Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stubs - The Maltese Falcon

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet with Elisha Cook, Jr. Ward Bond and Barton MacLane Directed by John Huston. Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Executive Producer) Screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet. Run time 100 minutes. Black and White. Crime, Film Noir, Mystery.

Okay, the second of two films starring Humphrey Bogart on my top ten list. And arguably the best of the two. Remember I said arguably. This film is closer to the roles that made Bogart famous. While he was best known as a gangster in his early career, he also played two iconic private detectives from American fiction: Philip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and Samuel Spade in this film. And of the two, this is the far superior. While THE BIG SLEEP has its moments, it suffers from too much editing and reshooting and the plot gets lost somewhere along the way.

Such is not the problem with THE MALTESE FALCON. It is interesting to note that this is one of the few times a remake is better than the original. In fact, this is the third time for this story. The original THE MALTESE FALCON (1931) starred Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, and played the romance of the story almost of laughs. Remade in 1936 as SATAN MET A LADY with Bette Davis and Warren Wilson, it took the third time for Warner Brothers to get it right and to make a classic.

One of the early examples of film noir, THE MALTESE FALCON has all the elements of the “genre”. Private detective Sam Spade (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Gowan) are hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy but calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), because she is trying to get her sister back from a man named Floyd Thursby. Attracted to Brigid, married Miles, volunteers to go with her that night only to end up dead, as does the unseen Thursby. That leaves Sam and his secretary/assistant Effie (Lee Patrick) to work the case. While Sam is falling for Brigid, he also knows that she is lying to him about virtually everything. Still, he agrees to help her.

Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) shows up soon afterwards, thinking Sam knows more than he does about the Maltese Falcon. Even though they don’t trust each other, Cairo hires Sam. When Sam meets up with Brigid and Cairo shows up it is obvious to Sam that Cairo and O’Shaughnessy know each other. Things get agitated when Brigid tells Cairo that the “Fat Man” is in town. So agitated that the police, Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), are called and take Cairo away for further questioning.

In the morning, when Sam goes to Cairo’s hotel, he runs into Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) a young man he recognizes as having been following Sam earlier. Using Wilmer, Sam finally meets Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) aka The Fat Man. When Gutman starts to get evasive about the Falcon, Sam gives Gutman a deadline to be more forthcoming and then storms our. Later, Wilmer is sent to fetch Sam and holds a gun on him. That is until they’re in the hallway outside of Gutman’s room. Then Sam overpowers Wilmer and takes his guns. “This ought to get you in good with your boss,” Sam teases.

But the meeting quickly goes south. While Gutman gives Sam a history of the Falcon and offers to cut him in on the sale, he spikes Marlowe’s drink. When Sam passes out, not only does Wilmer get some revenge by kicking him, but it turns out Cairo was also there. Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer leave. When Sam wakes up, he searches the rooms and finds circled in the newspaper the arrival time of the freighter La Paloma.

When Sam goes to the docks, he is too late and the freighter is already burning. Returning to his office, where loyal Effie is already waiting, Sam is visited by Captain Jacobi (Walter Huston) from La Paloma, who only lives long enough to deliver Sam the bird. His euphoria at getting the Falcon is short lived when a screaming O’Shaughnessy calls and gives an address before the line goes dead. After stashing the Falcon at the bus terminal and mailing himself the claim ticket, Sam employs a loyal cab driver to take him to the address O’Shaughnessy has given him. Keeping with the Aviary-theme, it turns out to be a wild goose chase, as there is nothing at that address.

Returning to his apartment, Sam finds Brigid hiding in a nearby doorway. When he takes her inside, they find Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer waiting for him with guns drawn. Knowing that Spade has the Falcon, Gutman offers him $10.000 for it. Sam agrees, but only as long as someone is set up for the police to take the fall for the murders of Archer, Thursby and Jacobi. While Sam is open to suggestions, he thinks Wilmer is perfect for the part. Gutman and Cairo agree, a scuffle ensues and Wilmer is knocked out. While they wait for Sam to be able to retrieve the Falcon, Sam learns the details of the backstabbing and double crossing that Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy and Thursby had been involved with since first finding the bird.

Still early, Sam calls Effie to bring the Falcon to him. In those days the mail was quicker. She brings the bundle and leaves. But Gutman is disappointed to find that the Falcon is a lead forgery. Taking back all but $1000 of his payment to Sam, Gutman with Cairo set out again for Istanbul to get the Falcon. Wilmer has already come to and escaped. When they’re gone, Sam calls the police and tells them to round up the group before they can leave town. Then Sam turns on Brigid. He knows that she killed Archer and he has no choice but to turn her over to the police. She thinks he’s joking, but despite his own feelings for her, he has no choice and he gives her up when Detectives Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy arrive.

Like CASABLANCA, THE MALTESE FALCON has a great cast, including many of the same actors who appear in both films: Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre. The beauty of the studio system is that there was a group of talented stars and supporting players, who could be shuffled and deployed in a variety of films. Take Bogart, add in Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet and you practically have a movie already. These Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre would also appear together again in PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE , a film which doesn’t catch the magic of their work in CASABLANCA and FALCON.

Since I’ve already written about many of these actors in my review of CASABLANCA, let me expound about two in this film: Mary Astor and Elisha Cook Jr.

Mary Astor may be best remembered for her role as the femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in this movie, but she had a long career in films, dating back to silent films in 1920. She would star in such films as RED DUST where she battled Jean Harlow for Clark Gable’s affections and appears in such memorable films as THE PALM BEACH STORY, ACROSS THE PACIFIC, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and her final appearance in HUSH … HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. While her personal life may have been rocked by scandal, she did go on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra Kovak in THE GREAT LIE.

One of the great character actors, Elisha Cook, Jr. is always solid when he plays the guy in over his head. In this movie, the guns he carries are almost as big as Wilmer and he is no match for the likes of Gutman or Cairo or O’Shaughnessy and certainly not Spade. They are strong personalities that dwarf Wilmer, but these are the kind of roles that Cook plays best. In film after film, Cook plays the guy who is trying to do what is asked of him, but usually gets shot down for it; whether he’s the meek frontier settler Frank 'Stonewall' Torrey standing up to likes of the long and lean gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) in SHANE or he’s playing George Peatty trying to hang on to his femme fatale wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) in THE KILLNG. He also has memorable appearances in THE BIG SLEEP and THE PHANTOM LADY to name, but a few.

THE MALTESE FALCON was John Huston’s first film as director. While he would go on to direct such films as THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, MOBY DICK and THE MISFITS, this was the one that put him on the map. Not only was the new director helped by the great cast, but also by his own witty fast-moving screenplay. Some of the lines spoken in this film are some of the best ever recorded on celluloid. “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter”; “I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble”; and “Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be” are some of my favorites.

THE MALTESE FALCON is an absorbing look at the dark side of dreams and what some people are willing to do to get what they want. It is the world where someone like Sam Spade operates. Maneuvering on both sides of the law with equal skill, Sam may not get everything he wants (money and the girl) but he makes us want to watch him again and again. Tough, clever and witty, Spade is the quintessential movie private eye and he sets the bar high for all that follow.

The Maltese Falcon is available at the WB Shop:

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