Stream On: the definitive 'Maltese Falcon'
John Huston’s suspenseful movie retains most of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled dialogue.
Black Mask was a pulp magazine published by journalists H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to support Mencken’s gig, the prestigious but money-losing literary magazine The Smart Set. In 1929 ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel Dashiell Hammett began serializing his novel The Maltese Falcon in it, which ultimately outlasted even The Smart Set. In 1990 it ranked 10th in Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the Crime Writers' Association.
John Huston’s 1941 film version probably changed cinema history.
“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” (Prospero, The Tempest, Act IV, Shakespeare)
We’ve looked at Hollywood’s first two attempts at adapting the novel for the screen; in 1941 screenwriter John Huston, son of actor Walter Huston, began directing his first movie, another Maltese Falcon. Its success launched Huston’s career as well as those of its stars Humphrey Bogart (Key Largo) and Sydney Greenstreet (The Mask of Dimitrios).
The movie is set up economically with a screen of text after the opening credits, reading “In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels—but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.”
But then Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) shows up at the San Francisco office of Spade and Archer, private investigators, to hire them to look for her missing sister, whom she says is likely hooked up with a dangerous character named Floyd Thursby. This sets up prime Hammett, in which lies are folded in like the layers of an onion, and stories are told as tersely as possible. Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), who agreed to find and follow Thursby, is shot to death, while Thursby is also murdered, offscreen, which is all told to Sam Spade (Bogart) during the night by police who come to his apartment to question him.
Spade—and Archer’s—philandering ways were suggested during their initial interview with Wonderly, and continue when Spade instructs their secretary, Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick, Topper), over the phone, to inform Archer’s widow of his death. “And keep her away from me.”
The next morning at Wonderly’s apartment she begins peeling her onion of lies: She now admits that her name is really Brigid O’Shaughnessy, that she was working with Thursby, who took advantage of her and probably killed Archer, but she had no idea who killed Thursby. Spade’s own tolerance of lies is demonstrated when he tells her, “We didn’t exactly believe your story—we believed your two hundred dollars. You paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth, and enough more to make it all right.”
Without learning why O’Shaughnessy and Thursby were in San Francisco, Spade agrees to investigate Thursby’s death and keep her name out of it, and later is visited by a flamboyant Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre, The Mask of Dimitrios, who had a lot of fun with the part), who promises him $5,000 to help find a “black figure of a bird,” finally, the titular falcon.
The colorful characters who are looking for the MacGuffin-statuette come to include Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), a rotund and lugubrious font of platitudes; his bodyguard, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr., who dined on this part for most of his career), a rude pistol-packing youngster; Cairo; and, of course, O’Shaughnessy. Lies are built on lies until Spade is sent dancing from one to the next, acting on instinct in the lack of information, and Miles Archer’s widow hovers over everything, believing that Spade killed his partner so that he could be with her.
“You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good. Someday you’re going to find it out.” (Effie Perrine to Sam Spade)
Hammett’s writing is so curt that he often omits articles such as “the,” and everything is depicted objectively, that is, we are never told what a character is thinking; we’re only shown their actions. The movie of his Maltese Falcon embodies this spirit: Huston methodically planned every shot, using dialogue from the novel and shooting each scene in sequence, which helped the actors stay in-role. Nothing was left on the cutting-room floor, and the movie was completed quickly and for under $400,000. The novel’s narrative digression, the “Flitcraft parable,” about which I’ve written, was left out. Variety called the film “one of the best examples of actionful and suspenseful melodramatic story telling in cinematic form.” I give it five out of five raptors.🦅🦅🦅🦅🦅
Even the falcon prop, described in the movie as “the stuff dreams are made of,” had its own dramatic history since the film. Its history involves “characters as diverse as Leonardo DiCaprio and the woman butchered in one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved murders, [and] constitutes a real-life mystery every bit as bizarre as the one Sam Spade confronted on film” and makes great reading itself, here.
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