Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Maltese Falcon (1941) -- John Huston

An attractive woman, Ruth Wonderly, (Mary Astor), comes to the offices of Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Archer, a private detective agency in San Francisco, with what looks like a routine case--she wants them to locate her sister. Wonderly claims the sister is involved with a man named Thursby, whom she plans to meet that night in an attempt to bribe him to abandoned the girl. Archer volunteers to track Thursby, hoping that he will lead them to the missing girl. When both Archer and Thursby are killed that night, the case takes on an ominous tone, and the next morning Spade is visited by a strange little man looking for a long-lost statue of a falcon. Is there a connection? Spade soon finds himself dealing with three unscrupulous adventurers competing for the priceless falcon as he tries to uncover the truth about the death of his partner.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade

Filmed twice before, Director John Huston's version of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, makes the first two efforts pale in comparison. It is simply one of the best films of its genre, and the film that solidified Bogart's stardom. Many consider it one of the first Film Noirs, but I don't classify it as such. Yes, it has a femme fatale, but you never seriously believe that Bogart as the protagonist is in real danger or in trouble. And it lacks the shadowy photography that I associate with the best noirs. Still, it set the bar high for entertaining detective films that followed for the next fifteen years or so.

It's hard to find fault with the film. Precise direction, a genre-defining script, stellar cinematography, and one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled; it's a great story of intrigue. Bogart may star, but the memorable collection of eccentric villains is what makes this so much fun to watch. Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film) plays the rotund Kasper Gutman; Lorre is the effeminate Joel Cairo; and Astor the beautiful femme fatale. A dedicated bunch--Gutman has been chasing the falcon for 17 years--they are more dangerous than they appear. Still, the group seems slightly out of their element, and we can't help but like them for it. Of course, Spade will outwit them all by the end.

The film opens with a screen card that provides the backstory:
In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels——but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day——[
The character of Joel Cairo is a long way from Lorre's infamous child molester, Hans Bekert, in Fritz Lang's 1931's M. This is one of his first American films that became well known. Impeccably dressed and smelling of gardenia, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, intending to search the detective's office for the Falcon. Spade easily disarms the smaller man, telling him "when you're slapped, you'll take it and like it." It's through Cairo and Miss Wonderly, whom Spade has learned is really Brigid O'Shaughnessy, that we meet the "Fat Man," Kasper Gutman. It is now clear that three people are after the elusive statue, and that O'Shaughnessy's first story was a bogus one. 

Gutman employs an inept underling, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), who thinks he is a tough guy. Spade's interaction with this character is one of the joys of the film--he continually gets the upper hand of the punk. Cook is one of those frequent character actors who enhances every film he's in, seemingly without effort. His best decade is the 1940's where roles included Lawrence Tierney's sidekick in the brutal Born to Kill, and again with Bogart in The Big Sleep. But his most memorable performance is as a stubborn Southern homesteader gunned down by Jack Palance in 1953's Shane.  Here he plays Gutman's muscle, and not so subtle "boy." Wilmer does Gutman's dirty work, and is in fact a murderer, but he is no match for a professional like Spade, The detective is dismissive, calling him a gunsel, slang for homosexual.   

The mountainous Kasper Gutman

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Spade first meets with the mountainous man. Director Huston keeps his camera low when Gutman is on screen to emphasize the man's immense size. (Greenstreet's weight topped 350 pounds). Greenstreet's performance exudes a cultured menace, with a deep guttural laugh and confidence. He and the detective verbally spar with one another, and though Spade doesn't have the whole story, he now understands that the falcon is priceless and worth considerably more than Cairo first intimated. Spade hints that he possesses the bird and storms out of the room when Gutman is evasive. In the hallway outside Spade breaks into a broad smile, pleased with his performance. At this point he also guesses that one of these suspicious characters is responsible for Archer's murder, though he doesn't know which, and because the police consider him a suspect--they know he has had an affair with Archer's wife--Spade hopes to entice the culprit to reveal himself , using the falcon as bait.   

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo.

At a second meeting Gutman spikes Spade's drink, leaving him unconscious. When he wakes, he finds a newspaper clipping noting the arrival in town of a ship, the La Paloma.  He hurries to the dock but finds the ship ablaze. Back at his office, a dying man staggers in clutching a bundle wrapped in newspaper. It is the falcon and a search of the man's wallet reveals him to be the captain of the La Paloma. The captain is played by the director's father, Walter Huston   

A final confrontation occurs between all the players. Gutman and Cairo have joined forces. In a long tense scene Gutman offers Spade $10,000 for the falcon. Spade agrees, provided they give him a fall guy for the police--he needs someone to pin the murders on to deflect attention from himself. Gutman reluctantly offers up Wilmer. Spade instructs his secretary to bring him the falcon. Upon inspection, it's discovered to be a fake.

The direction in this scene is terrific and a highlight of the film. At nearly twenty minutes it is extraordinarily riveting. Huston lets the camera in turn capture the reaction of each adventurer as a knife reveals nothing beneath its outer coating of black paint; Gutman sputters, looking like he's about to have a stroke as Cairo berates him for letting the real bird slip through their hands. When the two leave to continue their pursuit of the statue, Spade calls the police and tells them where to pick up the pair. He then confronts Brigid, telling her he knows she killed Archer to implicate Thursby, her unwanted accomplice. Brigid, shocked that Spade would turn her over to the police, tries to work her wiles on the up-till-then plaint detective--there is a strong suggestion that the two have become lovers. But Spade follows the private eye's code, telling her "You killed Miles and you're going over for it."

The falcon isn't what it seems. 

Director Huston penned the sharp screenplay. He gives each villain ample screen time to develop their character, and.has paced the film with wonderful dialog. Here's a sample:

Spade: We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your $200. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver. 
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Gutman: You're a close-mouthed man?
Spade: Nah, I like to talk.
Gutman: Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice.

Spade: I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.
The stuff that dreams are made of.

The film was among the first named to the Library of Congress' National Registry in 1989. Oscar nominations included for Best Picture (it lost to John Ford's How Green Was My Valley), Best Script, and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet). As a testament to its popular longevity, it is likely the most famous role of several of its performers: Greenstreet, Lorre, and Astor. As for Bogart, his signature role came just one year later, as Rick in Casablanca, the first film in which he received an Oscar nomination.

Author Hammett says of his character:
Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

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