The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston

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 in not so much in the script as both films  take 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, 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. 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 any 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, 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 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.

*****

All Through the Night (1941) Vincent Sherman

Bogart Takes on the Nazis.

Produced and released  by Warner Brothers, always the most socially conscience of the studios,  this 1941 propaganda film came out just months before America would enter World War II. Starring Humphrey Bogart as “Gloves” Donahue, a local hoodlum who runs the neighborhood bookie operations. “Glove’s” is a long way from Bogart’s other roles as a gangster. Here he is sort of a neighborhood Robin Hood with his gang, a bunch of Damon Runyonesque type comedic characters.

Most of the neighborhood seems to like “Gloves”, except for the cops, and his rivals led by Barton McLane. Conrad Veidt plays Ebbing, the head Nazi who commands an underground organization of fifth columnist with sabotage on their mind. Peter Lorre is Pepi, Ebbing’s little weasel of an assistant.

“Gloves” involvement begins when a neighborhood German baker is murdered by the master of creepiness, Peter Lorre. The baker was a friend of “Gloves” mother and made his favorite cheesecake, so at his mother’s beckoning he begins to look into the killing. When a nightclub bouncer is also murdered and one of “Gloves” gloves is found at the scene, the police can only conclude one thing, he is the murderer.

While trying to prove his innocence “Gloves” investigation leads him to discover a group of fifth columnist with plans to sabotage the New York Harbor by blowing up a naval battleship. The police, who are clueless about the German threat, are only interested in  fingering “Gloves” for the murders.

Surprisingly, the film is amazingly light in its humor considering that the war was going strong in Europe by this time. Released on December 2nd, according to IMDB, only days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America would enter the war. The release may have been only in Los Angeles though because the New York Times review is dated January 24th  1942 and makes note that this is a “pre Pearl Harbor” film, “lest anyone raises the  objection that it plays too fast and loose with a subject much too serious for melodramatic kidding in these times.”  The review, by Bosley Crowther, then goes on to say, “One would hate to think that an enemy plot of such elaborate magnitude as the one presented here should be so completely overlooked by our capable F. B. I. (italics mine), and that the responsibility for licking it should fall upon a semi-gangster. So don’t even let yourself think that this picture pretends to be fact. It is straight, unadulterated fiction pulled out of a script-writer’s hat.”

So here we are now some 70 years later, and considering what we have been going through since 2001, such blind faith in the F.B.I. or Homeland Security or any other Government Agency is naiveté of the highest order. I am not picking on Mr. Crowthers, as I usually do, I’m sure that many Americans had blind faith in and felt secure that organizations like the F.B.I had security matters well in hand back in those days.

Much of the films humor is supplied by members of “Gloves” gang, consisting of fanciful character actors like William Demarest and Frank McHugh along with some additional bizarre casting of Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. McHugh’s character is newly married and the running joke throughout the film is that he cannot consummate his marriage because he is always helping  “Gloves” in hunting down the Nazis. Gleason and Silvers are regulated to humorous roles that are close to slapstick level.

There is a touch of seriousness thrown into the mix when “Gloves” in his search to find the murderers comes across nightclub singer Leda Hamilton (Karren Verne), a young woman who is first made to seem to be aiding the Nazis. We soon find out that Leda is being forced to help them because her father is a prisoner in Dachau. Ebbing promises to keep him alive as long as she helps them with their sabotage plans.

The cast also includes Jane Darwell as “Gloves” mother, Judith Anderson as an assistant to Ebbing and Barton McLane as Callahan, the rival gang leader. Bogart handles his role in typical Bogie fashion, cool and unflappable. Peter Lorre and Karren Verne would marry, in real life, a few years after this film was made. Today, “All Through the Night” comes across as a bizarre little film, somewhat uncomfortable in its humor, melodramatic with some odd casting but still entertaining enough.

***

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) Boris Ingster

stranger third

    “Stranger on the Third Floor” was a minor B film that probably came and went with little if any attention being paid by critics and the general film audience. Fans of Peter Lorre may have been lured to the film by one of his rare non Mr. Moto starring roles only to probably be disappointed when they discovered he was only on camera for maybe no more than five or six minutes, though he plays the “stranger” mentioned in the title. The critics did not help. Bosley Crowthers of The New York Times welcomed the opportunity for first time director Boris Ingster, but called the film confusing and pretentious. He further stated, “it looks as though his inspiration has been derived from a couple of heavy French and Russian films, a radio drama or two and an underdone Welsh rarebit, all taken in quick succession.” Of course, this is the same critic who twenty-seven years later would denigrate “Bonnie and Clyde” and eventually lose his job with the paper over it.

 Strangeronthe    John McGuire, a little known actor whose career goes back to 1932, plays the true lead, Mike Ward, a newspaper reporter whose big break arrives when he is an eyewitness to a murder of a man whose throat was slashed. Ward testifies at the trial of the accused, a nervous Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), and because of Ward’s testimony, Briggs is sentenced to die in the electric chair, though he continues to proclaim his innocents.

    After the trial, Ward begins to have some doubts about what he saw. He is haunted by thoughts that he may have accused an innocent man who may be wrongly executed.    Mike uncertainty increases when he spots a creepy looking stranger lurking around his apartment building. Mike gives chase to the man but he disappears into the night. There is a surrealistic dream sequence in which Mike is arrested for the murder of his neighbor, a man he previously had an augment with and wished dead. Soon after, his next-door neighbor is really found dead with his throat slashed… exactly like the first murder. The police begin to suspect Mike may be the killer since he witnessed both murders. No one other than Mike seems to have seen the stranger with the bulging eyes, and a scarf that Mike is now insisting is the killer. With Mike under suspicion, it is left up to his fiancée Jane (Margaret Tallichet) to hunt down the mysterious stranger and clear Mike.

    The film runs a fast 64 minutes and is always mentioned as one of the earliest examples, if not the first, of what became known as film noir. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca certainly has many of the elements of noir, the dark shadows, expressionist lighting, voice over, innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit and the off-kilter camera angles. Musuraca would go on to photograph such noir style films as “Cat People”, “Curse of the Cat People”, “The Seventh Victim”, “Out of the Past” and “Blood on the Moon.”

    Peter Lorre’s “starring” role was a result of his owing RKO a couple days of work that remained on his contract. He, as usual, is extremely effective as the creepy bulging eyed stranger badly in need of some dental work. Lorre is also oddly sympathetic in the role, a trait similar to his character in Fritz Lang’s classic German expressionistic film “M.” Despite his limited screen time, he is the acting highlight in the film along with a young Elisha Cook Jr. who plays Joe Briggs, the wrongly accused taxi driver. The following year of course, Cook and Lorre would appear in another film together, the classic “The Maltese Falcon”, a film that is considered noirs first big hit. Lorre and Cook along with cinematographer Musuraca would become mainstays in the world of film noir.   

 stranger1    The two leads, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are barely adequate and it is unmistakably evident why they did not advance up to “A” production films. Tallichet’s career was short-lived making only two more films after “Stranger” then retiring to raise a family.

    In between the highlights, though there is some creaky material. Besides the previously mentioned mediocre acting of the two leads, the judge at the trial seems to be in another world during the proceedings only to “wake up” when he is actually asked a question. Additionally, the ending regresses back to the typical Hollywood happy conclusion. The dark dangerous streets disappear into the bright sunlight.

   The script was co-written by Frank Partos and Nathanael West, author of “The Day of the Locust.” Director Boris Ingster, who would only direct two more films would go on to write and or produce a number of TV shows including “The Man from UNCLE.”

    Overall, “Stranger on the Third Floor” is a prime example how filmmakers working with minimal production values, produced a work, that has no artistic ambition, no self consciousness, no gloss yet rises to a higher level of creativity than over produced highly ambitious “A” productions that ring no more true despite the millions of dollars spent.

The Face Behind the Mask (1941) Robert Florey

    The Face Behind the Mask, a rare film noir, starring Peter Lorre as Jonas “Johnny” Sazbo an immigrant watchmaker who comes to America full of hope searching for the American dream. Through the help of a friendly police officer, Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) Jonas finds an apartment. Unfortunately, his first night their, a fire breaks out and he is hideously burned though he survives. His face totally scarred this talented watchmaker is refused employment repeatedly due to his deformity.  He meets up with a small time thief, Dinky (George E Stone) and turns to a life of crime to survive and make enough money to get a face mask to cover his scars. Jonas becomes the boss of a criminal gang due his uncannily ability to plan robberies and outsmarting the law. Jonah runs into a young beautiful blind woman named Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes) who despite her handicap sells trinket jewelry and has a full life. Jonas falls in love with Helen who sees the good person in Jonas that was there before he turned to his life of crime. They make plans to marry and live out in the country. Jonas tells the gang he’s quitting and wants out but the gang does not like what they are hearing and plan to kill him by blowing up his car, only they kill Helen instead. With this Jonas’ last chance at love and redemption are lost, all that is left is revenge. Jonas gets the gang members on to a plane that they think is taking them out of the country however, Jonas who is the pilot, lands the plane in the middle of the desert where they all slowly die, an unusual ending, which is surprising and unique. All in all “The Face Behind the Mask” is a poignant, yet somewhat twisted noirish look at the American dream. 

    Robert Florey deemphasizes the horror aspects of the film keeping Jonas’ deformed face in the shadows or hidden from the camera. For a good portion of the film, Lorre’s face is not seen until he gets his mask. You should also note the socially conscience details of the film, the immigrant coming to America to start a new life and how people reacted to Jonas’ disability by shunning him, rejecting him in horror which ultimately leads him to his life of crime.    As a director, Florey was influenced by the German Expressionist movement, which is evident in many scenes in this film and in his 1929 short “Skyscraper Symphony”, a study of the geometric patterns of New York skyscrapers.      

    Peter Lorre is perfect as the immigrant Jonas. Lorre has been one of the most interesting and original actors to ever grace the screen. Here he provides a sensitive and engaging performance. It is hard to imagine another actor in this role. The under appreciated Evelyn Keyes is also good in her role as Helen, Jonas’ blind love. Also notable is George E Stone who plays Dinky.

    The movie runs only slightly over one hour and has never been released on home video or DVD. I believe it has been on Turner Classic Movies on occasion so keep your eyes open for it.     

M (1931) Fritz Lang

M must have been pretty shocking to audiences in the early 1930’s when it was made. The story of a serial child murderer, played to perfection by a young Peter Lorre. The film documents the hunt and capture of Hans Beckert, the murderer, by both the police and criminal gangs. The criminal gangs are in on the hunt because of the intense presence of the police making it hard for them to conduct their “business.”

German Expressionism begat Film Noir and Lang, a master of German Expressionism, uses shadows and light to define the landscape. There’s an excellent shot of young Elsie Beckman on her way home where she stops in front of a poster of a missing girl. Suddenly the shadow of the killer is reflected on the poster as he tells young Elsie what a nice ball she has. Lang excels at with brilliant camera work in this film. The opening shots where Lang’s camera is shooting from high up above  pointing downward toward the children playing; then there is amazing shot of  Elsie Beckmann’s mother looking down the flights of stairs to see if her daughter is coming home.

Upon the capture of Hans Beckert by the mob they begin a mock trial fearing that if they hand him over to the police the courts will allow Hans to pled insanity and end up in a hospital and eventually free. The mob wants their kind of justice. Kill Hans so he will never kill another child again. For those familiar with Lang’s work you will know that mob hysteria or mob rule is a common thread in some Lang’s films including Metropolis and  Fury. What is very interesting is how Lang make Hans plead his case to the mob who have captured him telling them how he cannot control himself and that his actions are like he is addicted.  As he goes on you find yourself sympathizing more with the killer as the mob’s actions gets uglier and uglier. This partially may have to do with Lorre’s magnificent acting.

M is a great movie which has lost very little of its power since it was made. Do not miss this film.