'The Maltese Falcon' canceled
Editor's note: This movie and the concert scheduled with it have been CANCELED.
By RICHARD LESKOSKY
Detectives search for clues, make deductions based on them and solve their cases, re-establishing some sort of order in society or maybe just their clients' lives. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle established that tradition in books and movies with his Sherlock Holmes stories, and other, mostly British, writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers continued that idealized form for decades.
But a very different, distinctly American, sort of detective made his debut in "The Maltese Falcon," the final film in The News-Gazette's 2012 Film Series. It's scheduled to show at sunset on Sept. 2 in Champaign's Hessel Park; admission is free.
That new American detective thrived more on getting people to reveal secrets without giving up any significant information of his own in return. He relied on fast talk and sometimes fists to loosen tongues, and he trusted no one, not even his own client, completely.
Writer Dashiell Hammett popularized and refined that so-called "hardboiled" detective in the 1920s in the crime fiction magazine Black Mask, where "The Maltese Falcon" was originally serialized.
Hammett had the advantage over his contemporaries of actually having worked as a detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency. He once described his detective character, Sam Spade, as what his former colleagues wished they could be.
When his partner is killed while following someone for new client Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), Spade (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself suspected of that murder and the shooting of the thug the partner was tailing. Then various odd characters start pulling guns on Spade looking for a mysterious but valuable object. That turns out to be a centuries-old gold, jewel-encrusted falcon statuette covered in black enamel to conceal its value.
Surrounded by avaricious, homicidal connivers and suspicious cops, Spade has to juggle his feelings for Brigid, his "code" that demands he avenge his partner's death even though he didn't particularly like him and was in fact having an affair with his wife, his desire to save his own skin and perhaps his own greed if he wants to survive and stay out of jail.
Warner Bros. had bought the movie rights to the 1930 novel and made a fairly sexually explicit version in 1931 before the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced. It wasn't a big box-office success. "Satan Met a Lady," an oddly and annoyingly comic version with Bette Davis as the female lead, appeared in 1936 and flopped.
When Warner Bros. screenwriter John Huston wanted to start directing his own films, Howard Hawks, who directed "Sergeant York" from a Huston screenplay, reportedly recommended he do "The Maltese Falcon." The introduction of inexpensive paperback books (often with lurid covers) had brought renewed and widespread popularity to Hammett's novel and probably helped nudge the project into production.
Warner Bros. gave Huston a short shooting schedule and a small budget for the film. Every scene is shot either indoors or on the studio's back lot. Even with an extra day of preparation for the complex climactic standoff, Huston brought the film in ahead of schedule and under budget.
Huston had wanted his friend Bogart as Spade from the start, but Warner Bros. first offered the role to tough guy leading man George Raft. He turned them down, though, out of disdain for a second remake of an unsuccessful film. Indeed, Raft significantly shaped Bogart's career by turning down roles (for example, in "High Sierra" and "Casablanca") that made Bogart a star.
Bogart had been playing mostly heavies (often psychotic heavies) for 10 years, and although he was acknowledged as an interesting actor, this was his breakout performance.
Astor had some success in silent films but also a reputation scarred by tragedy (a director husband killed in a plane crash) and scandal. At 17, she had had an affair with her 42-year-old "Beau Brummel" leading man, John Barrymore; her parents sued her for support; and another husband used her diary recounting many adulterous affairs in a messy divorce and child custody case.
In spite of all that, she had a good year in 1941. She won an Oscar as best supporting actress for her role in "The Great Lie." And that film and "The Maltese Falcon" brought her to such great public attention that the hairdo she wore in both became a fashion fad.
"The Maltese Falcon" also had a profound influence on Sydney Greenstreet's career. The British stage actor in his film debut made such an impression on audiences as the obese, obsessed schemer Kasper Gutman that he developed a second career playing dubious film characters for the rest of his life.
Peter Lorre had established his reputation in German films as the child murderer in Fritz Lang's 1931 "M" and had played Japanese detective Mr. Moto in a series of eight American movies through the 1930s. His effete Joel Cairo character became another of his iconic roles.
Elisha Cook Jr. was one of Hollywood's most recognizable character actors through five decades, and gun-crazy Wilmer was one of his defining roles. In 1982, he appeared in Wim Wenders' "Hammett," a fictitious tale about the author's detective days.
"The Maltese Falcon" helped shape the film noir style: moody lighting, odd camera angles, twisted plots — and protagonists with questionable motives and damaged psyches.
Huston and Cinematographer Arthur Edeson obviously appreciated the classic German films of the 1920s. Their film opens in the deceptively bright office of the Spade & Archer detective agency, but as the lies proliferate throughout the story, shadows occupy more and more of the screen.
They also usually shot Greenstreet from low angles and framed him very tightly, emphasizing his bulk and his menace. The interior shooting, tight framing and inclusion of ceilings in many shots all add to a subtle sense of claustrophobia.
Huston wisely left most of Hammett's dialogue alone and kept the film faithful to the novel. But he did include some sly in-jokes. When Spade first gets tailed by Wilmer, for instance, a theater marquee in the background announces "The Great Lie," Astor's other significant film that year — but also an allusion to a major theme in his own film. And when Spade arrives at the scene of his partner's murder, you can just see a tattered movie poster behind him for "Swing Your Lady," a 1938 musical about boxers and hillbillies starring Bogart.
Huston's father, Walter, an Oscar nominee for his starring role in "Dodsworth" (1938), makes an uncredited appearance as the sea captain who delivers a package to Spade and immediately falls over dead. A notorious practical joker, Huston kept ordering take after take until his father was covered in bruises. He more than made up for this, however, when Walter won an Oscar for his role in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1949) — written and directed by John.
"The Maltese Falcon" received three Academy Award nominations — best picture, supporting actor (Greenstreet) and screenplay — but won none. On the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best American Films, however, it comes in at 31; it also ranks sixth among their Top Ten Mysteries and 26th among the 100 Most Heart-Pounding.
Hammett's last novel, "The Thin Man" (1934) spawned a whole series of charming light-hearted mysteries starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (and a TV series in the late 1950s starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk). His first novel, "Red Harvest" (1929), uncredited, inspired Akira Kurosawa's 1961 masterpiece "Yojimbo," which in turn similarly inspired Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" and many, many worse films in various action genres.
"The Maltese Falcon," though, influenced a whole generation of realistic prose and movies.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.