As part of our week-long celebration of the 70th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon (1941), today we are taking a look at the third and final film version of Dashiell Hammett’s pulp crime novel. For a brief introduction to this movie, check out our post on Falcon from last year. For a more in-depth synopsis of the film’s plot, we recommend the AMC FilmSite entry about the movie. And if you’ve never seen any of the film versions or read the book, be warned that we will be discussing elements of their respective endings in all of our posts this week.
The Maltese Falcon (’41) has been judged by many critics to be the greatest detective story ever filmed. The influential 1955 book A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953), initially published in France by film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, declared Falcon the first true example of Hollywood film noir. Notable critics such as Roger Ebert have labeled the movie as one of the best of all time. And the American Film Institute has cast several laurels in Falcon’s direction: it landed at #31 on the most recent AFI Top 100 Movies list (in 2007); came in at #6 in the “Mystery” film genre; and its closing line, “The stuff that dreams are made of,” was chosen as the fourteenth-best movie quote of all time.
Of course, as with any film, its “greatness” is a matter of subjectivity. Falcon does have its detractors. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (first published in 1979) describes the film as a “caricature” populated with “one-dimensional” characters, stating that the film suffers from “textbook camerawork” and a “general attitude of contemptuous misanthropy.” And the author is certainly entitled to his opinion. There have been films that have been, by and large, critically lauded over the years which I am … well, less than enamored with. But I do think this review is short-sighted and almost aggressive in its criticism of the movie, particularly in its assessment of the film’s misanthropic nature, which is a necessary extension of creating a cinematic world where the lines between “good” and “evil” are so blurred as to be nonexistent.
For all that the first two screen adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s book got wrong, the final version gets everything just right. The movie follows the book almost precisely–very little is excised in the translation to the screen, and Hammett’s pitch-perfect dialogue is recreated virtually word-for-word. By and large, the actors are far superior to their predecessors, bringing new depth to these characters. The movie even looks better than the other two versions: its gritty appearance and washes of darkness perfectly encapsulate the story’s mood.
First-time director John Huston was greatly influenced by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which was released in theaters five months before Falcon. Hallmarks of the earlier film can be seen in the way Huston and cinematographer Arthur Edeson populate their movie with a wealth of shadowy shots and low, almost menacing camera angles (Edeson, incidentally, also worked on Satan Met a Lady). When making plans for filming, Huston took a cue from Alfred Hitchcock and story-boarded the entire movie before shooting, plotting out even the most minute details before the camera even started rolling.
Arguably the best element about the entire film is the casting, for Huston wound up with the perfect actors for the leading roles, particularly Bogart as the combative, dark, and enigmatic Sam Spade. Part of the credit for Bogart’s casting, interestingly enough, goes to actor George Raft, who turned down the role of Spade, paving the way for Bogart to take on the defining role of his own career. In fact, Raft can be credited with inadvertently promoting Bogart from supporting actor to leading man in the early 1940s: he also turned down the role of Roy Earle in 1941’s successful High Sierra (due largely to Bogart’s urging), and some sources even claim that Raft also turned down the part of Rick Blaine in Casablanca (though still other sources emphasize that this was merely a rumor). Huston had worked with Bogart on Sierra–he had co-written the screenplay for the movie with W.R. Burnett–and the two had become friends. Bogart, for his part, enjoyed working with Huston and would go on to star in Across the Pacific (1942), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo (both in 1948), and The African Queen (1951) for the director.
A trio of effective villains serve as worthy foils for Bogart in Falcon. Sydney Greenstreet, in his first film appearance, is impressive in both his bulk and his mannered menace as ringleader Gutman. Gutman is the gentleman criminal, hiding his thuggish qualities behind a cultured veneer (and a loyal gunsel/lover, Wilmer, played with leashed fury by Elisha Cook, Jr.). The actor’s smooth voice and high-class accent only add to that facade. Greenstreet was reportedly so nervous before filming his first scene–the monologue in which Gutman explains the origins of the falcon–that he asked Mary Astor to hold his hand before stepping in front of the camera. But there is no sign of this in his polished, masterful performance, and he went on to garner an Oscar nomination for his debut.
This movie also marked the first onscreen partnering of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre–the two worked so well together that they would eventually costar in nine more projects over the next decade. Though both Gutman and Cairo, Lorre’s character, are homosexual, Lorre is given the decidedly “gayer” character. Rather than go over the top with his portrayal, Lorre subtly conveys Cairo’s orientation through his mannerisms–particularly the way he plays with his cane, as he caresses it and moves it near his mouth in a way that highlights its phallic nature. His reactions to Spade’s bullying are even more telling; he is no physical match for the detective, succumbing to a faint after a single punch, and he (perhaps wisely) relies on a gun to do his convincing for him. Lorre breathes realism into a potentially campy character, and ultimately makes a big impact in his few front-and-center scenes.
But the strongest villain, by far, in the entire film is Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Her cold, calculating nature is a mirror of Spade’s own: they are two sides of the same damaged coin. Astor is a revelation in the role, which is a great departure from her previous “good girl” screen persona–but is, funnily enough, much closer to her controversial off-screen life. In the wake of her divorce, details of Astor’s personal diary, in which she reportedly wrote about her sexual conquests, came to light, and her image in the public had suffered. Whether or not that experience colored her portrayal of Brigid doesn’t really matter, though–however she did it, Astor managed to perfectly capture the darker nuances of the character in a way that few actresses of the time likely could. [Side note: I will further address Brigid–and the other female characters–in a separate post.]
The Maltese Falcon is, in a word, brilliant. The film is populated by a cast of characters whose actions and behavior is morally repugnant and off-putting. Yet Bogart and company, led by Huston’s steady, guiding hand, bring a level of sympathy to these not-so-good people. Spade’s an unmitigated asshole–unfeeling, harsh, and not at all above betrayal and subterfuge if it gets him what he wants–and Bogart plays him full-out, warts and all. Still, there’s something almost disturbingly sexy and enticing about Spade. He’s as appealing an anti-hero as has ever been created. In the end, Falcon works because we want to see what these rather reprehensible people, doing everything they can to assuage their desirous greed in an unclean world, will do next. Their interactions are just that damn entertaining.
Tomorrow: we’ll wrap up our week-long look at The Maltese Falcon with a Feminist Fridays post examining the female characters in the 1941 film.