Warner Bros., 100 minutes
TCM Big Screen Classics 75th Anniversary Event
2/21 and 2/24 at over 650 cinemas nationwide
Introduction and closing from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz
In recognition of the film's 75th anniversary, Turner Classic Movies in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment has returned THE MALTESE FALCON to theatrical exhibition this week. All movies are best witnessed on the big screen, especially the greatest movies. That is the premise of this year's TCM Big Screen Classic presentations each month, along with the related idea there are enough people willing to pay for the experience to justify re-releases of classic cinema in the digital age. We can only hope there is enough public interest to keep the presentations flowing throughout select theaters for years to come.
THE MALTESE FALCON marked the directorial debut of John Huston, who would team with its star Humphrey Bogart again for ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942), THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), KEY LARGO (1948), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) and BEAT THE DEVIL (1953). Whether THE MALTESE FALCON constitutes the best effort of that group I will leave for others to debate, but there is little doubt that it was their most important collaboration. Many of the key elements that would define the film noir movement are there: the narrative's origin in a hard-boiled detective novel (this one authored by Dashiell Hammett), a complex web of a story, a gritty urban setting, a tough-as-nails PI whose moral code trumps the rules established by society's institutions, a duplicitous dame, exotic villains, a dark and sinister atmosphere, and not the happiest of conclusions. All of these genre conventions would gather steam throughout the 1940s and 1950s. One of the best is THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), also directed by Huston. But the more crucial film noir was THE MALTESE FALCON since it impacted every crime film that came after it.
For a film originally released 75 years ago, during a time when the rigors of the Production Code monitored Hollywood content, it is remarkable how tough a cookie Samuel Spade (Bogart) really is, and how little he is bothered by things that would make the average man shake in his boots. When he learns his smarmy PI partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been found dead, Spade's only initial reaction is, "Where?" Maybe that is because Spade had been fooling around with Archer's wife Iva (Gladys George), but it is more about a cynical world view that permeates the entire film. Later when Captain Jacoby (Walter Huston, uncredited) staggers into Spade's office and dies, Spade only regrets the man did not live a bit longer so he could have been questioned. Not even his love for a woman can alter the course that Spade's moral compass provides ("If they hang you, I'll always remember you."). So closely associated with the role is Bogart it is hard to believe he only became involved with the project after George Raft declined the role.
The invaluable falcon statuette that causes the film's characters to collide is a lot less interesting than the characters themselves. With her portrayal of Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Mary Astor established the femme fatale archetype that would distinguish the film noir cycle, especially in the mid-to-late '40s. O'Shaughnessy is a great-looking woman, but cannot be trusted for anything but endless betrayal. At one point she even admits she is a chronic liar. Despite all of her obvious flaws, Spade still struggles with handing her over to the cops. That is what makes her so dangerous—men want to believe in her, even when they know she is thoroughly deceptive. Iva Archer is not a much better representation of woman; she seems fine about her husband being out of the way since she prefers Spade anyway. Spade's faithfully attentive assistant Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) embodies the film’s ideal female, one with traits Spade considers more representative of a trustworthy male. Interestingly, she does not see O'Shaughnessy to be the menace she actually is. The assortment of criminals is led by Kasper Gutman, a man of culture as portrayed by Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran of the stage making his screen debut. Gutman's gunman/boyfriend Wilmer Cook is perfectly realized in a supporting performance by Elisha Cook Jr., who made a long career of playing wannabes not built to last.
I have screened THE MALTESE FALCON in many different home video incarnations, but the large screen experience made me more aware of the film's finer details, especially in terms of its exceptional performances. O'Shaughnessy comes close to cracking up when Spade bamboozles the police. Wilmer Cook indeed looks like the "boy" he is accused of being when he realizes he has been deemed the most expedient fall guy. With his scented calling card, the flamboyant Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) makes a perfect nemesis for Spade; talk about two polar opposites in one room! In a film absolutely loaded with great lines, Cairo probably has the best one when he tells Spade, "Our private conversations have not been such that I am anxious to continue them."
Hammett's 1929 novel was filmed twice before the Huston interpretation. Director Roy Del Ruth's early "talkie" THE MALTESE FALCON was released in 1931, followed by William Dieterle's SATAN MET A LADY in 1936. The second film's cinematographer Arthur Edeson served in the same capacity for the Huston film, definitely the standout of the three adaptations. Academy Award nominations included Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet).