Thursday, April 30, 2015

Maltese Falcon, The (1941)

Director: John Huston


Commonly referred to as the first “film noir” picture, The Maltese Falcon would help cement Humphrey Bogart’s career as a major movie star and launched first-time director John Huston on a path to becoming one of the finest filmmakers in cinema history. In time the picture would be hailed as the quintessential detective movie and remains an all-time Hollywood classic. With a first rate cast and brilliant cinematography the feature would set unwritten standards by which most detective films for decades would be measured.

The Maltese Falcon is a film noir detective story about a private investigator who takes on a simple missing person case that turns into a deadly and sinister pursuit for a missing legendary treasure. Private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) begins to feel things are amiss when his case to help a new client’s sister leads to the death of Spade’s partner as well has his murderer. These deaths pull Spade into the middle of three individuals, the woman who drug Spade into the case under a false identity named Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), the awkward esentric Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and the rotund boss-like adventurer Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) all attempting at most any cost to find a fabled treasure of the past, the Maltese Falcon. Through a psychological, deadly chess game with the three and Spade, Sam finds himself in possession of statue and sells it to Gutman, who discovers it to be a fake all along. Gutman and Cairo set out on continual pursuit of Gutman’s prize, while Spade tips the police to where they can arrest the duo. O’Shaughnessy opens up to Spade and her growing affection for him, but never to play the sap card Spade allows the police to take her in for the murder of his partner.

The film’s remarkable cinematic quality creates dramatic angles and contrasts with light and darkness to produce what many film historians deem the first film noir piece in cinema history. Under the helm of debut director John Huston, a long time screenwriter for Warner Bros., the picture was meticulously planned with an early form of storyboarding to design every shot down to the placement of lights and camera angles. The film shines as a beautiful mystery that continues to grow in complexity performed by a collection of great actors that by chance happened to come together as a magnificent cohesive unit.

As John Huston was looking for his first directorial endeavor Warner Bros gave the writer/director a shot with material that had already produced two failures at the box office for the studio. The plot of Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been adapted in the Pre-Code era in 1931’s version starring Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, and later as a lighter comedy starring Bette Davis and Warren Williams that changed many aspects of the story. It appears Warner’s was giving Huston the go ahead on a property they had already owned and would presume as a low risk production. Huston’s efforts were to keep as close the source material with the exception of avoiding the sexual innuendos that would have never passed censors.

With a poor history surrounding the material and a first time director, the casting of the picture would not go as originally planned. This actually played very well into the ultimate outcome of the picture. Star Warner Bros. actor George Raft was originally intended for the role of Sam Spade, but turned down the production for his little faith material and in Huston as a first-time director. Once again Humphrey Bogart would step in and happily take on the role Raft was hesitant to play, much like that of High Sierra, which helped launch his career. Bogart’s Spade catapulted himself to stardom as and cemented himself as a strong leading man for Warner Bros., manifesting a major mistake by Raft.

Mary Astor would be the most notable name on the cast sheet of the picture as most other cast members were lesser known performers. Peter Lorre, a newly naturalized citizen in the United States, was have difficulties with filmmakers finding proper roles for him during the period, commonly cast in B-pictures once he arrived in America due to his odd look and demeanor. However Huston found him peculiarly perfect as Cairo, a man that was always juggling multiple thoughts in his head at the same time. Small time actor Elisha Cook Jr. would find his role as the stooge gunman Wilmer as his most memorable role of his career which, up to this point, was filled with lesser gangster roles where he was usually the fall guy.

Stage actor Sydney Greenstreet here makes his film debut in a performance that garnered him an Academy Award nomination as “the fat man” (ironically named Gutman) who pursues the elusive Maltese Falcon. As seen here, all but Astor were relative no ones in major films for Warner Bros. and to cast them in a picture the studio was putting little faith in. However, director John Huston was concocting a true gem of a picture with a master plan of thrilling drama.

Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Humphrey Bogart
The feature marked the unofficial beginning to an unofficial partnership between director John Huston and actors Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. Together through the coming years these talents would run up an impressive résumé of motion pictures that were some of the better films of their days.

The Maltese Falcon opened to immediate critical praise, launching the careers of Huston, Bogart, and Greenstreet as name stars in Hollywood. Apart from Huston and Greenstreet receiving Academy Award nominations, the film would also be up for Best Picture, proving that this film which had little faith behind it was a master work of a new filmmaker on the scene.

Attempts were made by Warner Bros. to have a sequel produced for The Maltese Falcon after its popular success. However, with Huston’s triumph the director became a bit of a demanding filmmaker soon after. Couple that with the busy schedules of the film’s major stars the attempt to produce “The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon” would never gain serious traction towards being produced.

Through the years The Maltese Falcon has been praised by film critics and historians alike as being one of the finest films in Hollywood’s history. The American Film Institute would name the feature to many of its “Top” lists, including both the 1998 and 2007 list for best American films of all time. The picture would help usher in a new style of motion picture which came to be known as “film noir” which was usually darker and stylistic form of motion picture with a cynical look at the world. In 1989 the picture would be of the first class of films added to the newly formed National Film Registry as preserved treasures of the motion pictures made in the United States.

Along with legendary movie props, such as the many pairs of famed ruby red slippers form The Wizard of Oz, the few prop “falcons” used for this feature have become treasures within the world of movie-enthusiasts. Recorded auctions and sales of various prop falcons used during the film’s production have sold for hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars which further adds to the lore of the 1941 feature film.

Looking back on the picture The Maltese Falcon remains one of the signature classics films that continues to transcend time as beloved feature Hollywood’s illustrious history. Bogart’s performance as Sam Spade had become the style in which all private investigators archetypes would be modeled after, first in admiration, then in parody since no one can be Bogart’s Sam Spade other than Bogart here. Contemporary audiences continue to look back on the feature with admiration and fondness as a film that is near perfect in many eyes.

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