THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) B/W 100m dir: John Huston
w/Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet (debut), Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook Jr., James Burke, Murray Alper, John Hamilton
Huston's first directorial effort, here is the classic Sam Spade: full of action, mystery, pathos, sex. Bogart is simply sensational: he anchors every scene he's in; and Astor is a revelation.
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "John Huston already had an established reputation as a scriptwriter when he directed this, his first film. It is a faithful adaptation of the original novel with a style that reflects the essence of [Dashiell] Hammett . In fact, its style and pace still make it one of Huston's most memorable films. Although the two earlier versions passed almost unnoticed, they are part of the development of the American film noir in the literary tradition of Hammett and James Cain. Humphrey Bogart was well known as an actor at the time, but this film was really the first to introduce the famous 'Bogie' characteristics that made him a star. Sidney Greenstreet gives one of his most memorable performances as Kaspar Gutman."
The following contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film for the first time:
From the Alternate Ending website (www.alternateending.com), this 2016 review of the film by Tim Brayton:
"It can no longer be argued, as was once stated with some casual authority, that The Maltese Falcon was 'the first' film noir (it was released in October, 1941, more than fours years after You Only Live Once), or even that it represented a uniquely important moment in the artistic development of that genre. But even if its singular impact is probably not at the level that French critics once claimed for it in the 1950s, we must still grant it this: The Maltese Falcon is a truly superlative movie, arguably the best detective movie ever made in Hollywood, and deservedly counted among the more or less perfect American films of the 1940s. As the first film ever directed by Warner Bros. screenwriter John Huston, it counts among the all-time great debuts: it storms out with almost nauseatingly quick, unrelenting pacing, and features a glorious quartet of exaggerated supporting actors behind the first top-notch, everything-is-going-perfectly performance in the career of Humphrey Bogart. With cinematographer Arthur Edeson, Huston captured a constant sense of ragged nervousness, in the plentiful close-ups breaking into the rooms filled with slashing lines of light and shadow (if for nothing but the way that window blinds violently throw bars on the walls of various spaces, The Maltese Falcon would deserve its status as a noir classic). These are placed by editor Thomas Richards as little darts of unbalanced energy: among its many merits, the film boasts an arrhythmic, jagged editing scheme that suggests a hunted animal or a cocaine fiend darting uncertainly through the night. There's a pervasive, stomach-churning sense of unease present at every moment in the film: one that doesn't align exactly, to any of the characters --- certainly not the ice-cold protagonist! --- but maybe puts us in the mental state of the rotten world where the story takes place.
"This third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1929/30 novel, the second under the original name, is a splendid distillation of a great classic, jettisoning only as much of the sordid content as absolutely had to be dropped in order to satisfy the Hayes Office (and sometimes not even that: like Hammett's editors before them, the Hayes censors okayed the word 'gunsel' on the assumption it meant something like 'low-level gun-carrying hitman,' whereas it was a slang term for a young man kept as a homosexual plaything). Much of Hammett's ripe, rancid dialogue is kept intact, delivered by Bogart in a curt, vicious register of unadulterated cynicism as Sam Spade, San Francisco private detective and all-around joyless bastard.
"Let us not mince words even a little: The Maltese Falcon is a pervasively nasty movie, with a grand total of one mostly sympathetic and generally faultless character, and even she is compromised by being the willing handmaiden to a cold-blooded sonofabitch whose character is well-known to her. The film presents with tossed-off conviction a world in which everybody is awful and does awful things for awful reasons; it is suffused from head to toe with the toxic spirit of hard-boiled detective fiction that filtered into film noir, in part because of this very movie, and which we might summarise as the fervent conviction, having looked at the world and everybody in it, that humanity's just not worth the effort, but since we're stuck with it, we might as well do the best we can. I'm not sure if there's a non-villainous character in all of noir who embodies that mentality quite as perfectly as Bogart's Spade, a nominal hero who barks out withering sarcastic put-downs for no reason other than to constantly put down everyone around him, and who reveals a wounded & boyish Romanticism in the final act that cuts through the bilious attitude of the rest of the film just so that we can see how effectively he's able to strangle that feeling to death. Both in the bark and in the tattered Romanticism, it's hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of role and star persona: Casablanca foregrounds Bogart's Romanticism while The Maltese Falcon foregrounds the almost erotic delight in being cruel, but between them, they're probably my two favorite examples of the thematically expressive possibilities of movie star acting in all of the 1940s.
"All of that without even saying one particularly concrete thing about the film --- and really, either you know the plot of the 75-year-old canonical classic, or you are in for an extraordinary treat when you get around to watching it, and shame on me if I spoiled it --- so let's ground it a little bit. Our ingredients, of course, are Spade, a real dick of a dick, who speaks in crushing, patronising tones to his undoubtedly much-put-upon secretary Effie (Lee Patrick); who treats with bored, bureaucratic efficiency the matter of wiping away every memory of his dead business partner; who coos sorrowful romantic words to the woman he's about to send, possibly, to her death in prison. And the latter two characteristics are probably signs of his lingering humanity, which he keeps trying to swallow down. This is, indeed, the point: live in a corrupt world, and you will eventually be corrupted. Our other main players, then, are Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), AKA 'Ruth Wonderly,' a low-rent conwoman prone to weeping and heaving melodramatically to disarm the men around her --- it's a fucking brilliant performance, absolutely the best thing I've ever seen Astor do in her considerable career. When you don't know where things are going, she seems flustered and pathetic, her performance coming across like overheated genre nonsense that fits in well with the mildewy cinematography and florid dialogue. When you've seen it, it suddenly clicks in that O'Shaughnessy is kind of a lousy actress who knows enough about the genre she's in to be aware that she can get away with it --- Astor is playing the genre against the audience to make us think she's just florid when she is in fact a crocodile with a strong knowledge of soap operas. It's superbly attuned to make the increasingly repulsive reveals about her character yet more shocking.
"Anyway, the cast. We've also got Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a simpering, mincing, gardenia-scented dandy who's as explicit a murderous homosexual psychopath that could conceivably have been filmed in 1941, and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the easily-riled, hotheaded and oversexed young gunsel with not remotely the mental or emotional equipment to survive the snake pit he's been tossed into. And my favorite supporting character of all of them, Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman, a smugly superior, obese raconteur --- that is, he's the Sydney Greenstreet character (though how should we have ever known this in this, his film debut?) --- whose oily baby face radiates insincerity and anti-charisma, who presents at once an aura of sophisticated Continental tastes, along with a pathetic, grubby hunger for money and attachments. When it's not playing at its convoluted, violent, MacGuffin-denominated script --- and the Maltese Falcon was surely cinema's greatest, purest MacGuffin until Indiana Jones started hunting for that lost ark --- the film's chief pleasure is in seeing these acidic personalities ping off of each other, worked into a lather by the self-amused Spade, who never manages to seem in any particular danger, if only because of the clear sense that he doesn't particularly give a shit if he's alive or dead. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is an extended debate between Spade, O'Shaughnessy, and Cairo, involving some exposition and a lot of accusation and innuendo, and the way Richards slices across the action is ingenious: the editing keeps isolating Spade in his careful, crafty observation, while clumping the two criminals sometimes in a tight pairing that makes them look like co-conspirators, other times favoring shots where they seem tense and stand-offish with each other. Even with the audio off --- and why would you want that? You'd miss the snarling writing --- you could tell how the power is shifting in the scene, who knows what and who's keeping what from whom, just from who's onscreen, for how long, and whether they're sharing the frame with anybody else.
"I mean to say, it's as laser-focused as any movie could daydream of being, in its story and its editing and its framing; and then along comes the feverish acting and sumptuous, cold-hearted dialogue to add a sense of completely extraneous style and flair that translates that sinewy, machined storytelling into the exuberant stuff of A-list Hollywood entertainment. It's really all just beyond criticism --- oh, I suppose you could slag it for its caustic nihilism, but then you're really going to throw out all of film noir, and why on earth would you want to do that? This film is a tremendous, world-class achievement, brutal and brutally efficient, but directed and acted with an almost zany verve that accentuates the comic, dancing qualities in the writing and narrative. It is maybe not my favorite film noir --- I'd like some more plunging blacks and kaleidoscopic chiaroscuro for that to be the case --- but it's a nigh-perfect incarnation of all the things that make that style so endlessly exciting, fun, and compulsively watchable, even at its most sickeningly cynical and bleak."
THE MALTESE FALCON was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Greenstreet), and Screenplay (Huston).