I re-watched The Maltese Falcon in order to remind myself of the Dashiel Hammett narrative and his characters. This is part of my Raymond Chandler research. Hammett was a few years younger than Chandler but the two men both served in the Great War. The big difference was that Hammett started writing crime fiction for Black Mask in the early 1920s, a good decade before Chandler, and his novel-length stories such as The Maltese Falcon were sold to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Hammett had already worked as a Pinkerton’s detective before he started writing and his approach to writing was one of Chandler’s early influences when he too started writing for Black Mask.
The 1941 film was the third use of Hammett’s novel, following The Maltese Falcon (1931) with Bebe Daniels in the Mary Astor role and Satan Met a Lady (1936) a slightly changed adaptation with Bette Davis and Warren William. This version had the same cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, as the 1941 film. There are also possible later versions. This is a good example of the way in which the studios re-cycled properties in the 1930s. There are several reasons why the 1941 version has remained in the public consciousness where the older films have fallen from view. One is that this was the first film directed by John Huston who also wrote the screenplay, having become established at Warner Bros. as a writer in the late 1930s. Huston was seen as gifted young man whose writing credits dated back to the early 1930s. His directorial début came at a precise moment and coincided with the rise of Humphrey Bogart into the front rank of Warner stars. This was partly because of his performance as Roy Earle in High Sierra earlier in the same year which was another crime fiction literary adaptation (from W. R. Burnett) written by John Huston. Finally, The Maltese Falcon has been seen as either an early film noir or as a film that pointed in the direction of the noirs that were to come. This last reason why the 1941 film has been remembered is, I think, a case of retrospective invention. The film noir claims are rather thin and I think most of this is based on a similar coincidence in the 1970s when Bogart was in the midst of a revival of interest in his star persona and film noir was just starting to be discussed in detail by film scholars and fans.
The Maltese Falcon is set in Hammett’s San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. The setting is more or less contemporary for the late 1930s/early 1940s and the narrative begins in the offices of Sam Spade (Bogart), a private eye in partnership with Miles Archer. A similar office would appear in the first full Chandler adaptation, Farewell My Lovely (1944). Spade, however has a helpful and loyal ‘secretary’ in the form of Effie (Lee Patrick), who is brave, smart and sassy – she is a considerable asset in Spade’s business. Spade receives a visit from a woman who he eventually discovers is a ‘Brigid O’Shaughnessy’ played by Mary Astor. Spade soon realises that Brigid is not what she actually appears to be and that she can’t be trusted. Yet he also finds himself attracted to her. But Spade himself is no angel and he too is adept at spinning tales. What follows is a series of murders and the appearance of three more characters who would become iconic figures in Hollywood. First Peter Lorre arrives as ‘Joel Cairo’, then Sydney Greenstreet as Mr Guttman and finally Elisha Cook Jr. as the gunsel. Lorre was already a Hollywood figure and had come to America after his lead role in M (Germany 1931). It was Greenstreet’s first cinema role after many years on the stage in the UK and US. Elisha Cook Jr. racked up over 200 credits for minor roles in a career lasting more than 50 years. The joke among filmgoers was whether or not his character would survive until the end of the film. The Macguffin in the story is the ‘Black Falcon’, a valuable relic in the form of a statuette that Guttman seeks to acquire and Brigid claims she is about to collect. The plot doesn’t really matter that much. It is the interaction of the characters that engages the audience. There is also a role for Ward Bond as a Police Detective.
What I most noticed this time were the very quick dialogue exchanges and in particular Bogart’s delivery. Bogart delivers his lines at pace and sometimes as he’s going out of the door as he’s finishing a line. It’s very snappy and the pace never let’s up. But Sydney Greenstreet is a perfect foil in his scenes responding to Bogart in calm measured tones. Bogart earns possession of the screen in his first genuine starring role but the the acting honours arguably go to Mary Astor. It’s an unusual role for a woman in this kind of ‘tough guy’ drama. She plays on her seeming gentility and projects a softer image all round to cover her duplicity.
The film looks very good on a DVD from a Bogart box set. Arthur Edeson’s work behind the camera is as good as his experience suggests it should be but it doesn’t really introduce the noirish elements that are about to come from the influence of the European directors and cinematographers. Much of the film is set in hotel rooms and corridors and generally compositions are designed to cover character interactions. In those images with only one or two characters, low angles are often used . None of these comments are meant as criticisms. The cinematography and set design complement the performances in telling the story and the music too is designed to give the sense of a mystery that is proving difficult for Spade to unravel. Overall it is a stunning achievement by John Huston. I can’t better the description by the New York Times when the film was re-released in 1973 (one of many revivals):
. . . hard, precise and economical – an almost perfect visual equivalent of the Dashiell Hammett thriller. Bogart is backed by an impeccably ‘right’ cast . . . (quoted in Humphrey Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley, Hutchinson 1975)
That nails it. It’s a ‘version’ of Hammett, perfectly executed, a work of art and an entertainment. I’m still doubtful about its influence on later ‘tough guy’ thrillers, although it certainly helped the careers of all involved. Dashiell Hammet clearly knew how to write such stories and Huston served him well. But the difference in a film like Double Indemnity is remarkable. The combination of Chandler and Wilder adapting Cain is something else – which we’ll get to eventually.