The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 100 minutes.
In foggy San Francisco, world-weary private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) has taken on a new case from beauty Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), is clearly attracted to Miss Wonderly and agrees to go undercover that night on her behalf. While seeking out the man she believes can help her, he is fatally shot — and so is the subject of his search.
Spade discovers, or rather confirms, that Ruth Wonderly is not her real name, and she is apparently Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The two are caught up in a passionate affair, yet that seemingly doesn’t cloud his judgment in uncovering clues in the case.
Spade does determine the real crux of Brigid’s concern is the Maltese Falcon, an ancient small statue encrusted in rare jewels that is being transported to San Francisco. Enter Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a small, slick man whose loyalties aren’t clear and character is, and the “Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), whose dedication to anyone or anything is centered around obtaining the elusive statue.
Considered by many the first of the film noir style movies, it set a standard for such that was challenging to meet. The film was based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, which was originally serialized in five parts in a popular magazine of the time, Black Mask. The novel was far more provocative than censors of the time would allow movies to be, although as a film The Maltese Falcon does a good job of letting in a strong sexual element.
It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Greenstreet and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Huston. This was also Huston’s directorial debut, along with Greenstreet’s screen debut, at the age of 61, after a long stage career.
The movie was made three times; this was the third and undoubtedly the best. Uncharacteristic to the times, Huston’s screenplay stayed true to the original story, and his directing carried the atmosphere of the novel to the screen. Taking a complex story written by one of the most accomplished mystery writers of our time and bringing it to the screen in a manner true to the original is an enormous task, and Huston did it.
George Raft was first offered the role of Sam Spade, but he considered the movie unimportant and was unhappy at the thought of working with a first-time director. He had also turned down the lead in High Sierra, the role that had then launched Bogart’s leading man career, and is rumored to have later turned down the part of Rick in Casablanca. A rumor that is just as likely to be a good story as the truth, but it is a good story.
The role of Brigid was first turned down by rising star Geraldine Fitzgerald, who, among other reasons, didn’t want to star beside then B-movie actor Humphrey Bogart. Mary Astor had no such reservations and leapt at the chance to play the complex, dark woman whose motives and actions were always suspect.
Greenstreet and Lorre played off each other well — Greenstreet the self-confident, bigger-than-life character and Lorre the small, nervous, somewhat odd and unpredictable man. They appeared together in nine more films, notably Casablanca a year later. Their supporting roles in that film were as critical to the story as was Bogart’s leading man performance.
The Maltese Falcon is a film you can see one hundred times over and never view in quite the same way twice. It is complex, underplayed yet exciting, and full of subtle, rich details that fill the screen. A must-see for all classic film fans.