itself from most of its inferior imitators. Spade is the eagle-eyed watcher, a calloused and borderline morally indifferent student of humanity who seems to get his kicks tossing verbal banana peels out for the more dim-witted to trip themselves up on. He has plenty of opportunity for such sparrings, dropped as he is into a mess of scam-artists and treasure hunters violently turning San Francisco upside down as they hunt for a long-lost jewel-studded falcon supposedly once given by the crusading Knights Hospitaller to the Holy Roman Emperor in exchange for the island of Malta. The world around Spade -- a sort of aloof knight errant in fedora and sharp suit -- is one of manipulation and lies, stupidity, and the occasional cleverness dulled by unlimited greed.
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It's best not to concentrate too hard on the plot itself, which mainly circles around Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), the family patriarch, threatening to move the family from St. Louis to New York City. This causes much handwringing amongst the family members: Esther (Garland), Rose (Lucille Bremer), and Tootie, played by child star Margaret O'Brien, who pulled down an Oscar for her precocious performance. If the dialogue seems stilted and square today - Esther wonders where, oh where could Mr. Truitt's chapeau have gone off to, and those newfangled telephones are such a bother - the Technicolor style works wonderfully, particularly in the period dresses that puff and flounce through the Smith household.
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There's already an Oscars buzz surrounding this movie.