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The Maltese Falcon (June 17, 2008)

In 1929 Dashiell Hammett wrote the original novel, which was published in 1930. Warner Brothers made two film versions of it before the classic one you’ll see tonight. One, from 1931 with Bebe Daniels as Bridget and Ricardo Cortez as Spade, stayed fairly close to the original. The second, Satan Met a Lady (1936) with Bette Davis and Warren William, changed the story and the characters considerably. Davis described it as “one of the worst turkeys I ever made”.

In 1941 John Huston was a screenwriter embarking on his first directing job at Warners. Huston had a secretary recopy the book, scene for scene, as a movie script. When this script was sent to Jack Warner, who was head of the studio, he loved it.

As was happening at that time in his career, the scripts that Bogart eventually ended up making were first offered to George Raft by the studio. Huston said later that Bogart was always his first choice for the role of Spade. Raft decided he didn’t want to do Maltese Falcon. Bogart accepted the role. It was his first above the title starring role. Huston wanted Geraldine Fitzgerald, then a rising young actress at Warners, for the female lead, but she didn’t want it. The role went to Mary Astor, eight years older than Fitzgerald. She wrote “I didn’t have to be talked into playing Bridget O’Shaughnessy. She was attractive, charming, appealingly feminine and helpless, and a complete liar...”

Otto Friedrich, in his book about Hollywood in the 1940s, City of Nets, wrote “Bogart often spent all night drinking, then appeared at the studio fully ready to work. His portrait of Sam Spade embodied all that. It was the portrait of a man who had been up all night, a man with both a hangover and a determination to get a day’s work done.” Friedrich also credits Bogart with humor that wasn’t in the original novel. “When Hammett’s Spade roughed up the young gunman, Wilmer, he was just being tough. When Bogart roughed up Elisha Cook, he was being not only tough but perilously funny, mocking and humiliating a man who yearned to kill him. It was a great scene.”

John Huston recalled, “As a rule at the end of the day everyone goes home, each to his separate domicile. But we were all having such a good time on Falcon that, night after night after shooting, Bogie, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and I would go over to the Lakeside Country Club. We’d have a few drinks, then a buffet supper, and stay on until midnight. We all thought we were doing something good, but no one had any idea that The Maltese Falcon would be a great success.” Charles Higham has written “the film’s most striking feature is its insolent casualness, its deliberate lack of flourish.” Arthur Edeson’s dark photography typified what was later called film noir. It owed something to the expressionist look of the German films of the 1920s, but also to Warners’ economical house style – cheap sets needed dark lighting to succeed.

Bogart transformed his Hollywood image in this film, from a gangster, or a heavy, into a hero who could deal with such people, but who had a personal sense of honor and justice that guided him on his dangerous path through the world. The movie was nominated for three Oscars – best screenplay (for John Huston), best supporting actor (for Sydney Greenstreet, in his first film role), and best picture. This picture has, alternately, comic moments and sad ones, uplifting moments and cynical ones. I think it provides some of the most entertaining hundred minutes the Hollywood studio system ever produced, and I hope you enjoy it.