Saturday, October 1, 2011

#421. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Directed By: John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George

Tag line: "A story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING automatics!"

Trivia:  The Shakespeare reference that ends the film was suggested by Humphrey Bogart.

Prior to playing Sam Spade, Daschell Hammett’s shifty private eye, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart portrayed a string of petty criminals in films like The Petrified Forest, Angels with Dirty Faces and High Sierra

With The Maltese Falcon, the actor finally found himself on the right side of the law, yet traces of his earlier roles shine through in his performance. Even when playing a so-called "hero", The Maltese Falcon proved that Bogie could still be as tough as nails. 

San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowain) are hired by the sophisticated Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) to follow a man she claims is a relative of hers. The first night on the job, Archer is shot dead, leaving Sam to pick up the pieces of the case. 

After digging around, Sam discovers that Miss Wonderly is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and what she's really after is a jewel-encrusted statue known as the Maltese Falcon. 

Joining in the hunt for this treasure are two gentlemen of questionable character, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), both of whom also attempt to hire Sam to find this most valuable trinket. 

But Sam is too busy working an angle of his own. 

There’s no doubt that Sam Spade is the hero of The Maltese Falcon, despite the fact he is often anything but heroic. We discover early on that Spade has an appetite for the ladies; when his secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) is announcing Miss Wonderley, she tells Spade, “You’ll want to see this one. She’s a knockout”. In fact, Spade gets around a bit more than he should. He’s been carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, Iva (Gladys George), a fact that might make him a prime suspect in Archer’s death (even Iva asks Sam if he had something to do with her husband's murder). 

With his own reputation on the line, Spade has added incentive to get to the bottom of things, and fast. He starts by playing the principle characters - Joel Cairo, Kasper Gutman and Brigid O’Shaughnessy - against one another, flip-flopping back and forth, agreeing at one time or another to work exclusively for each one of them, all in the hopes of uncovering the truth. 

Spade knows when he’s being lied to, and isn’t above a bit of play-acting himself. My favorite moment in the film comes when Spade is chatting with Gutman in the latter’s hotel room.  The conversation is going nowhere when, suddenly, Spade jumps form his seat, angrily smashes a glass against the wall, and threatens both Gutman and his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), before storming out of the room. 

But as he's walking down the hallway immediately after this tirade, we catch a sly smile curling on Spade’s lips, as if to say he’s pleased with the way he played that particular scene.  In a case with as many twists and turns as this one, Sam Spade is obviously right at home. 

This was the third attempt by Warner Bros to film Daschell Hammett's story, despite the fact the previous two (including one with the same title directed ten years earlier by Roy Del Ruth) were box-office failures. But then, those earlier films didn’t have Bogart. 

Sam Spade was the perfect private eye to locate the elusive Maltese Falcon, and Humphrey Bogart was, in turn, the perfect Sam Spade.


SJHoneywell said...

I love this movie, mostly because it's one of the truly great examples of Bogart being Bogart.

As it turns out, the local art theater is running it tomorrow for I'm going. No reason to pass up a true classic on a big screen.

DVD Infatuation said...

Steve: Thanks for the comment!

No, no reason at all to pass that up, and I'm truly jealous! Have a great time (as I'm sure you will...this is quintessential Bogie, doing what he does best).

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

The story is that it was Howard Hawks who suggested Huston direct this as his first feature (pretty impressive debut, I'd have to say -- actually he ended with two great ones, too). "Just film the book," Hawks said, and that's what they did. Pretty much all the dialogue is from the novel (except for the last line -- and no matter who suggested it, I always thought it was a clunker).

One of the best-cast movies ever. Not a weak link in the bunch, and many of them exactly as they were in the book.

Also, a great example of how movies used to be made for all ages. I saw it first as a kid (with my father, on a double bill with Casablanca). All the smutty stuff went right over my head, but I loved it.

Seeing it as an adult, all the gay innuendo is completely clear, along with the very obvious time when Spade and Miss O'Shaughnessy sleep together (and the difference in how they act and talk with each other afterwards).

DVD Infatuation said...

Anthony: Thanks for stopping by!

I had read that Hawks was behind Huston's taking the helm of MALTESE FALCON, and it turned out to be a great move. As for duplicating the book, someone on twitter informed me that one character, Gutman's daughter, was in the book, but not the film (though not having read the novel, I can't speak for its accuracy).

I like how you say it's great for all ages, a contrast to U.S. TV's decision not to play it for many years due to the sexual overtones (as you say, they'd go right over a kid's head, anyway).

Great insight. Thanks again for sharing it!