Saturday, May 13, 2017



THE MALTESE FALCON was Dashiell Hammett's third novel, having written short stories for some years for the pulp detective magazine "BLACK MASK", then 2 novels (both published in 1929), in 1930. It was an immediate success. Hammett had, as he had told his publisher he would, raised the American hardboiled detective story to the level of true literature.
In the novel, Sam Spade and Miles Archer, who are partners in a private detective agency in San Francisco, are hired by Brigid O'Shaughnessy, using the alias Miss Wonderly, to trail her partner Floyd Thursby, but using a false story involving a younger sister having run away with Thursby, and needing to get her back to New York before their parents returned from Europe. That night Archer is murdered on the job; later the same night Thursby is also murdered. The police, in the form of detectives Tom Polhaus and Lt. Dundy, who breathe down Spade's neck, and Archer's widow - with whom Spade was having an affair - add to his difficulties.
O'Shaughnessy proves to be a chronic liar (she uses another alias, Leblanc, for one of her disappearing acts), and manipulative, which frustrates Spade no end, despite his intense attraction to her (or is that unpredictability part of that attraction?). Other players enter the scene, first Joel Cairo, from whom we first learn of the black bird of the title; another, Caspar Gutman, explains what it is during a second meeting (having refused to divulge his information the first time round): a jewel encrusted statuette of a falcon, made by the Knights of St. John, later of Malta, for the King of Spain, which was lost to pirates (Spade later double-checks this info); and elaborates on it's checkered history, including centuries of murder and theft, until it ended up in the hands of a Russian general in Constantinople, from whom he tried unsuccessfully to buy it, then had O'Shaugnessy and Cairo steal it from. Spade's drink turns out to have been drugged, and when he awakens, he finds a bump on his head, and the fat man and his boy-toy gunsel, Wilmer Cook, gone.
After more detective work, Spade searches Cairo's room, with the help of the hotel dick, Luke, finds a newspaper with part of the ship arrivals cut out. Spade buys a copy of the same paper, and finds six ships listed in the missing section, including La Paloma from Hong Kong. Back at the office, Effie tells him there was a ship on fire at the docks, which she saw was La Paloma, which cinches Spade's suspicion it is the ship in question.
Spade meets with Polhaus for info, before an official visit with the D.A., accompanied by his lawyer. More detective work leads Spade to find out the motley band of conspirators had met with the Captain of La Paloma, Jacobi, for several hours, before leaving all together. (Later we learn the bird had been given by O'Shaughnessy to, Jacobi, another confederate of hers, to bring along on a slower boat).
Though mortally wounded by Cook, Jacobi manages to get to Spade's office with the bird before dying; Brigid calls just then, from Gutman's hotel, but is cut off; Spade heads out, stashing the falcon at a bus terminal station, then off to the hotel, where he finds a drugged Rhea Gutman, daughter of Caspar (who never makes it to the film versions), who manages to send him on a wild goose chase.
After a confab with his smart secretary, Effie Perine, who had taken the call, he heads back to his place, finding Brigid out front; and the "boy trio" inside his apartment. Heated negotiations ensue; Gutman gives Spade $10,000, who balks at so lowly an amount, but the latter then turns to the need for a fall guy to hand to the police for the 3 murders, though it is supposed that Thursby killed Archer. Gutman is reticent; Spade suggests Wilmer, but Gutman feels as if the boy "were (his) own son." (There has been a subtle undertone of homosexuality, though primarily regarding Cairo). There is a lot of back and forth, till Wilmer gets up on his heels, wanting to shoot if out with Spade; Gutman and Cairo wrestle with him, till Spade steps in and knocks the kid out; Cairo attacks Spade, who easily repels the smaller, weaker man; this all results in the agreement of Cook being the fall guy. Spade then has Gutman fill in all the blanks (i.e., actions that happened out of his sight), so as to cover any loose ends. Gutman tries one last trick, palming one of the thousand dollar bills, and suggesting O'Shaughnessy took it, to cause conflict between she and Spade; Sam goes for it, but when it's not found on her, he confronts Casper, who fesses up. Gutman, out of earshot of Brigid, warns Spade that she is bad. Meanwhile, Cairo has been trying to soothe Cook, but finally riles the boy, who socks Joel in the mouth, and telling him to get away. Then, the waiting game.
At 7am Sam calls Effie, tells her to get the envelope with the check in ticket for the bundle at the station, then get the bundle, and bring it to him at his apartment, which she does. The falcon turns out to be a fake, recriminations fly about, though it is realized the Russian they'd stolen it from, had had the duplicate made once he had an idea of its value. Gutman declares his intent on returning to Constantinople, inviting Cairo along; he also takes his $10,000 back by gunpoint, but let's Spade keep $1,000; then the duo leave, after which Spade calls Polhaus and alerts him about them, and the kid.
Then it's time for the big showdown between Sam and Brigid, as he knows she is the one who killed Archer, but being a detective, he wants all the facts intact. It all gets very intense, as Sam tells her he's turning her over to the cops, because he won't play the sap for her, as others before him have. She tries to use emotional blackmail, but fails. When detectives Polhaus and Dundy show up at this door, Spade turns over her, the falcon, and even the $1000 bill he took from Gutman for payment.
It was not long before a studio, in this case Warner Brothers, bought the screen rights. After all, the novel easily lent itself to the medium of motion pictures (even though it needed some taming down for censorship reasons).
In 1931 WB released THE MALTESE FALCON, with a screenplay by Maude Fulton & Brown Holmes, under the direction of Roy Del Ruth, starring Ricardo Cortez as private detective Sam Spade, with Walter Long as his partner Miles Archer, who are hired by Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), who does not use any aliases in this version, but does give them the false runaway younger sister bit. Archer does his duties tailing Thursby, and getting shot dead; an added scene has Spade leaving the police scene, coming across a Chinese man (uncredited actor) standing nearby, talking with him in Chinese for a moment, before continuing on; turns out the Chinese witnessed Wonderly kill Archer, so Spade knew the whole time (which, in my opinion, diminishes the interplay between Sam and Ruth).
This version suffers some of the ills of many an early talkie. Cameras were loud, so had to be contained within a windowed box, so as not to be picked up by the microphone; there was yet no post-dubbing, or even separate sound tracks, so scenes of dialogue - and this is a dialogue heavy film - tend to be stagy; no incidental music, which would later help cover-up the stage bound echoey-ness, as well as up the pacing.
Of the cast: Cortez does look a bit like Hammett's description, especially the satanic smile, but he lacks range, and is too smooth; Daniels as Wonderly is a good bad girl, but not convincing in her lies; Dudley Digges' Gutman is fine, but lacks any subtly; Una Merkel's Perine is a bit too comic (Merkel's best success was in comedy); Otto Matieson is suitably oily as Cairo; Robert Elliott and J. Farrell MacDonald are stock-in-trade detectives; Thelma Todd is good as the adulterous and jealous Mrs. Archer, but Walter Long is clunky as the Mr.; and Dwight Frye is not given much to do as Cook.
If one was unfamiliar with the novel (and, especially the later classic film version) this would be an enjoyable, if not a particularly memorable movie.
Then there was the next version...
The only reason I can think for the existence of this complete misfire, is the success of rival studio MGM's THE THIN MAN, which had taken another hardboiled detective novel by Hammett, added some winning humour (I love both the novel and the film), and launched a series - SATAN MET A LADY, as the film was re-titled, came out in 1936, the same year as the second THIN MAN movie.
The script, by Brown Holmes, who had co-written the first one, is downright awful. Director William Dieterle, who helmed several classics, fails miserably here. One-on-one scenes range from bland to dreadful. Warren William as the renamed p.i. Ted Shayne is a buffoonish cad, Bette Davis is lost in her badly written turn as femme-fatale Valerie Purvis; character actors Arthur Treacher, Marie Wilson, Porter Hall, Olin Howland, and Charles C. Wilson are wasted in their renamed parts (for Cairo, Perine, Archer, Dundy, and Polhaus respectively), Wilson being the only one with some funny moments (she later gained fame as Irma in the radio series "MY FRIEND IRMA", then the film and television versions). Wini Shaw as the partner's amorous widow seems dropped in from another movie; uncredited Maynard Holmes as the gunsel, Kenneth, is just ridiculous. The one bright spot in the cast is Alison Skipworth as the gender-swapped stand-in for Gutman, Madame Barabbas. She is marvelous, and makes William look good in the far too few worthwhile scenes.
The falcon is changed to a jewel-filled (animal) horn, becoming the butt of too many lame jokes about saxophones or trumpets.
Oh, and did I mention the overt sexism? Not that Hammett's novels didn't include a lot of male fantasy femme-fatales, but whereas Spade's attitude was standard sexism, Shayne's is skirt chasing sleazy. This movie is a real stinker. It's neither funny nor thrilling. Just a lame duck.
And then there is the 1941 version. First, the novel was suggested to writer John Huston, who was eager to direct, by producer Howard Hawks, for his debut, as the rights were still owned by WB *. Huston had his secretary put the novel into script form, which was accidently sent to studio head Jack L. Warner, i.e., before Huston had worked on it, but Warner loved it and gave it the green light. Tho' it was pared down some (mostly bits that weren't completely necessary, such as Spade's visits to his lawyer, which were changed to a phone conversation, and telling Effie to call, or streamlining Spade's finding information about La Paloma).
Then there was the casting. The part of Spade was first offered to George Raft, who turned it down, as he saw it as an unimportant picture (being a remake - and possibly also because of directorial debut*); it then went to Humphrey Bogart, a contract player, who had just scored in WB's HIGH SIERRA, which had been co-scripted by Huston. Bogart looked nothing like Spade, but, then, neither did Raft. Though several actresses were considered for Brigid, WB especially wanting Geraldine Fitzgerald, but Huston was interested in Mary Astor, who had gained a sordid reputation with various scandalous affairs (a servant sold her diary, containing her sexual exploits, to newspapers during a bitter custody battle), and alcoholism*, which gave her the right amount of wild behaviour for a femme-fatale; shown the script by Huston and Bogart, she was in. Theatre actor Sydney Greenstreet made his film debut as Gutman, at age 61; and, with help from cameraman Arthur Edeson, and Huston, he embodies the role superbly, adding a subtle humour. Character actor par excellence Peter Lorre plays Cairo with wit and wile, a crafty, temperamental, effeminate little man not to be trusted. Lee Patrick is marvelous, and supportive, in her role as Effie. Ward Bond and Barton MacLane fill the police shoes admirably well. Elisha Cook Jr. is marvelous as Wilmer, and looks like such a tough kid, even though he was almost 40. Jerome Cowan and Gladys George round out the cast as the Archers. When I read the novel it was hard not to think of this cast. Under Huston's assured hand, the actors bring a very dramatic range and depth to their characters; they truly bring them to life. And Huston's actor father, Walter, makes an uncredited cameo as Captain Jacoby.
WB wanted to release this version as THE GENT FROM FRISCO*, as the original title had already been used, but Huston prevailed upon them to use the better title.
After the major success of this film WB announced a sequel, THREE STRANGERS, headed by Sam Spade, but Hammett reminded them that the characters were copyrighted, and so it was changed to be its own story with different characters, and released in 1946, starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.
The ‘41 film was also one of the prototypes for what the French would come to christen Film Noir.
In 1975 a comic sequel, THE BLACK BIRD, starring George Segal as Sam Spade Jr. was released. Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr. reprise their roles from the classic version.

*1 Though that quote is from the 1941 film, it is not from the novel, but paraphrased from Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, the actual quote being "We are such stuff as dreams are made on..."

*2 As stated in the excellent documentary "THE MALTESE FALCON: ONE MAGNIFICENT BIRD" by Gary Leva.

*3 Have read for decades how Raft turned down the role, so not sure of the initial source. According to it was in his contract that he did not have to do remakes. The latter reason was posited by John McCarty, author of THE FILMS OF JOHN HUSTON, in a radio interview.

*4 Astor was quite candid on her lifestyle in her book MY STORY: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY ('59)

*5 From trivia - original source unknown

Published in "Multitude of Movies" #2 (Summer 2015)

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