Out of the Past: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

It is not made of gold or bedazzled by jewels; if you saw it in a pawn shop you wouldn’t give it a second glance. But, it is the stuff that dreams are made of and worth its weight in plunder and blood. The Maltese Falcon they call it, and it turns dreams into nightmares. The lives of five people are irrevocably altered in pursuit of the Falcon – there is also a sixth, seventh, or maybe a tenth, but it depends on how many choose to sit in darkened rooms and follow Private Detective Sam Spade in pursuit of the coveted Maltese Falcon.

Like the ominous object of desire itself, a genuine adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s pulp story was hard to come by, until the young John Huston was given permission by Warner Brothers to write and direct the next attempt to adapt the novel. The son of famed actor Walter Huston, John only had a few writing credits to his name including High Sierra which propelled his new friend Humphrey Bogart into the spotlight. This new film would be the making or breaking of Huston and Bogart.

Bogart was born into privilege in New York City a year before the turn of the 20th century. His acting career started on Broadway and it took two tries to make it in Hollywood. The second came when his friend and Broadway alum Leslie Howard (Gone With the Wind) vouched for Bogart’s skill as an actor and cast him as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.  From then on he was relegated to playing the heavy or gangster. The running joke was that Bogart was killed in the final act by Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, or James Cagney. Bogart finally got the last laugh when he replaced George Raft as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

Unlike later film-noir, the crew involved in the production of the film were already established names within the industry. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson gave Boris Karloff skeletal features in Frankenstein in 1931. Make-up artist Perc Westmore was part of the Westmore make-up dynasty that continues today. Like Edeson, and Westmore, costume designer Orry-Kelly went on to help make Bogart into a cinematic legend in 1942’s Casablanca.

Slanted angles and shadows created by Edeson’s natural lighting helped The Maltese Falcon usher in a new tone in film. Real world grittiness was craved by the cinema-going audience with the breakout of World War II in 1939. Murder and treachery oozes forth from The Maltese Falcon, focusing on the perfect hero for the time. Bogart’s Sam Spade displays grace under pressure; a trait popularized by Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms. He is constantly under threat by the murderous Kasper Gutman and Joel Cairo (Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre), the criminal equivalents to Laurel and Hardy. The police are after him for a murder he did not commit, all the while trying to protect one of cinema’s most memorable femme fatales, Brigid O’ Shaunessy (Mary Astor), or is it Wonderly?

Huston’s polished film-noir is the complete package, filled with unforgettable characters and one liners:

Wilmer Cook:

Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.


Sam Spade:

The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

And one of the most oft-quoted final lines (improvised by Bogart) in cinematic history. Hyperbole aside, The Maltese Falcon was one of the first to usher film-noir into American cinemas and give us a glimpse into the darker side of the human condition.

Note: A Cameo by Walter Huston as the one who delivers the Maltese Falcon to Sam Spade.



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