John Huston’s directorial debut, the 1941 film was the third to be made from Dashiell Hammet’s novel. The first was in 1931, but was precode, and instead of rereleasing it, Warner Brothers decided it was too racy and made a remake instead. Then there was Satan Met a Lady, from 1936, which co-starred Bette Davis and was a light comedy. Both of those films were relegated to the ashes of history upon the release of Huston’s film, though, which became the definite private eye film, and many consider the first true film noir.
While watching it this time I focused on what it is I like so much about it. A person’s first few viewings may be required to figure out the elaborate plot (unlike some of Raymond Chandler’s works, The Maltese Falcon does tie up all loose ends; no murders are left unexplained). I think it mainly has to do with the dialogue, which is largely Hammet’s. There’s a story that Huston, who was also the screenwriter, had a secretary type up the dialogue from the novel, which somehow ended up in the studio’s hands. They thought it was great, though Huston had added or subtracted nothing.
For those who have the unfortunate distinction of never seeing the film, I’ll try to summarize. It’s a classic, much-parodied private eye template: a beautiful young woman (Mary Astor) pays a call on a private detective agency. She meets Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). A chronic prevaricator, Astor tells him she’s looking for her sister, who’s been keeping company with a dangerous man, Floyd Thursby (one of the great never-seen characters in film history). Bogart’s partner, Miles Archer, tells her he will tail Thursby. He ends up getting shot. When Thursby is killed shortly thereafter, Bogart falls under suspicion by the police, especially when it comes to light that he was keeping time with Archer’s wife (Gladys George).
Soon more mysterious characters appear. An effeminate man of vague ethnicity, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who smells of gardenia, visits Spade, thinking that Spade knows the whereabouts of a certain black bird. Bogart plays along, and in a fantastic scene he is held up by Lorre, knocks him out, and gains information from him. This leads to his meeting with the “Fat Man,” Casper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), a rotund antiques expert with dubious ethics. We learn that all the characters are in search of a centuries old statuette of a falcon, a tribute to the emperor of Spain by the Knights of Malta. Greenstreet has been searching for it for 17 years, and is hungry to get it.
There are numerous twists and turns in the story, and it can be difficult to keep up, but by now I know it by heart, and who killed whom. Another character is Greenstreet’s hired gun, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.). who is also referred to as his “gunsel.” Bogart has great fun tormenting him, frequently besting him and making him look foolish. Cook is full of tough-guy cliches, and after one of them Bogart responds, “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”
In a way, the delicious dialogue is somewhat meta–the characters almost realize that they are in private eye story. Bogart, especially, glides through the film with an almost preternatural knowledge. His Spade is honorable but not above looking out for himself–he didn’t particularly like Archer (he was sleeping with his wife) but ultimately he has to avenge him. But beyond that the action is tinged with a gleeful sense of comedy, like the wonderful first scene between Bogart and Greenstreet, which is largely exposition but is also laugh out loud funny. I won’t reproduce it here entirely, but Greenstreet’s overly formal syntax and Bogart’s cut-to-the-chase responses are like beautiful music. Greenstreet sums things up by saying, “I like talking to a man who likes to talk.”
The relationship between Bogart and Astor is also funny. You can sense they’re pretending to love each other, just to get what they want. He knows she’s a liar, and there’s a great scene when he asks her a question and she avoids it by standing, poking the fire, and straightening things. He asks her another question and he says, “Are you going to go around poking the fire and straightening things?” She’s consistently a phony, and when he catches her at it (which is always) he tells, “You’re good, you’re very good.”
Thus, the ending, (skip this if you’ve never seen it) when Bogart sends her over as the “fall guy,” gives the ending a kind of power. We last see Astor as she descends in an elevator, as if dropping down into the flames of Hell. There’s also a touch of Shakespeare, as a policeman, holding the falcon (which is what Hitchcock termed as a “McGuffin”) asks Spade what it is. “It’s the stuff dreams are made of,” Bogart paraphrases the Bard.
There existed some differences from the novel to the screen. Homosexuality was, of course, verboten in films of that era. Cairo is referred to as “queer” in the novel, but anyone with working gaydar can pick up that Lorre’s performance is made to make him gay in the film. Cook is also hinted at being Greenstreet’s boy-toy–“gunsel” was slang for a younger man in a relationship with an older man, and when Bogart suggests to Greenstreet that Cook be made the fall guy, and Greenstreet objects because he considers him like a son, you can see what’s going on. Also, there’s a scene in which Spade thinks that Astor’s character (Brigid O’Shaugnessy) has pilfered a thousand-dollar bill. In the movie, she denies it and he moves on. In the book, he takes her into the bathroom and has her strip. I read the book when I was about 14, so I remember that scene well.
As for the noir aspects, much of that is due to Arthur Edeson’s photography, which, like Gregg Toland’s in that year’s Citizen Kane, used deep focus and unusual angles, especially those from lower view, which exposed ceilings. A great example of this is when Cook awakens after being knocked out, his allies agreeing to selling him out to the police. He looks at each face, staring at him grimly. Bogart’s scene with Greenstreet is also deceptively complicated.
The Maltese Falcon made Bogart a star, and remains of his best performances. He had been playing heavies for years, after more years playing light comedy on Broadway (he originated the line, “Tennis, anyone?”) George Raft turned down the part (he would also turn down the lead role in Casablanca), and Bogart was happy to get a lead role that had moral ambiguity. He was a hero, but he also a man of conflicted emotions. Note how quickly after Archer’s death he has the sign on the windows and doors changed. But he doesn’t betray his bedrock principles, upon which the success of the film hangs.
Greenstreet made his film debut here, at the age of 61. He would end up playing pretty much the same part for the rest of his career. Also in the film is Huston’s father Walter, in a memorable cameo as Captain Jacoby of the La Paloma. His entire role is to stumble bullet-ridden into an office, holding the falcon wrapped in newspaper, and drop dead. Once I was playing the Silver Screen edition of Trivial Pursuit and got a question asking for the name of that character. My opponent, knowing how well I knew that answer, handed me the dice to roll again.