Dashiell Hammett’s popular 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon had already been adapted for the screen in 1931 (under the same title) and 1936 (under the title Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis) before 35-year-old John Huston’s made his directorial debut with the 1941 version. The film tells the story of P.I. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), his femme fatale client Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who also goes by a number of other names (Mary Astor), and a trio of shady figures (Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr) who are all in search of the eponymous Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon has gone on to be one of the most loved classic films of all time, and is certainly one of my favourite Five Star Films. When I think about this wonderful film, a few main points always come to mind:
1. THE HUSTON FAMILY
Like the Barrymore, Fairbanks, Fonda, Alda, Coppola, Reiner, Redgrave and various other talented families, the Hustons can boast a multi-generational line of accomplished entertainment folk. John Huston’s actor father Walter was a multiple Oscar nominee, and won for Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John. John himself won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same film. Walter’s granddaughter and John’s daughter Angelica Huston has herself been nominated for three Oscars and won Best Supporting Actress for Prizzi’s Honor (1985), directed by John (and co-starring her then long-term partner Jack Nicholson).
The Huston family connection is evident here in The Maltese Falcon, with Walter playing a small cameo role in his son’s film.
2. YOU HAD ME AT THE OPENING CREDITS
Such is my love for classic films, that every time I see the logo of one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s film studios come up on the screen, my heart skips a beat (I know it’s corny, but it really does). Those iconic logos include MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, RKO, Columbia and United Artists - and as is the case in The Maltese Falcon, Warner Bros.
So here we begin with ‘Warner Bros Pictures, Inc. presents’, followed by a brief image of the Maltese Falcon prop, accompanied by ominous music (one of the few remaining original prop falcons from the film was sold in November 2013 for over US$4 million). Then before film’s title and credits appear, along with a (mock) historical introductory paragraph about the falcon’s lineage, comes more light-hearted music, with some beautiful (black-and-white, as per the whole film) images of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the city’s skyline (for another Five Star Film, Vertigo, also set in San Francisco, see here). The shots of the skyline dissolve away, and we see leading man Humphrey Bogart sitting at his office desk. From that moment we can’t take your eyes off him. Bogart/Spade such a compelling presence that he draws you into the story, and you go on the ride with him. Spade is actually present in every scene in the film except one very brief one.
3. A STUNNING DIRECTORIAL DEBUT
Like Preston Sturges the year before (The Great McGinty, 1940), Orson Welles the same year as him (Citizen Kane, 1941), and others after, including Clint Eastwood (Play Misty For Me, 1971) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992), John Huston’s directorial debut was an impressive one.
The Maltese Falcon is a magnificent film, and is widely regarded as one of the first great film noir titles. There’s really nothing to fault in this film: the script, acting, direction and all production elements are superb. The film went on to be nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay (Huston, adapted from Hammett’s novel) and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet, in his film debut – after more than forty years as a British stage actor).
4. WONDERFUL CAST
The Maltese Falcon boasts a terrific cast. Mary Astor plays the femme fatale to perfection. She’s particularly great when her lies and stories fall apart, and she tries to talk herself out of trouble. Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade was one by which all future film noir detectives would be measured. Character actors Greenstreet and Lorre are just delicious in their deviousness, and the rest of the supporting cast are also extremely strong, including Lee Patrick as Spade’s can-do girl secretary Effie Perrine.
The year after The Maltese Falcon, director Michael Curtiz would team Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet again, by casting them all in his iconic film Casablanca (1942) (for more on Casablanca, another Five Star Film, see here).
Bogart would also go on to star in a number of Huston’s films in the future, including Across the Pacific (1942) the above-mentioned The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948) and The African Queen (1951).
5. UNEXPECTED HUMOUR, plus QUOTE-WORTHY DIALOGUE
Though film noir is generally a serious business, there are some lovely, unexpected moments of humour – and they serve the film well. One great moment comes after Spade basically has a tanty while meeting with Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet). He storms out, then we the audience are privy to a cheeky smile he has to himself. It’s a delightful moment: subtle, yet very telling. Spade also makes some clever witty retorts, notably to O’Shaughnessy when he knows she’s laying the lies on thick, and to the District Attorney and his colleagues when he’s being interviewed.
There are some really terrific lines in The Maltese Falcon, some of which just wouldn’t work in another type of film, but are just perfect here.
Cases in point:
When Spade confronts O'Shaughnessy and accused her of being a liar:
- (Melodramatically): ‘I am. I've always been a liar’.
When Cairo (Lorre) recoils after being slapped by O’Shaughnessy, Spade yells at him:
- ‘'When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it'
When Effie is being her usual helpful and efficient self:
- ‘You're a good man, sister'
And the famous penultimate line of the film, when a cop asks Spade what the falcon is:
- ‘The stuff that dreams are made of’.
That line could describe the medium of film itself.
Lisa Malouf - follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf