“It’s the stuff dreams are made of.” Humphrey Bogart’s detective Sam Spade could be speaking the all-too famous final line of The Maltese Falcon in regards to its titular statuette, but he could just as easily be describing the film itself. (Or Spade could just be quoting Shakespeare). Because John Huston’s directorial debut is dreamlike—not in form, but in excellence. From his twist-per-minute screenplay to the outstanding cast he assembled, it’s no surprise that Bosley Crowther said, “Mr. Huston gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field.”
The story goes that Jack Warner—president of Warner Brothers—resisted adapting the Dashiell Hammett novel again, as it had twice been made unsuccessfully. Huston asked his secretary to simply transcribe the novel into script form for him to start working with, and by chance Warner saw the transcription; thinking it was the screenplay, he read it, and liked it so much he approved it for production.1
The studio also wanted to cast George Raft, but as the actor was prone to doing, he turned the film down—thankfully letting Humphrey Bogart step in instead (the few big parts Bogart played previously had also been turned down by Raft). As Sam Spade, Bogart manages to make himself both charming and cruel; cunning, but prone to mistakes; and simultaneously funny and tragic. It’s a better performance in some ways than his in Casablanca, which is also “the stuff dreams are made of,” but more one-note.
Of course, it’s more than just Bogart that wows. How about Mary Astor, as one of the earliest and most unique femme fatales, who changes her story so many times we can barely keep up? Or the desperate, whining Peter Lorre, who jumps wholeheartedly into a character who is not just an unlikeable weasel, but downright weird? Sydney Greenstreet is a total delight as somewhat of a villain, and an audience surrogate—his Kasper Gutman can’t stop telling Spade he is “a chap worth knowing. An amazing character!” Even a small role, like that of Elisha Cook Jr.’s wormy gunman Wilmer Cook, is played to perfection.
Huston’s direction isn’t quite as slick as his casting. He storyboarded meticulously, which certainly comes through. But this is ultimately a somewhat cheap production from a first-time filmmaker, and it comes with the number of basic technical flaws one would expect. However, when Bogart is delivering Huston and Hammett’s dialogue, it’s difficult to truly notice the occasional jump cut.
Much like Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon is a movie at risk of being overshadowed by its status as a classic. It’s one of the earliest—if not the first—true film noir films, one that made one of the most iconic actors a full-fledged star. Its sharp script, perfect cast, and droll humor are all just icing on the cake of one of the very best films of the decade, let alone the year.
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||Luhr, William, The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, Director (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1995), p. 107.|