Thursday 25 February 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George and Peter Lorre

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Many years ago, this was my first exposure to classic Hollywood cinema. I loved it as a kid and I still love it today after a number of viewings. However, looking back now with much greater knowledge of the people involved, I realise with surprise that it was also to a large degree the first exposure for everyone else too. It's a film of firsts, with one surprising and ironic exception: it's a remake. Warner Brothers had already filmed Dashiell Hammett's novel twice. First The Maltese Falcon was a precode in 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and such memorable faces as Una Merkel, Thelma Todd and Dwight Frye backing him up. Then it was more loosely remade in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady with new character names; the great Warren William played Ted Shane and Bette Davis was the femme fatale, Valerie Purvis.

Remakes aside, everything else was new. It was the first film directed by John Huston, now remembered as one of the great American directors but then known primarily as the son of the noted actor Walter Huston and on a lesser level as a screenwriter, having progressed from writing dialogue for films like Murders in the Rue Morgue to contributing to the screenplays for Jezebel, Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and Sergeant York. The success of his directorial debut led to a long and distinguished career that saw him direct many more notable films, including three that rank amongst the Top 250. One of them, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, won Oscars for both father (as Best Supporting Actor) and son (as Best Director). He even found time to act a little himself and appears in this list twice in that capacity, most notably as Noah Cross in Chinatown.

It was the first film to make a real star out of Humphrey Bogart who had spent the previous decade struggling to find his place in Hollywood. Mostly he languished in supporting roles behind Warner Brothers stars like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson, and his rare leading roles tended to be bizarre titles like Swing Your Lady, hardly starmaking material. It was his casting in this film that not only defined his roles for the rest of his career but also where Hollywood would go over the next decade. It's interesting to consider just how much different cinema would be today had first choice George Raft not turned the role down on the basis that his contract didn't require him to make unimportant films. Bogart would become a Huston regular, starring in no less than six of his films, one of which, The African Queen, would win him his only Oscar, eleven years later.

It was the first appearance on screen of the veteran English stage actor Sydney Greenstreet, who was over sixty years old at the time, three hundred pounds in weight and suffering from diabetes and Bright's disease. Yet he proved to be a natural from his very first scene on film, no less than 39 years after he debuted on stage in a 1902 production of Sherlock Holmes as a murderer. He was Oscar nominated for this role and went on to make 22 films, all within an eight year span during the forties. Nine of them, beginning with this one of course, paired him with Peter Lorre, making the very different couple a highly interesting double act. Even today, Greenstreet is one of the most recognisable and memorable of screen actors, making it hardly surprising that he became the model, rather unfortunately, for Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars.

Finally The Maltese Falcon is sometimes regarded as the first instance of film noir, though Stranger on the Third Floor, another Peter Lorre film from the previous year, may trump it on that count. Film noir is defined as a genre only by inclusion of certain key elements, such as morally ambiguous heroes, cleverly manipulative femmes fatale, crisp and tough dialogue, nihilistic or cynical outlooks on life and strongly expressionistic lighting and camerawork. It's also hard to define film noir because it was only invented as a genre in hindsight; none of the great noir directors knew they were making films noir at the time, unlike the directors of westerns, melodramas or horror movies who knew exactly where their films fit from the moment they started work on them.

The whole noir essence is what's important here though, far beyond the plot which is fundamentally simple, however elegantly and intricately it's explored. Various shady characters are searching for the McGuffin of the title, which is the statue of a bird, coated with gold and encrusted with jewels, sent in 1539 as tribute from the Knights Templar to Charles V of Spain who had given them the island of Malta, but lost in transit after the galley that carried it was seized by pirates. It may never have been seen again except in the imaginations of those over the centuries to come who were captivated by it, or perhaps it has a legendary history of death and adventure. As our hero, detective Sam Spade, memorably paraphrases Shakespeare, 'it's the stuff that dreams are made of.'

All these shady characters come together in San Francisco in anticipation that the falcon will soon join them, and their activities pull Spade into the mix, not least through the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. John Huston explores the mindset of each of his characters to an amazing degree, given how fast a ride this film is, a lean and mean 101 minutes. It's this exploration that really tells our story and what makes the film so successful is that everything backs it up. The script and the dialogue closely follow Dashiell Hammett's source novel and Hammett could write dialogue like nobody else. Every member of the cast, including the newcomer Sydney Greenstreet, is just perfect in their respective roles and it's impossible to picture anyone else playing them. That's amazing for a remake.

Humphrey Bogart is as definitive as anyone could be as Sam Spade. He's not as tough as Bogart's other defining hardboiled role, that of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, but he's just as cold, cynical and calculating. Spade is a much more versatile character than Marlowe and Bogart plays him wooden when being questioned by the police but dynamic when he's onto things. His face shows a whole range of emotions and his eyes are truly expressive, grinning as much as his mouth. He gets plenty of opportunity to grin here, in a rather sardonic way, which is rare for Bogie. Best of all is his voice, his inflection, which is exactly how we expect a tough private eye to sound. After Bogart nobody else really had much of a chance to refine the idea much further, however often they tried. He's so definitive that it's his take on the character that has been wrung to death ever since, even though he was merely the third actor to play the role.

The rest of the cast are also impeccable, so consistently solid that there are a bunch of obvious names to mention and a few underrated gems of performances too. Mary Astor is the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who keeps pleading for help in many ways but without ever passing on her real motives. She acts differently in almost every scene because she's talking to different people who know different amounts about different things, and so she feeds them different information accordingly. It would be easy to think she overacts horribly but the key is that she's an actress playing an actress and just as Sam Spade can never be quite sure who or what she really is, neither can we.

Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, is far less subtly mercenary than O'Shaughnessy. He's known as 'the fat man', which certainly fits Greenstreet's description as well as being a play on his character's surname, and Huston often shoots him from low angles to emphasize his bulk. His speech is superb and his laugh is even better. He's a very cool cucumber indeed, constantly passing out polite compliments like they're gifts. As he describes himself, he's 'a man not easily discouraged,' expecting to be in control of every situation but staying deliciously calm even when others have the upper hand. When Spade acts up a violent storm in his hotel room, he simply ignores him as if it isn't of any consequence whatsoever.

Peter Lorre is Peter Lorre and that's all we really need to know, as I don't think he's capable of giving a bad performance. To suggest that he shines as Joel Cairo is a powerful understatement. His first conversation with Spade is a piece of masterclass acting that gets better every time I see it. It isn't just his memorable voice, which he was having notable fun with by 1941. Time was he learned lines phonetically because he didn't understand English and of course was never a native speaker, but he still runs through his lines with as perfect intonation as there could ever be, a worthy foil for Greenstreet even though they share few scenes together. No wonder they were soon paired together so frequently.

It's not even just in how he looks, which is of course highly distinctive, but where he looks and for how long. It's about his smile and the tilt of his head and the angle of his tussled bow tie. It's in the way he moves his hands, especially when he's touching his cane. So many of these little things are cleverly subtle allusions to Cairo's homosexuality that would never have been allowed by the censors, if only they had noticed them. Then again, he's preceded to Spade's office by a card with the fragrance of gardenia. How could they miss that? Sydney Greenstreet was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor as another character easy to read as gay and he was truly great, but Lorre was just as good, even when being manhandled. 'When you're slapped you'll take it and like it,' snaps Spade. What a way to treat such a performance.

Elisha Cook Jr is memorable as Wilmer, Gutman's tough talking but relatively ineffective gunsel, a word that most people probably associate with this very character in this very film. I assumed it meant a gunman just as the censors probably did, but it's both slang for a stool pigeon and a homosexual insinuation in Yiddish. The part foreshadows similar excellent roles in The Big Sleep and The Killing that highlight just how great Cook was in this sort of role. He's a small operator compared to the rest of the principals, but as Spade comments, 'the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.' As with everyone else, there are so many little details to pick up from his performance, such as the fact that he keeps the brim of his hat so low that he bumps into people as he follows Spade down the street.

After these sterling and very recognised performances come a host of underrated ones. Lee Patrick is Spade's highly efficient secretary Effie who knows Spade better than we do. She's very capable indeed but is still full of highly believable emotions, the template for all the many glamorous but knowing secretaries that would ground private eyes over the years. Gladys George is Spade's partner's wife who initially believes that Spade killed her husband so that he could marry her. There's even a small appearance from Huston's father Walter, as a ship's captain who delivers a package to Spade and dies in the process. He gets one line and he was shot before he gets it.

Each of these performances would have been noteworthy in any movie, but for all of them to come in the same film is astounding. Yet that's not all. There's plenty more talent on show beyond the acting, at levels of sophistication almost unheard of for a directorial debut, especially one with such a notably low budget, less than $300,000. The cityscape outside Sam Spade's office window isn't remotely believable and the sets are hardly expansive. Much of the story takes place in dialogue because with the actors already paid for, dialogue is cheap. Huston did the best with what he had and he did it very well indeed.

Then again, while Huston was making The Maltese Falcon, another young upstart of a first time director was making Citizen Kane and Orson Welles seems to define unheard of levels of sophistication. There must have been something in the water in Hollywood in 1941. While Welles's skill is overt and obviously paraded all over the screen, both Huston's direction and the work of his cinematographer Arthur Edeson are so smooth that it's often hard to even notice just how skilful they are. When people can do this much with so little budget, it sometimes feels to me that such restrictions should become compulsory. What could James Cameron do with only $300,000 and no CGI? I'd be fascinated to find out.

I watched The Maltese Falcon more than once for this project and only over time and through repeated viewings am I realising just how clever the choreography and composition of frame are. There are many scenes where we watch what's important rather than the people we would expect to see, because sometimes it's not what we see but what we don't see that's really important. The way characters are arranged and moved around during scenes is obviously clever from moment one but becomes even more so later in the film with no less than five principals in frame, a very awkward number, but each of them constantly seems to be in exactly the right place without getting in the way of anyone else, unless of course they're supposed to. That's a real magic trick to manage.

The biggest magic trick of all is in the fact that this film was fiction but still brought the legend it tells into reality. While probably inspired by the Kniphausen Hawk owned by the Duke of Devonshire, the Maltese Falcon is completely made up, but given the status that this film reached, the lead falcon that we see in this film subsequently reached the highest price ever paid for a movie prop when it was auctioned in 1994, nearly $400,000. The lead and resin falcons made for the film are now valued higher than Kaspar Gutman valued the real thing in the movie. A replica was also made, one that was exhibited at the Academy Awards in 1997. It was made of gold with ruby eyes and a 43 karat diamond hanging from a platinum chain in its beak. It's valued at over $8m, making it surely the stuff that dreams are made of. I wonder what stories it will create over the next four hundred years.

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