The Film: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Principals: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Eliah Cook Jr. John Huston (director)
The Premise: Sam Spade (Bogart) is a private eye. Into his life comes Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor), who offers him too much money for a tail job. He puts his partner on it, and later that night his partner and the man he was following turn up dead. This also leads Spade to be questioned by Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who is as gay as you can be on screen in 1941, and a gun-tough named Wilmer Cook (Cook Jr.) who works for “the fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Greenstreet). They are all after the same thing: a prized statue called The Maltese Falcon.
Is It Good: One of the great things about revisiting a classic is that it’s a classic for a reason. John Huston’s film showcases his mordant sense of humor – these characters are on a Sisyphean chase to which they would be happy to spend much of their lives. Here, you’ve got Bogart in one of the roles that finally figured out how to use Bogie as a leading man. He’s not handsome in a conventional sense, but he knows how to show that he’s thinking, that’s he’s figuring things out. The film also has fun with one of the great things about a detective film, in that a private eye is often role playing and so it turns the performer into someone who is giving a performance within a performance. What makes Bogart so great at this is that we get the sense there is a smart man behind all his machinations, but in almost every interaction (with the possible exception of his secretary) he’s putting on the mask, be it his client, the fat man and Cairo, or the cops.
What’s also great is how tight the movie is – it’s 101 minutes, and there’s no fat but a lot going on. Spade’s partner is killed and the widow is ready to throw herself at Spade the minute the ink is dry on the death certificate. But then again, there’s evidence he wouldn’t be the first or the last to soil his partner’s marriage. You’ve also got a collection of the great supporting players from the golden age of cinema. Peter Lorre’s voice is probably his most recognizable trademark (that or the eyes), but he was always a capable and fascinating screen presence. He excelled playing creeps and leeches, someone who maybe deserved a punch in the mouth, but the thought that he might enjoy it steadies the hand. And then there’s Greenstreet. He was a man who was brilliant at playing pompous assholes. His joy in being a bastard and trying to talk his way out of anything is one of life’s simple pleasures. And Elijah Cook Jr. has one of those faces. Often playing toughies who didn’t quite have what it took to be real muscle, his pathetic nature came over even when he was trying to play tough. It’s fun to watch Bogart cut him down even when Cook’s got the drop on him.
This was a turning point in both John Huston and Humphrey Bogart’s career. Huston was known as a writer and the son of character actor Walter Huston (the son gave the father one of the great roles in his career with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but this was his first directorial assignment, which you couldn’t know unless you were told. John had spent enough time in industry to know exactly what he was doing. Bogart had been kicking around Warner’s backlot, and this was around the time the studio figured out what roles he could be great in. High Sierra had come out earlier that year, and he had some good supporting turns, but Bogart’s wry bemusement comes into full blossom here.
Is It Worth a Look: Unquestionably. It’s interesting to compare Bogart’s Spade to his turn in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep as Phillip Marlowe. Huston’s sense of humor is darker, a little more subterranean as he never loses sight of the tragedy. While Hawks never loses his sense of fun – Film Comment had an article suggesting that Bogart’s Marlow was the basis for a number of porn films because he keeps showing up at different locations, only to have every woman he’s around throw themselves at him. Huston is more interested in the internal conflicts, Hawks treats his private detective as – for the most part – someone who loves their playtime.
Random Anecdotes: This was the third cinematic attempt at the material. The film just came out on Blu-ray and I watched that, but the last DVD edition also included those two previous versions. One was done as a starring vehicle for Bette Davis, the other played it as a more loose Private Dick story with none of the gravitas. I’m not a fan of the modern movement to remake nearly everything, but this is one of the classic counter-examples where – as long as the material is approached differently by talented people – what could be labeled a remake is just as artistically valid and interesting as something “original.”Of course, this was a different era.