Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What a pair of debuts.

This film noir classic was the first screen credit for director John Huston and actor Sydney Greenstreet. The Maltese Falcon (1941)pushed actor Humphrey Bogart into superstardom for the next 16 years until his death in 1957.

Yet for all of this, plus a challenging plot that needs to be jotted down to be followed, The Maltese Falcon didn't win a single Oscar. Yes, Huston's first effort earned three nods (supporting role for Greenstreet, screenplay for Huston and best picture). But The Maltese Falcon didn't win a single Academy Award. Oh well, Citizen Kane lost out to How Green Was My Valley for best picture. How many Oscars did James Cameron's Titanic win again? Life ain't fair.

How best to simplify this film's story? Here goes. Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) wants help from private eye Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart). She fears her sister's safety is in jeapordy because of the man she is with. A generous retainer puts Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) on the job.

The gumshoes soon learn O'Shaughnessy is more than liberal with the truth. Archer gets knocked off and Spade finds himself up to his eyeballs in a cat and mouse game with O'Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) for possession of The Maltese Falcon. This trio all wants to get its hands on the priceless statue laden with rare gems. Gutman has one of his hoods, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook), unsuccessfully track and intimidate Spade. "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter," Spade spits out at one point.

Spade falls for O'Shaughnessy, but knows she keeps conning him.

Cairo is the bumbler of the bunch, a hood who keeps getting outclassed by Spade. "Look what you did to my shirt," he tells Spade after he gets roughed up. Lorre gets the few funny lines in this film. "Our private conversations have not been such that I'm anxious to continue them," Cairo tells Spade after the private eye suggests they meet one-on-one.

Gutman - love the name, Greenstreet is a very large man - is the most civil of the bunch. But his years-long determination to find the falcon means he's OK with a little violence to get his prize. Spade has to match wits with all these characters while police suggest he murdered Archer because of his affair with his wife, Ida (Gladys George). For such a smart guy, Spade's choice in women looks a little iffy. Even Ida wonders if her lover has blood has on his hands. She asks him, "Sam, did you kill him?," shortly after her hubby's demise.

The Maltese Falcon reminds me of Key Largo , reviewed on this site last week. In both films, Bogart's characters need to be as sharp mentally to watch wits with his foes. He'll use violence if necessary, but his words and tactics are effective weapons too.

Great film. Great cast. Someday I even might be able to follow the plot without a scratch pad. Watch this film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Greenstreet's screen time was brief. He appeared in 25 productions between 1941 and 1949 including another Hollywood classic, Casablanca.

Ward Bond, a detective in The Maltese Falcon, was Bert in It's a Wonderful Life

Barton MacLane, another policeman in The Maltese Falcon, was Gen. Peterson in television's I Dream of Jeannie.

Some interesting facts about The Maltese Falcon from A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's Bogart A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax:

1. Geraldine Fitzgerald was the studio's first choice to play O'Shaughnessy. Astor was second choice. Fitzgerald wasn't interested because it was Huston's first film.

2. Warner Brothers had to make all of Greenstreet's fashions. He weighed 357 pounds.


Roman J. Martel said...

Love this movie. One of my very favorites. I caught it on TCM a few years ago. My mother-in-law challenged me to keep up with the plot on my first viewing and warned me to watch it from the very beginning and closely. Well I did and I was able to keep up with the plot. But man, it was one twisty story. Anyway, between this film and "Key Largo", I had no choice but to become a fan of Bogart's work.

James The Movie Reviewer said...

Agreed, this is a fantastic. It is one of my favorite Bogart films and mystery film.