Friday, December 13, 2019

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

USA, 100 minutes
Director: John Huston
Writers: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett
Photography: Arthur Edeson
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editor: Thomas Richards
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan

If I could find some way to rank my favorite movies based on the number of times I've seen them (which seems like a reasonable metric), The Maltese Falcon would likely make the top 10. I discovered it when I was still a teen, watched it many times on TV and in retro theaters, rediscovered it in my 20s and then in my 30s. It seems to be good for practically any occasion. The parts intended to be most powerful—for example, those speeches at the end about love and betrayal between Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade and Mary Astor as a scandalous woman of many aliases—have actually worked on me once or twice (I do love the image near the end of Mary Astor in an elevator, behind bars, going down). More often now I appreciate seeing a bunch of professionals busy on some of their best work, starting with Dashiell Hammett who wrote the original novel, one of his best.

In fact, the credits seem a little confused about who matters among these professionals. Gladys George as the widow of Spade's partner is featured with Bogart, Astor, and Peter Lorre in the opening titles, though she barely makes an impression (not George's fault—it's the way the role was written for the picture). Sydney Greenstreet makes the second plateful of names, but there's no mention of Elisha Cook Jr. until the closing credits. It's a commercial film, but The Maltese Falcon is no Hollywood glamour romp of movie stars—instead, it's more like a parade of character actors, starting with Bogart, and working all the way down to the ubiquitous Ward Bond (the Kevin Bacon of his era), James Burke, John Hamilton, and Walter Huston—hey-that-guys one and all. Out of curiosity I decided to keep track of how long it took to get to the main ones.

Bogart is there from the start, the first person we see after the setting of San Francisco is established. This is something of his coming out party, of course, perhaps ultimately his single most iconic role, smoking up the joint and chuckling suavely, as only Bogey does it. We also see Astor early—it's a major role after all, but I wouldn't class her as a character actor. She appears to have got the role for being similarly scandalous in her personal life, and indeed she had an affair with director John Huston during the shoot. Her career stretches back to the silent era and forward into television and she's often barely recognizable from role to role, which I would call a certain strength. I always forget that's her in Meet Me in St. Louis, The Palm Beach Story, or Cass Timberlane, for examples. This role is probably her most famous. Director Huston turned her into a character actor in a way by making her run laps around the studio before her scenes, accounting for her uncanny nervous manner, never quite having her breath and alarmingly close to sweaty. (It also reminds me of David Byrne running laps around New York before recording "Drugs" on Fear of Music.)

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo shows up at about 24:00. Cairo is an outrageous stereotype of a gay man, a small fellow with deeply soulful eyes who carries perfume-soaked handkerchiefs. He takes abuse like some long-suffering kid brother. "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it," Spade tells Cairo at one point, then slaps him a few more times, but Cairo doesn't appear to like it. Spade is unpredictably brutal and tender, often shocking in his disregard for the deaths and troubles of others, even those he seems to like. The day after his partner is murdered, even in the middle of the unfolding big case, he wants the signs changed at the detective agency, and his secretary knows to get it done.

Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer enters around 28:00. The beloved Cook Jr. is one of those people who used to be underrated and now is overrated, but here and The Big Sleep are where he is seen best: a desperately insecure kid in a trench coat too big for him, so nervous he often can't swallow or speak above a murmur, as inept as he is brutal (the worst of that is reported from offstage). He feels like a trapped ferret that's going to attack your face at the first opportunity. "Keep on riding me, they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver," he says in a line approximately as dim as Wilmer himself. Spade gets off one of his iconic lines in response, with the usual cigarette-rumbling chuckle from Bogart: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, huh?"

The biggest character actor of them all in this movie, literally and figuratively, is Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut at age 61 as the mysterious Kasper Gutman, the "Fat Man." He is held back until about 51:00. Then, for much of the second half, he is the only one who can effectively take on Bogart, often owning their scenes. This could well be Greenstreet's finest film performance (he was a lifelong stage actor), though he was teamed in many other productions with Bogart and/or Lorre. This is the one where he is most like a supervillain, which in many ways is what Greenstreet was built for. (Imagine him as Daredevil's nemesis Kingpin, also imagining for the moment that I like comic book movies.) Gutman notably dominates the scene where detective Sam Spade finds himself in that detective fiction standby, the good old mickey in the drink. Felled by whatever the sedative is—his stamina gets Spade and us through a lot of useful exposition—and lying prone on the floor, Spade is finally perfectly vulnerable. Wilmer takes his revenge in a practical demonstration of his character with a vicious kick to Spade's head.

The Maltese Falcon is set in San Francisco but it takes place mostly in hotel rooms, hurtling toward the one where all the main character actors are gathered together and snarl at one another viciously, the big finish. Everything is explained, dotting an i by sending Wilmer to jail and crossing a t with breathless Mary Astor getting into the elevator. Sam Spade momentarily becomes Jimmy Olsen for the cops which belies the sense of everything we've seen about him so I don't really believe it and take it as a kind of dream sequence for the sake of censors or something. A touch of Hollywood do-gooderism right at the very end—the stuff of dreams indeed. It's always fun to watch The Maltese Falcon one more time.

See also: Facebook 50 rundown

Top 10 of 1941
1. Citizen Kane
2. The Maltese Falcon
3. 49th Parallel
4. The Lady Eve
5. High Sierra
6. Meet John Doe
7. Sullivan's Travels
8. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
9. I Wake Up Screaming
10. Remorques

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