#597) The Maltese Falcon (1941)
OR “Follow That Bird”
Directed & Written by John Huston. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Class of 1989
The Plot: San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is approached by Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to track down her missing sister. When Spade’s partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) is shot dead while investigating, the suspiciously stoic Spade takes the case (despite being a prime suspect). Spade soon learns that Wonderly is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in town as part of the search for “The Maltese Falcon”, a jewel-encrusted 16th century statuette expected to be worth a fortune. During his investigation, Spade also crosses paths with two other crooks looking for the Falcon: the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and the intimidating Kasper Gutman, aka “The Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet). The ensuing suspense is, for lack of a better word, priceless.
Why It Matters: The NFR ranks “The Maltese Falcon” as “[a]mong the most influential movies to emerge from the Hollywood studio system”, praising Huston and Bogart for “captur[ing] the true essence of Hammett’s story”. An essay by film critic Richard T. Jameson successfully encapsulates the film and its production.
But Does It Really?: Now that’s a damn good movie. “The Maltese Falcon” is many things – a thrilling mystery, a faithful page-to-screen adaptation, the prototype for all film noir- but above all it is a thoroughly entertaining movie from beginning to end. In his directorial debut, Huston successfully translates the novel’s spirit, while maintaining a relentless pace that always keeps you on your toes. The ensemble is led by a never-better Bogart, to say nothing of the other outstanding cast members, all of whom add to the film’s excitement and mystery. “Falcon” holds up remarkably well 80 years later, and will continue to endure for years to come.
Wow, That’s Dated: Just the usual sexism that I’ve come to expect from the golden age of Hollywood. It’s not overwhelming here, but it’s definitely there. And I still don’t know what to make of Sam’s line to Cairo “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”
Title Track: Perhaps to help differentiate this “Maltese Falcon” from its earlier film adaptations, Warner Bros. wanted to retitle this film “The Gent from Frisco”. Thankfully, Huston was able to persuade the powers that be to keep the original title.
Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “The Maltese Falcon” received three Oscar nominations: Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Sydney Greenstreet. In a field of such strong contenders as “Citizen Kane” and “Sergeant York“, “Maltese” lost all three nominations – two to “How Green Was My Valley“. Although Mary Astor was not even nominated for her work in “Falcon”, she did win Best Supporting Actress that year for her role in the melodrama “The Great Lie”.
- John Huston began his show business career as a screenwriter, writing and polishing screenplays for Warner Bros. starting in 1937. When Huston wanted to start directing his own scripts, Jack L. Warner agreed on the condition that Huston’s next screenplay was successful. The script was “High Sierra”, a hit upon its release in January 1941. Huston chose to adapt “The Maltese Falcon” as his first movie, a risky choice given that Warner Bros. had adapted the novel to film twice in the last decade (a pre-code version in 1931, and again in 1936 as the comedy “Satan Met a Lady”). The story goes that Huston’s first draft of the screenplay (a straightforward write-up of the novel’s events) was prematurely sent to Warner and the film’s producer Henry Blanke. To Huston’s surprise, the script was immediately approved and put into production.
- With the budget of a B-movie and only six weeks to film everything, Huston maximized his shoot by storyboarding the entire movie in advance, and writing detailed camera instructions into the script. The shoot was by all accounts an enjoyable one, with Huston and the cast engaging in practical jokes between set-ups. Thanks to Huston’s preparedness, shooting wrapped under budget and two days ahead of schedule.
- George Raft was the first choice to play Sam Spade, and turned it down (allegedly he did not want to work with a novice director). Thankfully, second choice Humphrey Bogart accepted the role. With a string of supporting parts in gangster pics under his belt, you can see how Bogart became a star after this: Sam Spade is the ruler of all he surveys in this movie. Totally in control, cryptic yet always charismatic, a star turn if ever there was one. Plus the character’s constant jadedness provides an entertaining running commentary.
- The corner of Bush and Stockton where Archer is shot is a real-life San Francisco location, and today is commemorated with a plaque featuring a major spoiler.
- I always forget how fast everybody talks in old movies. It’s not at an overlapping Hawksian speed, but it’s still fast. No wonder this movie is so short. Despite this, Huston already knew a pivotal rule of filmmaking from the beginning: shoot the most important dialogue either in close-up or from a new angle; this subliminally tells your audience to pay attention.
- Mary Astor’s great in this. Her Brigid is a complex spinning coin who never truly lands heads or tails until it’s too late. You can see the gears turning in Brigid’s head as each of her lies is called out. It’s method acting before the term existed.
- And then we get to Peter Lorre, one of filmdom’s greatest character actors. You never forget a Peter Lorre performance, especially here as a sophisticated, neurotic criminal. The character’s homosexuality had to be toned down, but come on; the gardenia scented card, the phallic umbrella handle. We all know what’s up.
- I’ve always wondered if you could ever replicate taxi cab chases in a modern movie. It’s not like you can tell your Lyft driver to “follow that car and step on it!” Too many insurance risks. And oh, the awkward small talk.
- He doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, but Sydney Greenstreet is worth the wait. A stage actor making his film debut, Greenstreet nearly steals the show with his menacing theatricality. He’s so good you forget that his story of the Falcon’s history is just him talking for seven minutes!
- My favorite moment is when Spade, while being interrogated by the district attorney, rattles off what he knows about the case at a break-neck pace, stopping only to check in with the stenographer to ensure he’s getting it all down. It’s hilarious.
- I spent a lot of this movie trying to remember where I know Elisha Cook Jr. from, his boyish good looks standing out against his angular features. After some research, my conclusion is that I’m recognizing him from other NFR films I covered early on, including “The Big Sleep” and “Rosemary’s Baby“.
- Perhaps the greatest walk-on cameo in film history: John Huston’s father Walter (already a well-known stage and film actor in 1941) as the ill-fated Captain Jacoby. The elder Huston stumbles into Spade’s office, his hat tucked down to obscure his face, delivers the package, mutters his line, and falls down dead.
- I realized that “Maltese Falcon” shares a lot with “Treasure of the Sierra Madre“, Huston’s later film that I admired but couldn’t fully get into. Both are movies about a group of strangers on a quest for an alleged fortune. While both show the dangerous extents greedy people will go to, “Falcon” meditates more on perceived value vs. actual value. Of course, now that I think about this, you can apply that to pretty much all of Huston’s movies.
- The only weak link in this ensemble is Gladys George, sporadically popping up as Archer’s widow, an overdramatic Miss Havisham-type clad in black. It’s a very one-note performance, not aided by the deletion of most of Ida’s characterization from the novel.
- [Spoilers] The last act of the movie is a surprisingly intense summation of events, expertly handled by Huston and his ensemble. The highlight is – of course – the awaited arrival of the Falcon, and the revelation that it is fake. This is followed by Cairo going full Peter Lorre on Gutman. With his bulging eyes and gritted pronunciation (“You bloated eediaht! You styupid fat-head!”), it’s like he’s turning into Ren from “Ren and Stimpy” right in front of us.
- The film’s most iconic line is a paraphrase from “The Tempest” (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”), and is original to the movie. My favorite part is that “The stuff that dreams are made of” is technically not the last line. That distinction goes to Ward Bond’s follow-up: “Huh?”
- “The Maltese Falcon” was a hit and jumpstarted the careers of both John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. While it predates true film noir by a few years, “The Maltese Falcon” is often cited as the genesis of the genre.
- Warner Bros.’ proposed sequel, “The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon”, quickly stalled due to Huston’s salary demands and the cast’s unavailability. Huston would write a pseudo-sequel a few years later called “Three Strangers”. When it was discovered that the film rights to the character of Sam Spade had reverted back to Dashiell Hammett, the script was re-written as a separate entity (though the final film does star Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre).
- John Huston would continue to direct movies for the next 46 years! His filmography has plenty of classics in it, and span a wide array of genres. He even directed “Annie”!
- “Maltese” was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (if you will) for Huston and Bogart. The two collaborated on five additional films, including “The African Queen“, which earned Bogie his long overdue Oscar.
- Film noir got a bit of a resurgence in the ’70s (I blame “The Long Goodbye”), which ultimately devolved into parody. The 1975 comedy “The Black Bird” saw George Segal as Sam Spade Jr., inheriting his father’s detective business and getting mixed with criminals still trying to find that damn bird. Despite appearances by original “Falcon” actors Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr. reprising their roles, “The Black Bird” failed to take off.
- As for the prop Maltese Falcon itself, the statuette used in the film has become – somewhat ironically – one of the most valued and sought after movie props in history. At least three Falcon statuettes made for the film are known to exist, and have had their share of owners over the last 80 years. The only one verified to have been in the final film (noted for its bent tail after Bogart dropped it) was sold at auction in 2013 for over four million dollars! That’s over 10 times the budget of the original film!