Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston                                     Writer: John Huston
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre

This was the third attempt by Warner Brothers to film Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. The first attempt came the year after the book was published, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and was definitely a successful rendering of the story but, coming as it did so early in the sound era with all of its pre-code elements, that version of The Maltese Falcon really didn’t stand a chance of becoming a classic. The next attempt was made five years later with Warren William and Bette Davis and titled Satan Met a Lady. This time the screenwriters attempted to turn the story into a screwball comedy and apparently no one on the production, from the director to the actors, were happy with it and so it remains a fairly uninspired film. In 1940 screenwriter John Huston, eager to make the move to director that Warners had promised him, simply gave a copy of the novel to his secretary and told her to type it up as a screenplay. Meanwhile, Huston had forgotten that everything the secretaries did was also forwarded to Jack Warner’s office. In a comic turn of events, Jack Warner though it was one of the best screenplays he’d seen in some time and immediately gave a green light to the project. Once Huston had assembled his top-flight cast and crew, he was able to turn his “brilliant” screenplay of The Maltese Falcon into an equally successful film.

After the credit sequence with the falcon in the background, a scrolling text tells the story of a golden falcon statue encrusted with jewels from the middle ages that had long ago disappeared. The story proper begins in San Francisco at the office of Spade and Archer, private detectives, with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade rolling a cigarette. The beautiful Mary Astor is ushered in, desperate to find her sister who’s in the clutches of a man named Thursby. When Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer enters the office he immediately takes over the case, and an amused Bogart lets him. Unfortunately, Cowan is killed that evening tailing a suspect, and detective Ward Bond--a little more street wise than he would be in It’s A Wonderful Life--has Bogart come down to look at the crime scene. Bogart goes back to his apartment, but Bond and his partner, Barton MacLane, show up a minute later because they think Bogart is the one who shot Thursby, dead with four bullets in his back in front of his hotel. Bogart doesn’t them about Astor, though. The next day Cowan’s widow, Gladys George, is waiting at the office, and she and Bogart kiss. They’ve been having an affair, which explains Bogart’s lack of emotion about his partner’s death. Bogart’s secretary, the gorgeous Lee Patrick, thinks George killed Cowan to get him out of the way. Bogart doesn’t think so.

Next, Astor has Bogart come over to her hotel, and tells him she lied about her sister. But Bogart knows that, too. She tells him a new story, and despite his doubts he decides to help her--after taking all her money. Peter Lorre shows up that night at Bogart’s office-nattily dressed and smelling of gardenias. He offers Bogart $5,000 from his employer if he’ll help find the Maltese Falcon, then pulls a gun on him. It doesn’t take Bogart long to disarm him and smack him around a little for good measure. When Bogart goes back to see Astor he’s tailed by Elisha Cook, Jr., but Bogart gets wise and loses him. Soon not only Astor and Lorre wind up in Bogart’s apartment, but the cops as well. The whole thing is incredibly funny, and Bogart enjoys every bit of it. That is, until the fat man shows up: Sydney Greenstreet. One of the main problems with detective films made in the thirties is how much the original novels had to be changed before they hit the screen. Huston’s instincts were right to let Hammett’s characters speak for themselves. The film crackles with nervous energy, but the audience is safely in the hands of Bogart as he sits in the eye of the storm laughing all the way.

The part of Sam Spade was a breakout role for Bogart, who had spent his time at Warners playing hoods and strong men ever since he arrived at the studio. High Sierra--which was also written by Huston--from the year before was the start of this transition, but he was still playing a gangster in that film. Then Casablanca the following year solidified his new status as a superstar leading man. Astor is good, but does nothing that a half-dozen other actresses at the studio couldn’t have done. The real standouts are Sydney Greenstreet in his first film, while Peter Lorre has one of his best Hollywood roles as the curly-haired dandy, Joel Cairo. Huston does a solid job in his first film as a director, letting the story do most of the work. He does come up with some unique camera set ups, however, like shooting Greenstreet from below and letting his considerable bulk fill the entire bottom of the screen. Arthur Edeson’s camera work and lighting are rock solid, as usual, and the film also has the benefit of a memorable score by Adolph Deutsch.

Regrettably, Richard T. Jameson’s essay in The A List indulges in some speculation right off the bat about the opening text, that perhaps it was hurriedly tacked on because half the film elapses before the Falcon is even mentioned. So what? Guessing is never good, but there’s more to come. “It’s tantalizing to contemplate how easily the brass ring might have been missed--how close the picture might have come to being just another detective thriller.” Sigh. Again, so what? After a brief recap of the plot, Jameson rightly praises Huston for his straight-forward adaptation and inspired casting. He likens the film to any number of caper films that bring together a disparate--and often desperate--group of strangers, but Hammett’s story is really a different animal altogether with the presence of the private detective. And though the film is heavy on dialogue, “Hammett’s talk is tensile and exotic, and the way Huston films it, talk is dynamic action." The Maltese Falcon is sometimes cited as the first film noir, but it’s not, not even close. Other than the first two murders, no one is ever really in any danger. It’s a straight mystery story, and a good one, too, well deserving of all the praise heaped on it since it was first released.

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