There’s only one ‘Maltese Falcon’ and this is it

The Maltese Falcon/1941/Warner Bros./100 min.

Maltese Falcon poster“The Maltese Falcon,” a spectacularly entertaining and iconic crime film, holds the claim to many firsts.

It’s a remarkable directorial debut by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s considered by many critics to be the first film noir. (Another contender is “Stranger on the Third Floor” see below.) It was the first vehicle in which screen legend Humphrey Bogart and character actor Elisha Cook Jr. appeared together – breathing life into archetypal roles that filled the noir landscape for decades to come.

It was veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet’s first time before a camera and the first time he worked with Peter Lorre. The pair would go on to make eight more movies together. Additionally, “Falcon,” an entry on many lists of the greatest movies ever made, was one of the first films admitted to the National Film Registry in its inaugural year, 1989.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, Huston’s “Falcon” is the third big-screen version of the story (others were in 1931 and 1936) and it’s by far the best. Huston follows Hammett’s work to the letter, preserving the novel’s crisp, quick dialogue. If a crime movie can be described as jaunty, this would be it. Huston’s mighty achievement earned Oscar noms for best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor (Greenstreet) and best picture.

According to former New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther: “The trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school – a blend of mind and muscle – plus a slight touch of pathos.”

A few more of Huston’s tricks include striking compositions and camera movement, breathtaking chiaroscuro lighting, and a pins-and-needles atmosphere of excitement and danger. (Arthur Edeson was the cinematographer; Thomas Richards served as film editor.)

For the few who haven’t seen “Falcon,” it’s a tale of ruthless greed and relentless machismo centered around the perfect marriage of actor and character: Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade – the ultimate cynical, streetwise, I-did-it-my-way ’40s alpha-male. As famed noir author Raymond Chandler once put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” Bogart appears in just about every scene in “Falcon.”

As Raymond Chandler  put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Raymond Chandler put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Spade, he sees through the malarkey, cuts to the chase and commands every situation, even when the odds are stacked against him. At one point he breaks free of a heavy, disarms him and points the guy’s own gun at him, all while toking on his cig. He’s equally adept at using wisecracks and one-liners to swat away the cops, who regularly show up at his door.

Mary Astor plays leading lady Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Bogart’s Sam Spade and it is she who sets the story in motion when she walks into Spade’s San Francisco office. Brigid asks Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to trail a man named Thursby who, she says, is up to no good with her sister. They accept the job and Archer takes the first shift of following Thursby. Next morning, Archer’s dead. Turns out that Brigid doesn’t have a sister and Archer’s widow (Gladys George) has the hots for Spade.

Spade’s ultra-reliable and resourceful secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick) is the one gal he can trust and it’s clear she means the world to him. At one point he tells her, “you’re a good man, sister,” which in Spade-speak is a downright gushfest. He might like the look of Brigid and her little finger, but he won’t be wrapped around it anytime soon.

Humphrey Bogart owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Astor, a Hollywood wild child of her time, who left a long string of husbands and lovers in her wake and generated much fodder for the tabloids, was brilliant casting for the part of bad-girl Brigid O. True to form, Astor allegedly was having an affair with Huston during the making of the film.

There is no doubt that Bogart owns this guy’s-guy male-fantasy picture, but Astor and the stellar support cast are unforgettable in their roles. As a good-luck gesture to his son, John, actor Walter Huston plays the part of the old sea captain. Peter Lorre drips malevolence as the effeminate and whiny Joel Cairo, and he has a foreign accent, which in Hollywood is usually shorthand for: he’s a bad’un.

Making his film debut at 61, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman is both debauched and debonair, a refined reprobate with a jolly cackle and tubby physique (he was more than 350 pounds!). Warner Bros. had to make an entire wardrobe for Greenstreet; Bogart wore his own clothes to save the studio money. One more Bogart contribution was adding the line: “The stuff that dreams are made of” at the end of the film, paraphrasing a line in “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

And honing the sort of performance that would become his trademark, Elisha Cook Jr. stamps the character of warped thug Wilmer Cook with code for “psycho” (darting eyes, bubbling rage, edgy desperation) as if it were a neon light attached to his forehead.

Much has been written about the homosexual subtext of the Cairo, Gutman and Cook characters – I will just say they’re all part of the flock that covets and vies for possession the falcon, a jewel-laden statue of a bird that’s the treasure at the core of this tense and serpentine story. When it’s suggested that Wilmer Cook be sacrificed for the good of the gang, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman explains that, though Wilmer is like a son, “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Though there were two other celluloid versions of Hammett’s story, in my view, there’s only one “Maltese Falcon” and this is it.

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The Noir File: Bogie as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Meeker as Mike Hammer

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston) Wednesday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

Bogart leads an unbeatable cast in “The Maltese Falcon,” directed by John Huston.

Dashiell Hammett’s supreme hard-boiled detective novel, with Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade, and an unbeatable supporting cast that includes femme fatale Mary Astor, genial fat man Sydney Greenstreet, perfumed crook Peter Lorre, patsy Elisha Cook Jr., and tough cops Ward Bond and Barton MacLane – all turned by writer-director John Huston into “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Sunday, Nov. 11

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957, Billy Wilder).

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Pickpocket” (1959, Robert Bresson). Bresson’s celebrated French art film borrows from Dostoyevsky to tell the story of an alienated young Parisian pickpocket (Martin LaSalle) who enters a shadow world of crime, punishment and strange redemption. With Marika Green (In French, with English subtitles.)

Monday, Nov. 12

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “The Leopard Man” (1943, Jacques Tourneur). From a story by Cornell Woolrich: the nervous noir of a city plagued, it seems, by serial killings and a runaway wild leopard. Dennis O’Keefe, Margo and Abner Biberman.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955, Otto Preminger). As a man struggling to give up his heroin habit, Frank Sinatra leads a superb cast in this riveting adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel. Kim Novak plays his ex-girlfriend. Sinatra earned a Best Actor Oscar nom; the film’s music (by Elmer Bernstein) and art direction-set decoration also were considered for Oscars.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick).

Tuesday, Nov. 13

5 p.m. (2 p.m.): “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger).

Wednesday, Nov. 14

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks).

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “In Cold Blood” (1967, Richard Brooks). From Truman Capote’s legendary true-crime novel: the shattering chronicle of killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson), the Kansas family they destroyed, and the deadly destiny they shared. With John Forsythe, Charles McGraw and evocative black-and-white cinematography by Conrad Hall.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, Robert Aldrich).

Thursday, Nov. 15

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944, Jean Negulesco). An engrossing thriller based on Eric Ambler’s classic novel of intrigue, espionage and crime, “A Coffin for Dimitrios.” With Zachary Scott, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Faye Emerson.

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956, Gerd Oswald). A charming psychopath (Robert Wagner) preys on two sisters (Joanne Woodward, Virginia Leith) in this tense adaptation of the novel by Ira Levin (“Rosemary’s Baby”). With Jeffrey Hunter and Mary Astor; directed by Gerd Oswald (“The Outer Limits”).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.) “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock).

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Free stuff from FNB: More chances to win Bogart movies

The reader-giveaway prize for June was the Humphrey Bogart set, which contains “They Drive by Night,” “Across the Pacific,” “Action in the North Atlantic” and “Passage to Marseille,” from Warner Home Video and Turner Classic Movies. I am extending this giveaway to July so that I can run a review of “They Drive by Night.”

In August, I will give away the WHV/TCM Greatest Gangster Films: Humphrey Bogart set, featuring “High Sierra,” “The Petrified Forest,” “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” and “All Through the Night.” I will run a review of “High Sierra” in August. Each set is $27.92.

All who entered in June are still eligible to win. To enter the July giveaway, for the Classic Legends: Humphrey Bogart set, just leave a comment on any FNB post from July 1-31.

We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The June-July winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early August. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

Here’s more info on the movies in the Classic Legends: Humphrey Bogart set. [Read more...]

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Free stuff from FNB: Classic Legends Bogart set

Warner Home Video (WHV) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) are adding two new sets to the TCM Greatest Classic Legends line. The newest additions feature Humphrey Bogart and Joan Crawford. (On the Crawford set is “Mildred Pierce,” “Humoresque,” “Possessed” and “The Damned Don’t Cry.”)

Humphrey Bogart

Courtesy of WHV, I will be giving away the Bogart set, which contains “They Drive by Night,” “Across the Pacific,” “Action in the North Atlantic” and “Passage to Marseille.”

(Additionally, WHV and TCM will release the Greatest Gangster Films: Humphrey Bogart set, featuring “High Sierra,” “The Petrified Forest,” “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” and “All Through the Night.”)

Each set is $27.92 and will be available on June 26.

To enter the June giveaway, for the Classic Legends: Humphrey Bogart set, just leave a comment on any FNB post from June 1-30. We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early July. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck! (Josh is the winner of the May reader giveaway, a Blu-ray set of “Body Heat,” “L.A. Confidential,” and “The Player.” Congrats to Josh and thanks to all who entered!)

Here’s more info on the movies in the Classic Legends: Humphrey Bogart set.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) – Bogart and George Raft share a driving ambition in a feisty tale of brothers trying to make it as independent truckers in this fine example of Warner Bros. social-conscience filmmaking that’s also a film noir. Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino also star.

ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942) – In this wartime thriller, Bogart plays U.S. counterspy Rick, who trades barbs with Mary Astor, matches wits with Sydney Greenstreet and swaps bullets with saboteurs of the Panama Canal. John Huston directs this reunion of the three stars of “The Maltese Falcon.”

ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC (1943) – This World War II salute to Allied forces stars Bogart as First Officer Joe Rossi, who, along with his captain (Raymond Massey), matches tactics with U-boats and the Luftwaffe. The tactics are so on target that this became a Merchant Marine training film.

PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1944) – Bogart reunites with director Michael Curtiz and other key “Casablanca” talent for a tension- and controversy-swept story of a French patriot who escapes Devil’s Island, survives a dangerous freighter voyage and becomes a gunner in the Free French Air Corps.

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