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The Maltese Falcon Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Maltese Falcon Review

    “I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”

    Okay, so you’re happily walking round the house naked when, all of a sudden, the door opens and your girlfriend, along with her parents are standing there. Basically, you’ve got no chance with this one, have you? There’s nothing you can say that is going to get you out of such an embarrasing situation is there? Well, there is … if you happen to be Sam Spade, that is. Never in the history of cinema has one man, embodied perfectly here, in John Huston's excellent 1941 picture, The Maltese Falcon, by Humphrey Bogart, been so quick or so convincing with desperate, off-the-cuff, on-the-hoof, hair-trigger excuses and explanations for otherwise totally incriminating situations. God knows what he would have come up with to skip out of danger with the aforementioned scenario … but you can be sure that it would have worked brilliantly and he would have come up smelling of roses too.

    “We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your two hundred dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.”

    Filmed twice and subsequently botched twice before – first in 1931 and starring Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, and then again in 1936 under the title Satan Met A Lady, with Bette Davis and Warren William – it was John Huston who finally managed to wrestle Hammett's labyrinthine plot successfully to the screen. It wrapped on-time and in-budget and despite the studio taking a chance on its new leading man, became a massive hit for Warner that not only put the legendary Humphrey Bogart on the map but created an entirely new genre, to boot. Based on upon pulp crime writer Dashiell Hammett's much lauded novel of the same name, The Maltese Falcon, actually written for the screen by Huston, introduced audiences to the shadowy world of film-noir and made priceless and influential use of the now stereotypical format of hard-boiled detectives, dangerous femme fatales, untrustworthy alliances and a plot revolving entirely around a Mcguffin. The gangster movies of the thirties hadn't gone down without a fight, but this was a stealth attack on the underworld pot-boiler that seemed both fresh and darkly witty, both of the times and yet existing within a strange new landscape of shadows and neon, suspicious minds and cigarette smoke. The common hero no longer had a place, but then nor did the conventional villain either. Everyone, it seemed, was on the take, and the moral high-ground was a virtual no-man's land of guilt and broken honour. America was on the eve of entering the Second World War, and the thriller was assuming a preparatory role to warn of the dark and terrible times ahead. It would spearhead the “trust no-one” ethos and advise that loyalties were apt to dissolve and swap around at the drop of a hat. In short, to beat the baddie you had to be something of a baddie, yourself. It was a bold and an incredibly shrewd move that would forever alter the standards by which a crime thriller would be measured.

    An ex-Pinkerton Agent, himself, Hammett found the real voice and character of the private detective for his stories, and provided him with the gritty and convoluted situations that he would often find himself in. He poured this knowledge into a series of hard-boiled short stories for the famous Black Mask magazine, and then explored the theme with deeper relevance and a more cynical, hard-bitten vein of anti-heroic crusade in the detective novels of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe that would go on to become the foundation stone for the classic noir-style gumshoe-caper that would thrive even on into the seventies, when the vogue returned with some vigour. For The Maltese Falcon, Hammett blended fact with fiction to create what many consider to be the perfect American detective noir. His hook is centred around a glorious golden falcon, encrusted from from head to foot with the finest jewels, that was supposedly a gift from the Order of The Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem to King Charles V of Spain, in return for his bequeathing them the island of Malta. The galleon carrying this treasure was plundered and the falcon believed lost. Loosely based upon truth – King Charles V actually took payments of live birds of prey – Hammett posits that the mythical falcon then resurfaced at various junctures in history thereafter, leaving a Time Team style map of incidence that finally leads all the way up to modern-day San Francisco … well, Sam Spade's San Francisco of the early 40’s.

    So, we have our highly prized Mcguffin – all we need now are some determined desperadoes hell-bent on getting their mitts on it. And even though things aren't initially as straight forward as basic good guy/bad guy, there is certainly a colourful and dastardly crew converging on this bullion-buzzard. And that includes Spade!

    “You always have a very smooth explanation.”

    “What do you want me to do … learn to stutter?”

    Sam Spade (the role that would propel Bogart to stardom) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are partners in a San Francisco private detective agency. They have a light bantering relationship that draws a veil over some concealed treacheries, Spade is actually sleeping with Archer’s wife, Iva (Gladys George), and apparently doesn’t much care for either of them. He is a laconic, world-weary cynic. He’s seen it all before and done it all already. He knows that the city outside their office is a sick and dangerous place – but he likes it that way. In fact, he couldn’t exist without its nefarious double-dealing and backstabbing, his mindset is one that is glued on the reality lurking between the lines, the face behind the mask. When a certain Miss Wanderly enlists their services with a clearly bogus cover story, a simple night's investigation ends with Miles getting plugged and Spade coming under scrutiny from the cops (a resolutely bad cop, worse cop routine from Barton McClane and Ward Bond) for the murder. Things have clearly taken a turn for the unconventional. Spade – if you’ll pardon the pun – digs a little deeper and unearths a complex web of intrigue surrounding the fabled Maltese Falcon. Miss Wanderly (Mary Astor) is really Brigid O’ Shaughnessy, a woman with more hidden faces than a set of those Russian dolls. Around her are a troupe of grubby rogues and mobsters who all want the coveted bird statue … and are prepared to kill for it. Sam Spade swiftly finds himself up to his neck in trouble, and is forced to use all of his skills to try to unravel the threads of this deadly set-up, find the Falcon before the others do, clear his name and stay alive. But keeping one step ahead means that he will often have to take the fight to the enemy.

    Nobody is quite what they seem, and nothing works out according to plan. The mood is clearly dangerous, but also one that is frothy with trickery and beset by mind-games. You know that Spade is a two-fisted type of guy, but he will have to use much more than that vicious streak to get to the bottom of this unorthodox case. The fact that the film was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay – is proof enough that everyone involved with the production raised their game and tried to think outside the box.

    The casting was exemplary, one of those lightning in a bottle concoctions. Mary Astor was a notorious Hollywood minx and her scandalous lifestyle was injected into the femme fatale of the fractious Brigid. However, I think a few modern eyebrows will be raised when her character, before we have even clapped eyes upon her, is described as a “knockout” by Sam's dependable secretary Effie (Lee Patrick). Lauren Bacall or Ingrid Bergman she most certainly is not. But she is a fine actress nevertheless, and makes a meal of such juicy and deceptive material, though attempting to play Sam Spade for a fool is possibly the most foolish thing anyone could do, and will ultimately blow back into her face. Although he based her partly on his own formidable assistant at the Agency, Hammett would write better female characters than this ever-scheming temptress. Astor, however, gives Brigid a vulnerability that would convince anyone other than the cold-hearted Sam, and a self-centred core that is quick to respond to each new setback or accusation. Far from dragging the story down into a wallowing mire of self-pity and time-wasting romance, her charade is an integral element of the narrative.

    For someone who was apparently so terrified of appearing in front of the camera that he had Astor hold his hand during his first day’s shooting, stage-actor Sydney Greenstreet makes a stunning big screen debut. And let’s be honest, they needed a big screen to accommodate him and his wobbling, top-heavy girth. As the ironically monikered Gutman, Greenstreet embodies the pantomimic villainy of the semi-aristocratic, greed-fuelled treasure-seeker who becomes Sam’s main obstacle to a tee. Civil and educated, refined and obsessed almost to the point of apoplexy (as we see during one alarming moment), Gutman is not your usual nemesis. It is possible that he even served as something as a template or influence for the cultured Bondian megalomaniac that would come in the sixties and seventies. This isn't a man who will ever get his hands dirty – he has minions for that sort of thing – and he is evidently someone who enjoys the thrill of the chase, and the enigmatic game-playing with an enemy that he considers of almost equal measure to himself. He revels in Spade's quickfire retorts and demands, recognises a worthy opponent in him and almost bathes in the temporary joining of intellects that his own goons fail to deliver. That he would receive the Oscar nod for the part would alleviate many of his fears and trepidations about stepping off the stage, and Greenstreet would go on to carve a memorable screen career off the back of The Maltese Falcon.

    The film is also blessed with one of those immediately recognisable faces in the great Peter Lorre, who essays the more typically charismatic toad that he would become famous for portraying film after film. As the seedy, whining Joel Cairo, a role that he claimed was one of his favourites, I actually find him a little underwhelming. So great in a vast number of films spanning different genres – M, The Beast With Five Fingers, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and, of course, Casablanca – he actually appears perhaps a touch too, well, normal here for those anticipating that wretchedly deviant slant he was so good at supplying. Somehow, to complete the circuit of the era’s round-table of scenery-chewing characterisation, we want him to be weirder, and more creepy. Cairo doesn’t make the skin crawl, and nor is he such a major player in the scheme of things – just another Falcon-disciple to add to the human set-dressing.

    “I hope you're not letting yourself be influenced by the guns these pocket-edition desperadoes are waving around, because I've practised taking guns from these boys before; so we'll have no trouble there.”

    Conversely, the younger and less recognisable Elisha Cook Jnr makes more of an impression as the eager, thuggish lackey, Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s less-than-intimidating henchman. With aspirations of notoriety, Wilmer talks the talk and tries to act tough, but he comes undone each and every time he butts attitudes against Spade, who takes great pleasure in putting him down with ease. There is a convincing amorality to him, though, that means he will think nothing of wasting a guy, or setting fire to a ship (possibly the film's grandest moment, cleverly filmed almost as a visual throwaway) as casually as swatting a fly. But when it comes to a deed more brain-taxing than simple destruction, he flounders in the face of decision-making. You want him to kick someone in the face – which he does, with a shocking conviction for the era – then he is above reproach. You want him to carry out a mission that involves actual deliberation and situational weighing-up, then you are asking for trouble.

    Huston even drafts-in his father, Walter, to play the part of the doomed sea captain-cum-delivery-boy (“He can’t have come far … he’s got too many holes in him!”) and even if it is a pretty much thankless yet pivotal role, he would go on to bless his old man with another Academy recognised performance in the excellent The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, in which Walter Huston played the veteran gold prospector who leads Bogart and Tim Holt on their odyssey of adventure, greed and murderous obsession. The film is decidedly and very consciously a character-piece, which accounts for the excessive verbiage that spurs the action along. Everyone wants their slice of the cake, and with Hammett’s wry dialogue so eloquently grafted onto the screen – they get it, too.

    “Look at me, Sam. You worry me. You always think you know what you're doing, but you're too slick for your own good. Some day you're going to find it out.”

    Asides from the clandestine shooting that sparks off a lot of the intrigue and a little game of cat-and-mouse between Spade and Wilmer as they use doorways, street-corners and taxi-cabs to give one another the slip, the film is mostly played out in offices, hotel lobbies and apartments. But it never feels restricted or theatrical as a consequence of this locational limitation. True, the film could very effectively be performed as a three-act stage-play – and I’m sure that it has been – but the verbal sparring and mind games that we see being perpetrated in practically every scene genuinely make the film seem strenuous and fast and kinetic. You can see the characters being forced to think on their feet, excuses tumbling over lies and explanations falling broken to the floor and then getting hastily rearranged and rebuilt during almost every exchange. In this way the film cannot help but be theatrical, yet innately suspenseful. So much of it depends on the delivery of leading or misleading dialogue that the game is played-out with words rather than fists. Bryan Singer attempted such a feat with The Usual Suspects, as did the Coen Brothers before him with Miller’s Crossing, and created modern crime movie masterpieces, so the wisw-ass ethos definitely works. Singer even had a character in his film actually called Verbal, which pointedly proves the point. But the style was put in-place by Hammett’s original scenario and Huston’s insistence on such whipcrack smarts, and a total trust in his actors to carry it off.

    “If you kill me, how are you gonna get the bird? And if I know you can't afford to kill me, how are you gonna scare me into giving it to you?”

    Sam Spade became an iconic character off the back of this, and yet his cinematic trail of exploits is not all that prolific. Personally, I much prefer Philip Marlowe as a character. Spade is too eel-like to ever pin down, whilst Marlowe is a hulk of broken, cynical nobility. He is more laid-back, more casually self-aware, but just as driven and dogged as Spade when his nose is twitching. What separates them is the fact that Bogart’s inaugural gumshoe has a streak of self destructive desperation about him. We know that he’s going to be all right – there’s never really any question about that – but one of the key elements that makes his interpretation of Spade so indelible is that he, himself, doesn’t know that. It is a wonderful touch that we are permitted to see Spade’s hand visibly shaking after he has played the tough guy with Gutman during their first meeting. It shows that even in this hard-boiled world of constant death and deceit, even the most brazen and cocksure detective knows that he is not completely impervious and could come a serious cropper if his luck should fail or his cover collapse around him. But then the film is all about calling the bluff. Everyone is lying to one another and it would take a mighty sieve to sift through the double-talk and all the glamorous subterfuge to glean out the truth from this royally embellished shaggy-dog story. But Spade is the best in the business at verbal camouflage and this comes from his barely concealed sense of permanent danger and an utter distrust of all those around him.

    The ease with which he identifies Wilmer in the hotel lobby for what he is, and then continues to belittle him and elude him as each new encounter arises is a joy to behold. As is his courage under fire – literally, when someone’s got a gun on him. But there is a great sense of Spade acting tough because he knows from experience that even with just bluff and bravado he can come out on top of many an awkward situation. This, of course, is born out of Hammett’s own experiences as a Pinkerton detective. The writer infused the written character of Sam Spade with such necessarily ruthless attributes and both Huston and Bogart were able to successfully fuse them onto his celluloid counterpart. It was widely regarded that Hammett was actually describing himself when he created Sam Spade, although the author always denied this. (In fact, almost all the character in The Maltese Falcon were based upon real acquaintances of his.) Keeping a cool head in times of stress is one thing, but Spade also conveys the fragility of such a measure. There’s another great moment when he calls Effie after waking up from a drug-induced stupor and that vicious kick to the head that Wilbur so expertly and cruelly delivers to inform her of the new and hastily re-jigged plan. “Let’s do something for right for a change,” he tells her, more as a harsh reproach to himself for having fallen for such a ruse in the first place than for any reflection upon how the investigation is going. It is therefore far easier to empathise with him than a dozen other hard-nosed private investigators.

    “When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it.”

    The film also stood apart from contemporary American thrillers because it contained the stylistic touch of German Expressionism. This was no horror film, of course, but in Huston’s hands it became moulded with dark and angular shadows across its often meagre sets that produced a thick and sinister life of their own, masking swathes of the story in clandestine visual skulduggery. Like the characters that populate it, the film is coiled and taut, desperate to hide its true self behind the veil of grim murk that spreads across the screen. Low camera angles from the great Arthur Edeson, the man who painted nightmares around Boris Karloff with his ravishing work on Frankenstein and The Old Dark House (both reviewed separately on DVD) and would also lens Bogie again in Casablanca, promote this bleak and unsettling mood, putting us in the precariously complicit place of concealment, almost as though we are peeping out at events from the gloom of stairwells or doorways. Huston knew that he had to fully embrace the atmosphere of Hammett’s dangerous world if he was to grab his audience by the scruff of the neck, the very thing that would help The Maltese Falcon change the face of the cinematic thriller – which were, of course, the very things that the previous adaptations had completely forgotten about … to their detriment. Thus, the film feels propelled with adrenaline and mystery even when all the major players are sitting in the same room and nothing surprising could be developing elsewhere.

    “By Gad, sir, you are a character. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.”

    Everyone raves about that protracted final act, in which all our characters are forced to spend a night together as they try to inveigle the Falcon into or out of their possession, using verbal one-upmanship, desperate negotiation, lies, lies and more lies, and then a few distressing home truths in last-ditch defence. Holed-up in Spade’s apartment, this becomes an endless spiral of Scooby-Doo explanations, in-fighting and crafty, bogusly-forged alliances. Gutman looms large over the awkward situation, clucking mischievously over every proffered solution and preposterous ultimatum that Spade dishes out with unflappable staccato insistence, like a conveyer-belt of ideas. O’ Shaughnessy pouts and preens and “pretends” with wily stubbornness that she isn’t skating on thin ice. Poor Wilmer discovers that all the threatening stances and loyalty in the world aren’t going to do him any favours when the chips are down. And Cairo hovers incessantly, like a pollen-addled bee, with those bug-eyes, in the background. The lengthy sequence is over-wordy, stricken with sadly all-too-vital exposition and a strange lack of suspense despite the imminent unveiling. Just when the mystery should be getting tighter around our necks, like a noose, Huston seems to let the affair stifle to a comic close. I’ve never been as fully satisfied by this set-piece, despite the brilliance of the dialogue and the fantastically grotesque reaction from Greenstreet’s Gutman at a crucial moment, as with the rest of the film. But then this is all part of the new genre that we can see developing on-screen right before our very eyes. No erstwhile gangster shoot-em-up, or last-minute pursuit of the villain across the rooftops. This, as Hammett knew, was how such deals often ended. With disappointment, failure or reluctant stalemate. Thus, The Maltese Falcon broke the mould and reset things with a sort of grim realism. There is no such thing as a happy ending according Dashiell Hammett, just a few scores settled, and a couple of old wounds reopened.

    The film is unquestionably a classic, genre-forming and evergreen. The final-act’s queer stagnation is capped by a wonderfully downbeat climax, the sort of thing that would become a cool swipe of starkly bleak anti-sensationalism. To see the film on Blu-ray is a simple and unreserved joy. With this, Casablanca, The African Queen and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Bogey makes the leap to hi-definition with distinction. All we need now is The Big Sleep.

    The Rundown

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