By Jarrod Jones. “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” chuckles Samuel Spade, a sardonic shamus who sits inside a posh hotel room belonging to a fretting femme who isn’t quite what she seems. He glances out from a window towards a looming threat that waits for him in the darkness outside, a threat he chooses to momentarily ignore. That one line casts a particularly ominous pall over The Maltese Falcon, as the borderline unscrupulous private eye embroils himself in an affair that may be more than the cunning detective can handle.
Perhaps Warner Bros. executives Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner said the exact same thing the day they consented to burgeoning screenwriter John Huston’s endeavor to make his directorial debut The Maltese Falcon, a slick and nasty piece of work adapted from the lurid novel by Dashiell Hammett. (Whose very own The Thin Man had made a bundle for rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer just seven years prior.) That “reasonable amount of trouble” would include a production that was treated as a mild gamble rather than the trumpeting debut of a promising new talent – though Huston had success with his screenplay to High Sierra (1941), the Raoul Walsh-directed hit that made Humphrey Bogart a star – Warners kept the production to The Maltese Falcon strictly low-key, ultimately putting up a paltry $380,000 for the film.
During pre-production, the dizzy affair had the loathsome reputation of being a lesser picture, a project that had been scoffed at by one of Warners’ top stars, George Raft, who – while being wooed to star in Falcon by Jack Warner – took the opportunity to draft a letter to the executives explaining rather plainly that, well… Raft was apparently above filming remakes at this point in his career, and considering the remake, who could blame him for bringing it up: The Maltese Falcon had been adapted twice before, in 1931 (under the same name, starring Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez), and again as Satan Met A Lady in 1936 (this time as an ill-advised comedy-of-errors, starring Bette Davis). As it stood – a remake to a remake to an adaptation of pulp fiction, helmed by a man who had never directed a picture before, and backed by a studio expecting it to fail – The Maltese Falcon had every reason to slink back to the shadows from whence it came, a relic for Golden Age film buffs or the errant cinematic curioso, and certainly it would have, were it not for John Huston.
Taking this opportunity to not only appease his financial backers, but project his storytelling capabilities into the stratosphere, Huston cast his drinking partner Humphrey Bogart as the lead, Mary Astor as the damsel in distress, international star Peter Lorre as the sly Joel Cairo, and even took a chance on noted English stage actor Sydney Greenstreet (in his first onscreen role, at 62) as Kasper Gutman to flesh out the sinister players of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. This was, for Huston, to be the definitive take on The Maltese Falcon, and through his diligence, the film became a huge success for Warners, for Bogart (who was cemented as a superstar from this point on), and for John Huston himself.
The film begins, as films like this typically do, with a woman bounding into a smoky office of a private eye, with a coy smile and cash that plucks at the heart strings in a way her sob story never could. Our hero Sam Spade (Bogart) is approached in kind by a woman by the name of Wonderly (Astor) with an elaborate yarn that doesn’t quite wash, about a sister that is at the mercy of one Floyd Thursby, a purportedly violent and unpredictable man. Spade and his tenacious partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), against better judgment, take the case – the money is green, after all – but the trail of Floyd Thursby ends with the sudden death of Spade’s partner.
That’s a whole lot to swallow in the limited time Huston has to spin it, but the first-time director’s screenplay ratchets through the beginning ten minutes of the film cleanly and efficiently, but never at the expense of the intrigue: by the time the bullet has passed through Archer, it is abundantly clear that there is more at play with Wonderly’s story than what she’s telling, and there is a greater mystery afoot. (As these gumshoes have a tendency to say.) After a brief tête-à-tête, Wonderly’s story frays into nothingness, and the woman stands revealed as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But her new story is just as phony as her last one, and Brigid’s attempts at pulling one over on Spade are met with a stone wall and the detective’s confident wit. (Not to lose any objectivity in saying so, but Bogart is just so damned cool in this movie.) In keeping most of Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue intact, the film has the added benefit of a cast that is more than capable of handling the material. It’s a class-act of a script, and when it’s read aloud by Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, the film lays the foundation to a subterfuge that dares to fascinate. Then enter the MacGuffin, in the tiny form of a black statuette.
That the film’s entire plot orbits around a statue that no one has ever seen (or seems to know where it’s hidden) only adds to the strength of The Maltese Falcon‘s ability to construct a boffo narrative. It’s enough to know that it is of extreme worth, not just in a financial and historic sense (its murky history is impressively scrawled across the screen in the beginning frames of the film), but almost of a supernatural one; the creatures that crawl out of the woodwork to procure this artifact are of the lowest kind, and each possesses a hunger that calls for the practices of violence and taboo, effectively shattering societal stigmas to smithereens. The price of a human life, it seems, is nothing compared to the Falcon.
As it becomes more apparent that Brigid’s plight is not so much a personal toil but that of a more sinister origin, Sam Spade’s world is met with disquieting dwellers of the underworld. Huston frames the sequences that feature the debonair Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet) and the effete Joel Cairo (Lorre) from a low-set angle, leaving the audience to stare upwards to the faces that would kill to get what they desire. In dealing with such people, compounded with police and the district attorney (Adventures Of Superman‘s John Hamilton) fixing to slap the collar of Miles Archer’s murder square upon Sam Spade’s shoulders, Spade runs the risk of sinking as low as Gutman or Cairo. (“Success to crime,” he jokingly toasts to a pair of suspicious detectives.)
Who will truly benefit from obtaining the Falcon is anyone’s guess until the last thirty minutes of the film, featuring a show-stopping verbal standoff between Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Astor, all in remarkable form. Considering that the Falcon is the only reason these people share a habitable space, this MacGuffin kicks up plenty of dust, and watching Spade tap dance around the byzantine machinations of Gutman while his whole world threatens to crash around him is the remarkable triumph of The Maltese Falcon. While Humphrey Bogart had several iconic roles to strut – Philip Marlowe, Duke Mantee, and Rick Blaine, just to name three – his portrayal of shamus Sam Spade is charisma given form. Essential viewing.