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 – - -
Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born in 1899. The son of a surgeon, he actually studied medicine himself for a brief while. He was a poor student, however, and a trouble-maker. After being expelled from prep school, he wound up doing a stint in the Navy. When that finished, Bogart turned to acting. He began acting on Broadway in the early 1920s. However, after the stock market crash of 1929 plunged the country into depression and reduced demand for plays, Bogart was forced to turn to films for work.
After five years of minor film roles, Bogart had his breakthrough role in “The Petrified Forest” (1936). He nearly lost the role to Edward G. Robinson, but the film’s star, Leslie Howard, told Warner Brothers he would walk unless Bogart was given the key role of Duke Mantee. Bogart had played the same role alongside Howard in the Broadway play. Bogart got the part, the film was a major success, and he was given a long-term contract with Warner Brothers as a result. Bogart would eventually name his daughter Leslie out of gratitude to Howard for helping him get his big break.
He was a prolific, hard-working actor. In the thirteen odd years he had been working in movies prior to “The Maltese Falcon”, Bogart amassed 43 film credits on his resume. But with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” released in the same year, 1941 is considered the year he became a superstar. He would go on to an illustrious career. He has 81 credits to his name on IMDb, including such legendary films as “Casablanca”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen”
AFI would eventually rank him as the greatest star in the history of American cinema.
The movie was based on the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was a detective, himself… a Pinkerton. He drew on his own experiences to create the characters in his novels. Perhaps that’s why they seemed so authentic. His character Sam Spade is widely considered to be the progenitor of the “hard-boiled detective”. Outside of “The Maltese Falcon”, Spade only appeared in a few other Hammett short stories, and yet he’s considered the start of an entire character archetype.
“The Maltese Falcon” is actually a remake. Warner Brothers released a version in 1931 that was a critical and commercial success. Yet when the studio attempted to rerelease the movie in 1936, they ran into difficulties with the “Hays Code” (the ancestor of the MPAA), which had been implemented since the film’s initial release. The film was now considered to contain “lewd content”… So instead they greenlit a new, loosely based adaptation of the material: “Satan Met a Lady” with Bette Davis. That version is widely regarded as a cheap knockoff at best.
With two previous versions having been released within the last decade, Warner Brothers wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to make a third. But Jack Warner had been given an exciting new treatment by an up and coming screenwriter. It stayed more closely to the novel. It kept much of Hammett’s dialogue. It kept the darker tone. The only thing is, the screenwriter wanted his first shot to direct. So Warner took a chance…
On John Huston.
John Huston was a legendary Hollywood director. His career spanned five decades, over the course of which he directed 37 films. He was nominated for 15 Oscars: 8 times for his screenwriting, 5 times as Best Director, once for Best Supporting Actor, and once as producer for Best Picture nominee “Moulin Rouge” (1952). He would win Oscars for both his screenplay for and his direction of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). He directed 15 actors and actresses to Academy Award Nominations… including Oscar wins for his father, Walter (“Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) and his daughter, Anjelica (“Prizzi’s Honor”).
AFI awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1982.
He would do a remarkable job here. He extensively storyboarded and planned the shooting, so that the film could be shot in sequential order, which in turn would help the performances. He utilized dim, low-level lighting to highlight the film’s dark tones, and cutting edge camera work to emphasize the off-kilter world.
With such classic source material, one of the greatest stars of all time ready to break out, and one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors taking the reins for the first time in his career, “The Maltese Falcon” was primed for greatness.
And it did not disappoint.
It’s the story of a private detective who gets involved with a “femme fatale” (Mary Astor)… a woman who comes to his office with ulterior motives, resulting in fatal consequences. Shortly after accepting her case, Spade’s partner is killed while surveilling the man she had hired them to tail. Spade is quickly embroiled in a complicated situation. As he tries to uncover the truth behind the killing of his partner, the police suspect his involvement, he’s followed, drugged, people are drawing guns on him, and his client constantly keeps lying to him…
But Sam Spade is more than up to the challenge. More than up to it. He’s observant, quick witted, and tough. He speaks rapidly, with a machine-gun like staccato. Even though HE’S the one trying to figure things out, he seems a step ahead of everyone. He’s sarcastic, self-interested, roguish. Mischievous. He’s got nerves of steel… he doesn’t flinch when guns are drawn on him, he just snatches the weapon and smacks his assailants around. His moral compass is often drawn into question. It occasionally seems as if he’s extorting people, at times you wonder what side he’s on, and at the end, you’re certainly wondering if he’ll actually do the right thing.
He’s up against collection of fantastic villains. Peter Lorre is one of the most weaselly henchmen of all time. As the short, big eyed, accented, untrustworthy Joel Cairo, Lorre creates an unforgettable character. Initially he appears with a cash offer for Spade, asking him to turn over the statue of a black bird, should he find it. It’s the first time the Maltese Falcon is mentioned. Later it becomes obvious that Cairo and his cohorts are willing to do anything to obtain it.
His “employer” is the mysterious Fat Man. Not shown for the first half of the film, Kasper Gutman turns out to be the driving force behind the search for the Maltese Falcon. Played by Sydney Greenstreet, Gutman is smug, yet polite. A menacing man. Shrewd and calculating, he tries to cut Spade in on the plot, gambling that Spade’s self-interest would win out and that he would succumb to the large sums of money involved. Though a veteran stage actor, this role was Greenstreet’s first on film. He would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Together, Cairo and the Fat Man make an incredible villain/henchman team-up. The skeevy errand boy and the rotund, over-confident boss.
Lorre and Greenstreet would collaborate on nine films together over the course of their careers.
This motley cast of characters engage in a chase for the priceless statue that winds up involving theft, arson and multiple homicides. Spade, in the middle of it, plays coy with the villains, convincing them that he’s for sale. The dame falls for him. The goons tail him. The DA and the cops are on his back. But every step of the way, he gets closer to discovering the truth about what happened to his partner…
And more than anything, the answer is that his partner became a victim of people’s greed. Its revealed that Gutman and Cairo have dedicated years of their lives to the pursuit of the statue, committing untold crimes over that time. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Spade’s femme fatale client, is herself driven to murder. The crooks turn on each other, they lie, they try to set each other up. Lucrative offers of partnership are made that, one gets the feeling, would never be honored. It’s dog eat dog as the greed blinds the players to their unconscionable actions.
Spade eventually gets to the truth. It was O’Shaughnessy who killed his partner, in an attempt to frame her accomplice for murder, freeing her to make her own play at the bird. She pleads with Spade not to turn her in, playing on the feelings they’ve been developing for each other. And he actually weighs the options… but in the end, he sends her to her justice. Potentially to capital punishment. The cops arrive to take her away, and the elevator gates close in front of her like the doors of a jail cell.
It’s a film with a dark heart. No one is innocent, and the greed takes an enormous toll on the movie’s world. The hero is a man with a hardened heart. When the truth is discovered, it’s bitter and painful. All the more so in light of the fact that the sought-after statue was actually a replica. A fugazi, a fake. Instead of chasing a priceless artifact, the suspects had in fact been futilely jumping and grasping at air, trying to capture “the stuff that dreams are made of”.
“The Maltese Falcon” defines “classic”. It’s done more than withstand the test of time, its come to represent timelessness. It clocked in at #23 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies and stayed strong at #31 on the tenth anniversary edition. It ranks as their #6 Mystery of all time, and “The stuff that dreams are made of” cracks their top 20 Movie Quotes, coming in at #14. It was nominated for three academy awards in 1941, including Best Picture, but like “Citizen Kane” that same year, it wound up losing to “How Green Was My Valley”.
The Library of Congress selected “The Maltese Falcon” for inclusion and preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989, so that future generations will be guaranteed the opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest mystery movies ever.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.