Some business to see to today first, before I get to the movie review I have in mind. Have a peek over at Norma's blog for a Snippet Sunday post she did with a selection from a future work. As well, one of my fellow writers, Lorelei Bell, has just released a book on Amazon called The Cat Whisperer. Here's a little bit about it:
This is a non-fiction account about how one feral female cat came into our lives, and changed it. My husband (the cat whisperer), took pity on her one summer day, and fed her some table scraps, against my warnings it might be a female. Of course, feeling that was an invitation, she stayed, expecting to be fed... and then dropped her litter of kittens in the hollow of a tree in our yard. This is how the kitty dram began. This is her, and her kittens' story and how we dealt with the joy of watching their antics, the pain of losing them to predators, and their love/caring for one another
Now then, to the classic at hand....
“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” ~ Sam Spade
“I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice.” ~ Kaspar Gutman
“Look at me, Sam. You worry me. You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good. Some day you’re going to find it out.” ~ Effie Perine
The Maltese Falcon, a 1941 classic by first time director John Huston, who quickly established himself with this film as one of the best in the business, is a personal favourite. The private eye film gives us Humphrey Bogart in one of his best roles- if it’s not his best, it’s pretty close- and is the finest example of the film noir genre. Adapted from a novel by Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, the film stands today among the greats of cinematic history.
A woman (Mary Astor) arrives at the offices of Spade and Archer to hire the detectives to find her missing sister. Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) take the case, and Archer quickly ends up gunned down late at night (in the only scene in the film that doesn’t feature Bogart). Spade finds himself caught up in a web of lies, crime, and intrigue as he tries to determine the truth about his partner’s death. On the one hand, his client’s story is not the truth, and she keeps evading the truth as she goes along, revealing herself as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. On the other are a trio of criminals (Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr.) with an interest in a certain figurine, a priceless falcon figure that’s been passed through various hands for centuries. One death leads to another, and Spade finds himself under suspicion by the police… some of whom he gets along with, and others… not so much. Only by finding the truth can he clear himself.
Huston had a background in screen writing before he took this on as a director, and it’s astonishing to see so much of his future in this film. Take a look at his screen credits: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Red Badge of Courage, Across the Pacific, Key Largo, The Man Who Would Be King. This is a master storyteller, and all of that is on the screen through his first film. He tells the story through Spade’s point of view, adapting the novel very much as Hammett wrote it, but using the filmmaker’s touch to give the story his signature. He crafts scenes around his actors, using their strengths to move the story along. He pays close attention to detail, to lighting (or the lack thereof), to the positioning of an actor in a given place at a given time. Something like having a character tell some backstory, in the hands of a lesser director, could bore the audience, but Huston writes the screenplay and directs the actors in such a way that a bit of backstory is utterly compelling. Given the censorship codes of the times, he implies where the novel would be more specific- things like Cairo’s sexual orientation, the fling between Spade and his partner’s wife, the relationship between Sam and Brigid. And the dialogue, much of it straight from Hammett, is sharp, smart, and memorable. It really defines the characters and the performances.
His cast is astonishing. This was the first time that Sydney Greenstreet appeared on the screen as an actor, but his presence is formidable. Kaspar Gutman is a seemingly hospitable man, quite formal in the way he conducts himself, but behind that hospitality is a deviousness, and a ruthless nature. He’s a man quite happy to sell out his allies if the need rises, obsessed with the wealth of the falcon, the statue he so desires. He might not be the sort who bloodies his hand doing his own dirty work, but Gutman is a menacing figure, and compelling to watch. Peter Lorre, the esteemed character actor who’d left Europe years before, turns up as Joel Cairo, the eccentric crook who is tied up in the entire affair. He’s a bit unpredictable as an accomplice to Gutman, playing to his own ends, trying to pass himself off as tougher than he is. The third member of the trio, Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook Jr., is doing some of the same, thinking he’s more dangerous than he is. Well, he’s more dangerous than Cairo, certainly, but no match for Spade. Ultimately he comes across as a kid with a hair trigger temper, easily provoked.
Mary Astor is the femme fatale of the film, a chameleon playing her game, trying to keep Spade on her side. There’s steam and chemistry between Brigid and Spade, and she manipulates as much as she can- though Spade can see that for what it is. She brings these qualities to the role, along with a neediness that fits into her character’s motivations. It’s a complicated role, but she makes it work. There are a couple of other women in the film in smaller roles, but should be noted. Gladys George is Iva, Archer’s widow, not particularly torn up by her husband’s murder, and she’s had a thing for Spade. She’s throwing herself on Spade in the aftermath, and we’re left to wonder what she’s been up to. The other woman in question is Lee Patrick, playing Spade’s loyal secretary Effie. She’s probably the one character in the movie Sam trusts completely. She’s smart, sassy, willing to speak her mind to Sam, and probably head over heels in love with him. She humanizes Sam, and he needs that.
Bogart had been playing various crooks and tough guys through the thirties, but started getting serious notice in the years leading up to The Maltese Falcon. In this film, he really establishes himself as a leading man. He plays Sam as the hardened man, cruel perhaps at times (he doesn’t particularly care that his partner has died, and he’s eager to keep the widow out of his way). He’s a listener- he gathers information by letting everyone talk around him and absorbing what they say, the signs of their body language. He’s a great observer. He has a dry and deeply cynical sense of humour, a sense of how to provoke the reaction he wants out of others in a room. And there’s a fierce dangerous quality to the man that makes him so compelling. He’s quick to act, fast to disarm a threat, has no problem inflicting violence. And he has no problem setting aside matters of the heart. We’re not sure what to make of this man, but at the core, he has principles. It doesn’t matter what he thinks of his partner, he has to solve the case, because you’re supposed to do that when your partner dies. It’s a powerful performance, and the core of a true classic film.