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 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 shotand 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 carryiing 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 espite their mtual interest.

We’re forewarned of it by a scrolling introduction, the Maltese Falcon, a gift ended by the Knights Templar for their patron and overlord King Charles V of Spain. This is a fabulous and fabled object, a stauette 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 conccaled 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 man’. 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 sttill 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 Russia 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 s 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 sucxh, 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. 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.

Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock (film)

Don’t fret. All will be explained.

This is a pretty belated addition to last year’s series of blogs on the Dortmunder series of comic crime novels by the late Donald E Westlake. I mentioned at the time that the first book, The Hot Rock, was filmed in 1972, though it was several years later before I saw it, on reissue, under its unwieldy British title How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
I’ve never seen it since, until making the effort to watch it again, with the intention of recording my thoughts.
The film comes with an impressive pedigree: it stars Robert Redford and George Segal, plus the inimitable Zero Mostel in a supporting role, it is directed by Peter Yates, the director of Bullitt and the screenplay is written by William Goldman, who was already noted for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Hell, it even has a soundtrack by Quincy Jones!
Unfortunately, none of that makes this into a good film. It’s not a good Dortmunder film, for all that Goldman is faithful to the spine of the story, though in making that assessment, I’m hampered by my knowledge of fourteen books featuring our favourite hangdog planner and his fox-faced friend when this film is an adaptation only of the very first book – which was originally planned to be a hard-boiled crime story starring the ultra-serious Parker.
As a novel, The Hot Rock is very different from the series as a whole, much more serious in every respect, and the film reflects that position, as it had to: Bank Shot was only published in the year the film appeared.
But even despite this, the film doesn’t really cut it. In fact, I don’t think it really works all that well as a film, if you try divorcing it from who you personally think the characters should be.
Goldman’s script is fine in itself. Anyone who has read his two superb books about his life and work in Hollywood will see how his adaptation hews closely to the principles he sets out there (the books are Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: if you haven’t read them, do so).
For adaptations, Goldman works with the spine of the book, staying as close to that as film-making allows, but he is absolute about how film-making is compression, about the urgency of the story having to give as much information in as short a time as possible. Thus it’s no surprise to see that the gang, or string, is cut from five men to four, and the six phases of the crime also to four.
It’s Chefwick, the locksmith and model train nut, who goes, and with him the least plausible phase of the crime, involving breaking into a sanatorium with a life-sized model train. Kelp becomes the locksmith: he also becomes Dortmunder’s brother-in-law, setting up an instant connection between the characters that doesn’t requiring stopping the story to explain anything.
Similarly, the utility man, Alan Greenwood, becomes explosives expert Allan Greenburg, and the crooked lawyer, Andy Prosker, becomes Abe Greenburg (the Zero Mostel role), his father. This enables the lengthy and slow moving train sequence to be replaced by a much shorter and more direct scene where the gang force Abe Greenburg to hand over his Safe Deposit boxkeys by apparently killing his son.
Lastly, the final phase, where the gang have to steal the Balabamo Emerald (in the film, the Sahara Stone, a diamond) back from their double-crossing employer, is also by-passed. Instead, Dr Amusa sacks the gang, throwing in his lot with Greenburg Senior, before Dortmunder takes the diamond from the Bank. This sets up the statutory happy ending (Hollywood. 1972. Suck it up) as the gang get away with the Hot Rock.
Incidentally, there is an in-joke at the start of the film, when Goldman replaces the kleenex gag as Dortmunder leaves prison with a brief conversation between Dortmunder and the Governor about the former going straight, to which, after a short pause, Dortmunder openly says he can’t. Goldman was making use here of a real-life incident in Butch Cassidy’s career which he’d had to delete from that film.
Skilful though the adaptation is, and conscientiously as Goldman uses Westlake’s dialogue wherever possible, the problem is that, as Goldman himself admits, he can’t really do comedy. Strange as that may seem from the writer of Butch Cassidy, Goldman is aware of his limitations, and flat out comedy is not his metier. He can shape the story very creditably, but he’s not a atural for what is needed to make this film fly.
Nor, despite his track record does Yates – an English director who worked in Hollywood – do much to set this film up in the way it needed to be to work. His most famous work, Bullitt, a fast-paced, action-oriented Steve McQueen thriller, had demonstrated his ability with crime films, though Yates then went on to alternate action and comedy films for the next decade.
For someone so skilled at action, it seems strange that Yates allows the film to crawl along, when it’s clearly crying out for an injection of pace. But the action moves lazily at each stage, and the characters perform in a low-key, unhurried fashion throughout, never displaying any serious degree of liveliness, let alone urgency.
Indeed, when the helicopter comes into play, Yates lets the story virtually stop whilst we follow the copter on an aerial tour of New York City that lasts several minutes (thus directly contradicting Goldman’s principles). Considering that the gang are on their way to break into a Police Station via the roof, this in no way helps the tension.
How much of this is down to Yates seeking a specific approach for the film, and how much of it to the cast themselves, but with the proud exception of Ron Leibman as Murch, and a few bits of minor histrionics from Segal, everybody underplays their parts to the extent that the life is sucked out of Mostel’s bombasticism. You must have seen him as Max Bialystock in the original version of The Producers, and if you haven’t, what have you been doing with your life? Abe Greenburg is a slighter version of that, given less room to play, but Mostel is acting against a wet blanket here.
Paul Sand, as Allan Greenburg, is a nonentity. I know he’s supposed to be dry, but Sand could be the Sahara Desert (as opposed to Stone) on this evidence, whilst Redford is so reserved in his performance, underplaying when the film cries out for a more exaggerated, stylised approach, that  he kills any chance the story has of taking off.
Leibman at least is innocent of such charges. He’s a ball of energy, gum-chewing, always active, greeting every situation with gleeful absorption, as was the case in all his film appearances in that era. He’s what is needed, someone determined to get everything out of what he does, and as sucj he stands out like a sore thumb.
He’s probably the best thing about the film, but even that is skew-whiff, because he’s not Murch. That’s not Stan Murch there. You can hang the name of Leibman’s shoulders, but there’s no way he will ever be Murch.
Which leads us back to the one greatest problem with this adaptation. Ignore little things, like how Dortmunder and Kelp are too well-dressed, too expansively dressed in Kelp’s case, too expensively dressed in Dortmunder’s, and how in keeping with Seventies fashions Dortmunder is for a habitual criminal just released from his second prison term. Sure, these jar, they look wrong, but nothing s more wrong that when he gaze at Redford’s clean cut, handsome face, that well-styled fair hair, his perfectly proportioned body, and you try to call him John Archibald Dortmunder and you can’t. Fucking hell, that’s Robert Redford! Dortmunder’s no Redford, and Redford is not, could not ever be, a Dortmunder.
And this film can’t work.
For all that, I understand The Hot Rock to be the best of the five films made by adapting Donald Westlake’s book. Whether I have the nerve to try any of the others is debatable.

That’s more like it.