“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere,” says Sam Spade.
Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Maltese Falcon was first published in 1929, serialized in five parts for Black Mask magazine, and then in book form in 1930. Its main character, private eye Samuel Spade, became the archetypal detective, influencing Raymond Chandler’s own P.I. Philip Marlowe and many others. Warner Bros. first adapted Hammett’s novel in 1931; this version was directed by Roy Del Ruth and starred Ricardo Cortez as Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Hammett’s novel was adapted again five years later as a light comedy, Satan Met A Lady (which was directed by William Dieterle and starred Warren William as Spade and Bette Davis as O’Shaughnessy). Unable to re-release the 1931 version due to the Hays Office and the Production Code, Warner Bros. adapted Hammett’s novel for a third time in 1941. This version would mark the directorial debut of screenwriter John Huston and featured Humphrey Bogart as Spade. I recently had a chance to finally see Huston’s The Maltese Falcon on the big screen thanks to NCM Fathom and Turner Classic Movies, and it surely lived up to the hype.
1941’s The Maltese Falcon follows a private detective in San Francisco who becomes embroiled with three unsavory individuals (who are trying to acquire a statuette of a jewel-encrusted falcon) and must figure out which one of them killed his partner. Huston brought together an incredible cast that includes Bogart (as Sam Spade), Mary Astor (as Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Gladys George (as Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (as Joel Cairo), Barton MacLane (as Lieutenant Dundy), Lee Patrick (as Effie Perine), Sydney Greenstreet (as Kasper Gutman), Ward Bond (as Detective Tom Polhaus), Jerome Cowan (as Miles Archer), Elisha Cook Jr. (as Wilmer Cook), Murray Alper (as Frank Richman), and John Hamilton (as District Attorney Bryan). Bogart is excellent as Spade, bringing ambiguity, honor, and greed to the character. Bogart’s performance was so acclaimed that it set the private detective archetype for the entire film noir genre. Astor shines as the film’s femme fatale (one of film noir’s earliest and best). Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Sydney Greenstreet is vicious and menacing as Gutman in his feature film debut (he was a theater veteran, however). Lorre is creepy as the deceitful Cairo (due to the Production Code, he uses certain gestures to subtly suggest his character’s homosexuality).
Huston’s screenplay (an Oscar nominee for Best Writing, Screenplay) is a largely faithful adaptation of Hammett’s novel (certain elements had to be toned down or removed due to the Production Code). Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography enhances the tone of the film, using low-key lighting and unusual angles (some of the shots of Gutman are low angle shots to emphasize his large size). Thomas Richards’ editing keeps the film moving at an excellent pace, and Adolph Deutsch delivers an extremely sparse yet thrilling score. The Maltese Falcon is a towering, suspenseful, Best Picture Oscar nominee filled with riveting performances and was one of the earliest film noirs (not to mention that it marked the first of several collaborations between Huston and Bogart, who became friends during the making of The Maltese Falcon, and is, of course, an American film classic that has endured for 75 years).