Looking Back Friday – The Maltese Falcon
It is Friday, and that means it is time for us to look back again at a cinema classic. Prolific Guest poster Jack Deth investigates a true Bogart classic, The Maltese Falcon
Greetings all and sundry! I would like to thank Scott for the opportunity to posit a question that has taken on a life of its own amongst connoisseurs of the Private Investigator genre of films.: Bogart vs. Bogart: The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep?
The Maltese Falcon: Made in 1941 by first time director John Huston faithfully follows Dashiell Hammet’s very popular novel that gave audiences a solid look at the Hard Boiled Private Eye, Sam Spade. Meticulously played by Humphrey Bogart. Who shares office space in San Francisco with another former Pinkerton Operative. Miles Archer, played by James Cowan. Spade and Archer may not get along or like each other much, but they do close cases.
Enter a damsel in distress of many names. Miss Wonderly, to start. Played with smoldering elan by Mary Astor. Who wants an Englishman named Floyd Thursby, who had run off with Miss Wonderly’s sister, followed. Spade is hesitant, but Archer jumps at the chance and is shot to death on Bush Street late that night for his efforts.
Sam get the phone call at Zero Dark Thirty and calls Archer’s wife, Iva. With whom he’s been having an on again, off again affair. Then calls his secretary, Effie Perrine to babysit Iva. Then heads off to the scene of the crime. Sam doesn’t show much interest in looking at Archer’s corpse after being informed that Archer had been shot with his pistol holstered and over coat buttoned. By a British Webley-Fosbery .38. One type of several pistols Sam had in a vault at his office.Homicide Detective Lt. Dundy thinks Sam is a suspect and makes no bones about it. While his subordinate, Detective Tom Polhaus is willing to give the benefit of the doubt when the two talk to Sam in his apartment later on.
Comes the morning and Iva arrives in full blown Drama Queen Mode. Sam calms her down and shoos her away before Effie reports that Iva may have been out and around the time of Archer’s death. Sam takes in this new information. Then tells Effie to call the letterers and change the lettering on the office door and street side window. An afteroon appointment is kept with the District Attorney who wants to know about Archer’s death. Spade balks and keeps a later appointment with Miss Wonderly at her apartment in time for a revelation.
Miss Wonderly fidgets flightily and admits that her name is Brigid O’Shaughnesy and that Thursby was hired as her protection as she looks for something important. What it is only hinted at the following afternoon after Joel Cairo, More than foppishly played by Peter Lorre. Hints in a roundabout way that he is interested in the whereabouts of Miss O’Shaughnesy, who is not to be trusted. Trusted or not, the three meet in Brigid’s apartment that night where Brigid and Cairo go over past rumors and history until what is close to a cat fight erupts at the mention of ‘G’, Kaspar Gutman. The money man and puppeteer who pulls the strings in search of The Maltese Falcon.
The cat fight brings the police and a fanciful tale is told by Spade. That the police don’t really buy until they take Cairo in for further questioning. Sam stakes out the lobby of Cairo’s hotel room and confronts a baby faced Wilmer Cook, played by Elisha Cook Jr. Seems that Wilmer had been following Sam around at a distance with a bulge under his armpit. Cairo arrives, much worse for the wear and just wants to go to bed. Though promises a meeting with Gutman for later in the day.
Enter Kaspar Gutman. Resplendently rotund and verbosely played bt Sydney Greenstreet in his debut role. A walking encyclopedia on antiquities near and far. Gutman tells the tale of the Maltese Falcon. From its golden, jewel encrusted beginnings through being lost at sea and being sought by the Knights Templar. Then by fortune hunters across the world. Gutman offers Spade $50,000 for the Falcon. Unbeknownst to Spade, Gutman has drugged Spade’s drink. Spade passes out and Wilmer arrives in time to kick the crap out of Spade.
Spade comes to in Gutman’s hotel room. Stumbles across a newspaper of ship arrivals. One, La Paloma is circled. Arriving from Hong Kong. Spade goes down to the pier in time to see La Paloma torched and burning from bow to stern. Sam arrives at his office and has Effie patch him up as La Paloma’s captain stumbles across the doorjamb to drop a newspaper wrapped bundle on the floor and promptly dies. Sam takes the bundle and stashes it in a bus station locker and finds Gutman and company in his apartment. Where Spade negotiates the Falcon for the money. Gutman is amicable, but Spade attaches riders,
There are three murders that require a fall guy. Gutman offers up Brigid, who resists. Then Cairo, which is the bump before the raise. Then Spade suggests Wilmer! Spade calls Effie and has her pick up the package and deliver it. Only to discover it is a fake! Arguments ensue. Wilmer is given up for torching La Paloma and the murders of Archer, Thursby and La Paloma’s captain. Thursby was killed just after Cairo showed up to scare Brigid into joining forces with Gutman. The captain, on his way to deliver the Falcon. It sounds good on paper, but doesn’t sit right with Spade. Who confronts Brigid after Gutman and Cairo leave.
Brigid killed Archer. It’s the only theory that makes sense. With Archer being shot relatively close. With his pistol in its holster and over coat buttoned, Archer had something on his mind. Neither protection or ambush. Brigid balks and Sam explains that when your partner is murdered, you find the one that done it. Not because you like him. You do it because he’s your partner. Brigid thinks Spade is rambling until Dundy and Polhaus show up to arrest Wilmer and Brigid. Inform Spade that Gutman and Cairo are in custody and to take into evidence “The stuff dreams are made of”.
What Makes This Film Good?
A well executed, near verbatim adaptation of Hammett’s original story aided by a screenplay by Huston with the novelist close by to kibitz and make improvements where needed. Handed over to a talented cast eager to make their marks under the guidance of a confident first time director. Who uses but a few location shots of Bush Street and a fair number of Warner Brothers’ sets to get the feel, if not the essence of San Francisco.
Backed up by lush, near Noir shadowy camera work by Arthur Edesen. And sometimes emotional, suspenseful music by Adolph Deutsch that hits the right mark in several memorable scenes.
What Makes This Film Great?
All of the above and Humphrey Bogart given a chance to if not break away from his surly gangster mode. At least augment it into a cherished Hammett character, icon and American archetype. Bogart’s and Hammett’s Spade shies away from bedroom windows and prefers to go after larger insurance money and notoriety for his fledgling, shared business, So there’s a reason for his staying on the sidelines when Miss Wonderly makes her entrance and Archer dives in. She’s too good to be believed. This aloofness and worldliness morphing into something else later on will be visited again in many later films. Most notably, Casablanca and In A Lonely Place.
Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet more than fill the bill as exceptional heavies. There’s a reason why Spade says ”You’re very good!” to the constantly lying Miss Wonderly after a particular tale of woe that sounds particularly scripted. She thinks she can wrap Spade around her finger, but he doesn’t bend that easily. Their scenes together are a large part of what makes this film a Classic that works!
Peter Lorre hits just the right note as the oily, scheming, perfumed and effeminate Joel Cairo. Playing just inside the Censor Board Rule Book. While creating a memorable character. As does Sydney Greenstreet and his take on Kaspar Gutman. Introducing a solidly ensconced Villain’s Villain who has proven the test of time.
Kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. for his impeccably dressed Two Bit Gunsel, Wilmer Cook. And Lee Patrick’s always efficient Effie Perrine. Small parts, to be sure. Though both go out of their way to help the characters and larger cast create a cinematic Classic!