Maltese Falcon: Birth of an Icon

A GUY WITHOUT A CONSCIENCE! A DAME WITHOUT A HEART!

malteseflacon41George Raft used to be big in the 1930s. After making several gangster movies, he was offered the part of Sam Spade in a remake of The Maltese Falcon (1931). However, the contract he had with Warner Brothers allegedly stipulated that he didn’t have to do remakes, so he declined the offer. The role went to Humphrey Bogart instead who would go on to become an iconic movie star thanks to this new Maltese Falcon. The John Huston version of the Dashiell Hammett novel would stand as the first major film noir thriller, an example to 1940s cinema as a whole. 

In San Francisco, Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) share a private investigating firm. When Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) hires them to find her sister, who’s been getting into trouble with a man called Floyd Thursby, it doesn’t take long for Miles to get shot dead on the job. Spade subsequently finds out that Thursby was also murdered that night. One of the theories bandied about by the police fingers Spade as the likely killer, since he was romantically involved with Miles’s wife. Realizing that he needs to not only find the killer but clear his own name, Spade confronts Wonderly whose real name turns out to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy; she tells him that Thursby was her partner and that he probably had Miles killed, but she has no idea who murdered Thursby.

As Spade continues to dig deeper into the case, he learns that unscrupulous characters are trying to get their hands on the Maltese Falcon, a legendary, jewel-encrusted figurine from the 16th century that is invaluable to them. 

Telling it as economically as possible
Huston’s directing debut became a trendsetter for an entire film genre and his work on the movie deserves to be mentioned on the same level as that of another 1941 debutante, Orson Welles, who made a little masterpiece called Citizen Kane. Both young filmmakers knew how to tell their engrossing stories as economically as possible, without any unnecessary scenes and fuss, and how to engage their audiences with great help from the cinematographer, in this case Arthur Edeson.

Huston takes us from one scene to the other with great pace and quickly decides how to present characters; Sydney Greenstreet and his impressive girth is allowed to fill the screen from a frog perspective, while Bogart is filmed from various angles but always manages to stand his ground, even when he’s confronting threats. The filmmakers stage their dialogue-heavy sequences in a way that keeps the audience on edge, but they wouldn’t have been successful without this cast – Bogart as the archetypal private eye, a cynical figure we come to believe in because we realize as the story moves on that this is not a world to be trusted; Astor as the thoroughly unreliable Brigid who has learned to believe her own lies; Greenstreet as the jovial but deadly Fat Man; Peter Lorre as the weak, subservient, rat-like Cairo; and Elisha Cook, Jr. as the hit man whom Spade irritates to the degree that his hatred can be seen in his tear-filled eyes.

The story is not sensational, but full of twists and a darkness that keeps one interested. The final scene is true to the cynical tone of the movie and it was allegedly Bogart himself who thought of the last, Shakespearian line. 

This film came to define the 1940s for Warner. In movie after movie, Bogart returned in similar hard-edged roles, the same kind of smoke-infested, dark and dangerous atmosphere was imitated, and the highly amusing duo of Greenstreet and Lorre would return to play similarly untrustworthy roles. Not a bad legacy.

The Maltese Falcon 1941-U.S. 100 min. B/W. Produced by Henry Blanke. Written and directed by John Huston. Novel: Dashiell Hammett. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Music: Adolph Deutsch. Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Gladys George… Elisha Cook, Jr. Cameo: Walter Huston.

Trivia: Geraldine Fitzgerald was first considered for the part of Brigid.

Quote: “I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” (Greenstreet to Bogart)

Last word: “You simply take apart two copies of the book, paste the pages, and cross out what you don’t like.” […] “[The script] was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the book, of making a film out of a book … I tried to transpose Dashiell Hammett’s highly individual prose style into camera terms – i.e., sharp photography, geographically exact camera movements, striking, if not shocking, setups.” (Huston to Jim Harrison, “John Huston: Courage and Art”)

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