This posting is a contribution to the John Huston Blogathon over at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies.
If anyone believes that the writer is the auteur of a film one only has to look at the 1931 and 1941 versions of The Maltese Falcon. The difference is not so much in the script as both films take much dialogue directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, but more in the set design, lighting, direction and in how the characters are portrayed. In Roy Del Ruth’s pre-code version Sam Spade is more of an upper class dandy, a ladies man, from the Nick and Nora Charles School of private eyes. Del Ruth’s Spade has a fancy apartment and office. Huston’s Spade is from the dark, dirty, hard-boiled school of detectives; cynical and willing to be as corrupt as the bad guys. He is an unsentimental man who indifferently informs his dead partner’s wife that he is dead; a woman with whom he recently had an affair. Huston/Bogart’s Spade is a much more complex character than the dandy portrayed by Cortez in the earlier version. Howver, it is not just Spade who is different. Bebe Daniels Brigit O’Shaughesssey is more defenseless than the tough as nails, manipulative Mary Astor version. In Huston’s version no characters trusts each other. While the 1931 pre-code film is blunter about Spade’s womanizing as portrayed by Ricardo Cortez there is no sleaze factor in his Spade whereas Bogart’s Spade you can tell has been around the block a few times. I will not even discuss the second remake Satan Was a Lady barely recognizable as a remake.
No one at Warner Brothers was expecting much from what was a low-budget production. They even wanted to call the film The Gent From Frisco. George Raft, it is well known, refused to work with an untried director. He turned down the lead role opening up the position for Humphrey Bogart, and with that began the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” as Rick Blaine (Bogart) says to Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in another Warner classic just a few years later, between the director John Huston and actor Humphrey Bogart. His performance here was a major step in the creation of the Bogie persona which achieved its completion in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. Huston and Bogart would make six films together. This being his first film, Huston made drawings of all the camera setups so as not to appeared unprepared on the set came time to actually shoot.
For a director making his first film Huston’s camera setups were superb. Close oppressive atmosphere, stunning low-angle shots, and the final shot of Mary Astor as the police take her away with the elevator door closing on her like a jail cell door are some examples. There is also one long continuously shot scene in Spade’s apartment that according to Huston in his autobiography, An Open Book required something like twenty-six dolly moves requiring the cameraman to move along with the actors in order to complete the six or seven minute take. A theme that would become common in Huston films shows up in this first outing…greed, the lust for the falcon representing the stuff dreams are made of. This theme will be explored over and over again in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle and The Man Who Would Be King and others.
The Maltese Falcon was a major hit, financially and artistically, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Picture of the Year, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut). This was also the first pairing of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre who was award worthy himself as Joel Cairo. The film is generally considered the first film noir, though there are some that will debate that. Bogart became a major league star and Huston’s directing career was off to an auspicious start.