Film 2019: The Maltese Falcon

It’s back to the Bogie Box for an absolute classic of film noir, a landmark film that influenced, indeed defined the whole private eye genre, and provided Humphrey Bogart with a tailor-made role. The Maltese Falcon, based on the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammet, was scripted and directed by John Huston, making his directorial debut, and it is intense, absorbing, dark and as vital as the day it was released to a public that loved it on the spot.

Surprisingly, Huston’s film was the third time Hammet’s novel had been filmed in only ten years. The first version appeared within a year of the novel, directed by Roy del Ruth and starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, in an adaptation that adhered closely to the novel. It was remade five years later as Satan Met a Lady, directed by William Dieterle, and starred Bette Davis and Warren Williams, which retains the rough structure of the plot but renames all the characters and treats the whole as a light-hearted comedy: Davis hated it and called it a piece of junk.

The problem was that the 1931 Maltese Falcon was made prior to the Motion Picture Production Code and fell foul of it in several aspects, mostly relating to the sexual content of the story. Hence the Huston version, which either omits or seriously tones down the elements that prohibited the 1931 version from being shown (it was finally made available again after 1966, when it was retitled Dangerous Female to avoid confusing American television audiences).

And whilst we’re talking about the film history, the story was revived in 1975 as The Black Bird, starring George Segal as Sam Spade Jr inheriting his father’s detective agency and discovering that people are still after the statuette. It’s a stupid, silly comedy that I went to see when it was released but had forgotten completely until I looked into the background of the story (it appears to have never been released on DVD which, given Segal’s popularity, says it all).

But Bogart… Bogart is Sam Spade, private detective, partner with Miles Archer in San Francisco. Spade and Archer are hired by Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), of New York, to locate her little sister, run away with a low-life thug named  Floyd Thursby. Miles, a sleazeball, jumps in to take the job of shadowing Thursby. He is shot and killed at close range. Four hours later, Thursby is killed by four shots in the back. Ruth Wonderly has gone missing.

A classic opening. The Police like Spade for killing Thursby, avenging his dead partner. When they learn he had been carrying on an affair with Iva, Miles’ wife, they like him for killing Archer too. Sam’s killed neither, but in order to get out from under this suspicion, he needs to bring in the real killer, and for that he needs Ruth Wonderly or, since she’s being lying from the outset about who, what and why, Bridget O’Shaughnessy, her real name (or so she says). And Bridget wants help and protection, and she wants them from Sam.

What Sam doesn’t know is that he’s walking into a complex, dirty scheme, by an array of adventurers, working both for and against each other. Their relationships are like shifting sands, each prepared to betray the other despite their mutual interest.

We’re forewarned of it by a scrolling introduction, the Maltese Falcon, a gift intended by the Knights Templar for their patron and overlord King Charles V of Spain. This is a fabulous and fabled object, a statuette of a falcon made of gold and encrusted with precious jewels, its value incalculable. It flits in and out of history, a thing of legend, its value concealed by a coating of black enamel. Bridget’s got it, Thursby wanted it for himself, she’s taken off with it after they stole it for the Fat Man, Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet, making his screen debut at 61), it’s also being pursued by the levantine Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre)…

And by virtue of the need to clear himself, not to mention the obligation to do something about the murder of his partner, Sam Spade takes a hand.

And he does so by playing the game himself. Sam Spade is not a Philip Marlowe, who Raymond Chandler portrayed as ‘a man who is not himself mean’. Sam is a good private eye. He’s observant, sharp, self-confident and hard, but he’s also cynical and, if the money is right, willing to play himself into the deal. He’s ‘menaced’ by the effeminate Cairo, who wants to search his office and who becomes pettishly infuriated after Sam, quite coldly and deliberately, knocks him out. He rides the nerves of the young gunsel, Wilmer Cook (Elisa Cook Jr), and he holds himself well in the face of Gutman (a bravura stylised performance by the stately and graceful but massively fat Greenstreet, a voluable and precise talker) but still falls for the drugged drink.

And then there’s the lovely Bridget, whose every line is a line, whose loyalty is to herself alone, whose confession of having led a bad life is possibly the only true thing she says but is still only a calculated confession. Bridget will claim to love Sam before the end, but we don’t believe her.

Ultmately, the three adventurers – four if you count Sam in – come to a loose and undefined accommodation over the Falcon. Sam has it and demands two things: $10,000 and a fall guy, someone to hand to the Police over Thursby’s death and that of Captain Jacobi, deliverer of the Falcon. Over Gutman’s regrets, Wilmer – who shot both men anyway – is selected.

But there is a sting. The Maltese Falcon has always been a McGuffin, and once it is produced, it is discovered to be a fake. The adventurers have been tricked by the Russian from whom the bird was stolen in Istanbul: the story that Sam Spade has crossed lines with goes on, into other lands and places. Wilmer escapes. Gutman and Cairo preserve their alliance. Sam and Bridget stay behind.

And the film moves to its inevitable but darkest climax. Sam calls the Police on the unlovely pair, but he and Bridget are balanced on a knife-edge. She says she loves him, and maybe he loves her but, in one of the most intense lines Bogart ever delivered, he tells her he won’t play the sap for her. Bridget cannot ever be trusted. How many others have stood in his shoes before this?

Besides, it doesn’t matter whether he liked the man or not, but a man has got to do something when his partner is killed, and Sam has known throughout that it was Bridget who killed Miles. She goes to the Police too. Maybe she’ll be executed. Maybe she can talk herself into life, be out in twenty years. Sam will be there. But he won’t play the sap for her.

Everything they say about The Maltese Falcon is true. It’s tight, it’s hard and it is also cruel. It’s cinematography, the low level camera angles, the close-ups on faces, all of these create a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere, where the truth, such of it that we learn, is sweated out of people. And it’s hero is no shining knight, but a man who is clever, greedy, persistent, challenging but ultimately ruthless.

Like the 1931 film, The Maltese Falcon follows the plot of the book quite closely, lifting dialogue from Hammet (I did read the book, some years later but, being by then a deevotee of Chandler and his style, was not too impressed by its plainer, hard-boiled style). But to get the film out, Huston had to tone down on things the 1931 version made too plain.

Foremost among these are the references to homosexuality. Cairo is quite plainly gay, and Lorre plays him as such, though its noticeable that this aspect is played down almost into invisibility in the second half of the film. Wilmer is not just a cheap gunsel, playing tough but not a match for the genuinely tough Sam, but he’s also a hophead, an addict, which is barely allowed to creep through.

And when Gutman reluctantly agrees to give Wilmer up, we see only hints of the fact that Gutman, with his overly precise diction, his stylised joviality, is himself homosexual, and Wilmer his boy.

This prevalence of homosexuality among the villains is so widespread that it’s tempting to look for the equivalent in Bridget, though the film, like Queen Victoria, doesn’t believe in such things. It’s a psychological possibility, given he character’s lying nature and her constant manipulation of men, but that’s to build a theory out of whole cloth: the film ain’t going there..

But Huston’s version does omit female sexulaity as well. In the 1931 version, Bridget (there named Ruth Wonderly throughout) is seen bathing and there is a scene where, Gutman having tried to sew dissension by claiming she’d stolen a $1,000 bill, Sam strips and searches her. That was out of the question under the Code, and instead Huston has Sam see through the lie straight away, amusing Gutman.

The film also censors an episode in the book’s climax that was referred to offstage in the 1931 version, in that instead of Gutman and Cairo being arrested, the Police report that they are dead, shot by Wilmer.

I’d like to see the 1931 version, and I’ve aroused my own curiosity over The Black Bird, though how I’m going to get to see that now is an interesting question. But there’s no comparison to the 1941 Maltese Falcon. It works completely, in every sense, without a wasted line or gesture. This is aided by the fact that it was one of the very few films ever to be shot in story order, allowing the actors to grow though their parts in a relaxed and natural manner.

Nobody has yet been stupid enough to suggest re-making The Maltese Falcon (I disqualify The Black Bird from consideration), and I think it’s because, for once, nobody is stupid enough to mess with perfection. You can imagine some of the ‘modernisation’ that would be introduced, but at the end of the day you can’t imagine a remake without Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor – or Peter Lorre, Elishha Cook Jr and Sydney Greenstreet, come to that – and that’s something you can’t put on screen.


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