The Maltese Falcon – Denny Ledger’s Take

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John Huston, who had worked his way up through the writing ranks of more than one studio, was finally given a shot at directing in 1941. The picture he wanted to make was The Maltese Falcon, and that was perfect as far as Warner Bros. was concerned.

The novel, written by Dashiell Hammett, and itself coming from a serialization in Black Mask ‘pulp’ magazine, had been purchased a decade before, and had already been made twice before.

The novel was published on February 14th, 1930, and initially Paramount had considered purchasing the film rights, however, it was Warner Bros. who completed the deal, and for $8,500 they purchased the rights from Alfred A. Knopt on June 23rd, 1930.

Less than a year later, a film adaptation would be released. Originally titled Woman of the World, but changing back to The Maltese Falcon, the film would star Richard Cortez as Sam Spade, with Roy Del Ruth directing.

Here, Spade was an annoying, smug, smart aleck playboy rather than a cynical, world weary private eye of the novel.

Hammett had no hand in the film and did not like the finished picture.

Five years later, in July 1936, a second film adaptation was made. Originally titled Money Man, it was later re titled Satan Met A Lady.

The film starred Warren Williams as Ted Shane in the Spade character, and Bette Davis as Valerie Purvis in the Miss Wonderly role. Davis would consider it, “one of the worst turkeys I ever made.”

It was a screwball comedy with the falcon now a ram’s horn. It was a commercial and critical failure. Again, Hammett did not like the picture.

A third adaptation was attempted in 1939 under the title The Clock Struck Three, however, Charlie Chan screenwriter Charles Belden had issues over writing the second half of the story. The project was abandoned.

A third adaptation was made five years later in 1941, again titled The Maltese Falcon, it was a film that at last met Hammett’s approval.

Huston’s success was in remaining as faithful as possible to the source material, as he had done with W.R. Burnett’s High Sierra, also in 1941. Huston, like Hammett, had not been impressed with the two previous film versions, and armed with a $381,000 budget, 36 days allocated for shooting, and what he would later call “the best cast I ever had,” set out to make his debut picture.

George Raft topped the proposed cast list written up by the studio for Spade, but, as fortune would have it, he would turn down the picture, not wanting to work with an unknown, inexperienced director.

Raft did not think too much of Huston, who in turn did not think much of him either.

The role went to Bogie, Huston’s preferred choice, and in their hands, Spade become the cynical, hard-boiled private eye that Hammett had written, living in an un-glamorous, amoral world, living client to client, and putting himself on the line for $25 a day plus expenses.

For the role of femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Geraldine Fitzgerald was first choice. The role, however, would go to second choice Mary Astor, who relished playing the role, calling her “a congenital liar and slightly psychopathic.”

For the role of perfumed and prissy Joel Cairo, Peter Lorre was cast.

The rest of the cast would include Bogie regulars Jerome Cowan as Spade’s partner Miles Archer and Gladys George as Iva Archer, Miles’ wife.

Barton MacLane was cast as Lt. Dundy, Ward Bond as Dundy’s partner, detective Tom Polhaus. Elisha Cook Jr. was cast as the gunsel Wilmer and Lee Patrick as Spade’s trusty secretary Effie Perine.

There was also a screen debut for 61-year-old, 285-pound British stage actor and veteran of Broadway, Sydney Greenstreet, as Kasper Gutman, marking the first of several films with both Bogie and Lorre. There was even room for Huston’s father, Walter Huston, as Captain Jacobi of the ill-fated ship ‘La Paloma’, who delivers the falcon to Spade’s office, only to drop dead from gunshot wounds.

The film opens with an explanation of the backstory to the black bird:

In 1539, the Knights Templar of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels- – – – – but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.

Spade and Archer are a private detective service in San Francisco. A new client, Miss Wonderly (aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy), asks Spade to track down the seducer (called Floyd Thursby) of her, as we later find out, non-existent sister, Corinne. In actuality, she wants him to trail and kill a rival hunter of a rare artifact she is tracking. Miles enters and agrees to take the case personally, and is promptly killed, and Spade is thrown into the hunt for the infamous Maltese Falcon, introduced in turn to Cairo, Gutman and co. along the way.

The film is a commentary on the greed of man, a probing character study, and the cast are equal to it, headed by the cynical Spade, whose strong code of ethics are the only thing keeping him on the level.

In part, the attention to detail from the book came from the performances of the actors. From Bogie, rolling his own cigarettes and facial tics, Lorre fiddling with his cane. Greenstreet on the other hand, does very little, but sit motionless, watching and listening. The camera spends a good deal of time focused on the person who isn’t talking, watching reactions of the listening actor.

Spade is rightly cautious, and distrusts words, both verbal and written; he is also wary of the detectives Dundy and Polhaus, keeping them at arm’s length with a mixture of respect and distrust.

Ultimately though, Spade’s greatest nemesis is himself.

He set out to avenge his partner’s death, and he achieves just that, but only just, as his own greed for the black bird spills over, and when he finally gets the bird, brought in by captain Jacobi, he squeezes Effie’s arm, not noticing even when she tells him ‘you’re hurting me’, and again at the climax where he along with Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman lustily unwrap the prized item in his apartment.

His weakness for Bridgit almost convinces him to sink to her level, but he finds a higher duty, as he explains to her, “when a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”

He’s supposed to; it does not mean he necessarily wants to.

He sees through Brigid’s various masks of innocence and vulnerability and sees in her what she really is: a compulsive liar, yet he still allows himself to fall for her, with it only being his code that saves him. In Brigid, as in the Falcon, she is a false prize.

While there is no ‘good guy’ in the film, far from it, Spade is the one who has our loyalties. Spade looks out only for himself, a strong character trait throughout Bogie’s work. Gutman is also self-interested, perhaps why there is a mutual liking between the two, going as far as Gutman asking him if he would join the quest for the black bird as they embark for Istanbul.

Huston filled the film with in-jokes at every available opportunity. As Spade looks down on the spot where Miles is killed, in the background on a wall we can see a poster for Bogie’s 1938 hillbilly, wrestling, musical comedy, Swing Your Lady, a film Bogie would call, “the worst picture I ever made.”

Later on in the film, as Spade walks down the streets of San Francisco, we see The Bailey Theatre in the background, and the film they are showing is The Great Lie, a film that starred Astor. Spade then walks past another theater showing The Girl from Albany, not a real picture, but an in-joke at the expense of Hal Wallis, who, for reasons undetermined, wanted to change the title to The Gent from Frisco. However, Jack Warner did not approve, and kept it as it was.

The film opened on October 4th, 1941 and was a commercial and critical success. James Agee would call the film, ‘the best private-eye melodrama ever made,’ and the film was recognized by the Academy who nominated it for three awards.

The film was up for Best Picture, Best Screenplay for Huston and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Greenstreet.

Astor for The Great Lie would be nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as Sandra. In her autobiography, A Life on Film, she would say she would have rather got her award for Brigid than Sandra.

Spade is both a classic Huston and Bogie hero. He is flawed, an anti-hero living in an amoral universe, he is his own worst enemy, but who ultimately overcomes these flaws. Not all Huston protagonists would be so lucky as to get out alive, and Spade only does by the finest of margins.

As for Bogie, his Spade was wounded, cynical and romantic, if not in a traditional sense. It would be a character Bogie would play again and again over the coming years as he rose to the top Hollywood’s acting talent.

*Take 2 is a regular feature on The Bogie Film Blog where other film writers and enthusiasts wax philosophic on their favorite Bogie Films!  Denny Ledger is the author of the new book A Reasonable Amount of Trouble: The Films of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, which you can find on Amazon here.  For other Take 2 posts, click here.*

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The African Queen – Denny Ledger’s Take

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It was a problematic story, even when author C.S. Forrester was writing it, with its publication coming in 1935. He was not satisfied with the ending, either of them, as the American ending had one outcome, and the English edition having another.

The film rights had been optioned twice before, with Columbia wanting it as a vehicle for husband and wife Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster and Warner Bros. considering it for David Niven and Bette Davis. No film was made on either occasion.

Producer Alexandra Korda said of it, ‘a story of two old people going up and down an African river?’ he scoffed, ‘who’s going to be interested in that?’

As it happened, producer Sam Spiegel and director John Huston were very interested. Spiegel convinced Katherine Hepburn to sign on and Huston called his old friend Bogie and it was third time lucky.

The issues that had plagued the story from the beginning, however, would only get worse through the production. Yet, if anyone was crazy enough to undertake the film, it was Spiegel, and in particular, Huston.

Huston worked with writer and film critic James Agee on the original screenplay, yet shortly after it was completed, Agee would suffer a heart attack. A few years later he would die from another.

Writer Peter Viertel was brought in for the second draft to be completed in Africa, although he would ultimately leave the project, telling Spiegel he ‘didn’t give a damn whether he received a screen credit or not’ and promptly left.

His concerns were not so much with the screenplay, but with Huston himself, who he had noted was ‘more eccentric than ever.’

Shooting a motion picture was not the only shooting Huston was interested in while in Africa, but also big game hunting, with his eye on one elephant in particular.

Five years later Huston would make Moby Dick, and his obsession with the elephant would bear more than a passing resemblance to Captain Ahab’s quest for the white whale.

Problems were rife in the screenplay and on location, where shooting would start in December 1950 on the Ruiki River in the Belgian Congo, a slow-moving tributary choked with decaying vegetation. It was a Tsetse fly area, there were crocodiles, hippopotamuses, a hornets’ nest, snakes, scorpions, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, army ants and a plethora of other deadly animals and insects.

There was a range of tropical diseases, including malaria, dysentery, amoebic dysentery, sunstroke and some which went un-diagnosed. During the shoot, nine members of the crew had to be sent home with dysentery, malaria, or both. The local help were lepers who spoke Swahili.

They then moved to the Lualaba River, a black river, coloured due to the tannic acid from the surrounding vegetation.

The colour of the water wasn’t the only peculiar fact about the location. It was also a branch on the Congo River so remote that it wasn’t marked on most atlases. There were temperatures of up to 85- degrees and high humidity, which caused clothing to droop and need re-starching, as well as mold.

The film itself is set in German East Africa, September 1914, starting out at the 1st Methodist Church, Kungdu, where Hepburn’s Rosie Sayer and her brother Reverend Samuel Sayer, played by Robert Morley, run the Methodist missionary. It isn’t long before Bogie’s Charlie Allnut, the Gordon’s Gin swilling skipper of the African Queen, brings the news of war, to be followed shortly after by the arrival of German Imperial soldiers who burn down the missionary and beat the Reverend, where he later dies of fever.

After burying her brother, Rosie joins Charlie on board, only to become a guerrilla on a suicide mission, to Charlie’s initial reluctance, to destroy a German gunship to help the war effort.

If there were problems off screen, they were matched on. At one point in the film, where Charlie wades through the river, pulling the Queen behind him, he worries about the currents, which should be the least of his problems. He mixes his gin with river water before drinking it, which, if not bad enough, then goes into the river and declares, ‘I swallowed half the river that time’, would that not of killed him in all seriousness!?

Charlie and Rosie then decide to bathe in the river, with no second thought of the crocodiles, hippopotamuses and diseases.

The locale and river were mirrored by the verbal sparring of Bogie and Hepburn, serving as the redeeming feature of the picture.

These were two of American cinema’s most prestigious and respected actors, and both here are at their best, clearly relishing their roles. Off screen, Hepburn’s cheeriness irked Bogie something chronic, she in return deemed him, as well as Huston, as nothing but reprobates. Bogie and Huston were more than happy to play the roles they had been assigned and not let her assumptions down.

Charlie and Rosie are polar opposites, coming from very different backgrounds, with Charlie in particular aware of a class divide. However, it is the gradual acceptance and respect that grows between them that earns our fondness for them and the picture.

They are two halves that make an eventual whole, each bringing to the table what the other lacks. Each give as good as they get, but this is by no means a simple man-meets-woman love story, but as rocky a ride as they are experiencing on the dilapidated steamer itself.

Huston would later say of the shoot, ‘the things that happened would make a book in itself.’

In fact, there were to be two books written about the shoot. The first was by Viertel, who wrote White Hunter, Black Heart, published in 1953, and was a very thinly disguised account of, not just the making of the picture, but of other stories from Huston’s past, including a hilarious anecdote about a fist fight with Errol Flynn at a party hosted by David O. Selznick.

In 1987 Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, was published.

With four Academy Award nominations, for Best Director and Best Screenplay (with James Agee) for Huston, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Hepburn, and Bogie for Best Actor in a Leading Role, not to mention success at the box office, it seemed the ordeal of the production had paid off.

On the night of the Academy Awards, A Streetcar Named Desire was already the big winner, collecting three of the four acting honours, with just the Best Actor in a Leading Role award left, with Brando up against Bogie amongst others.

Bogie would walk away with the award, his second nomination, after Casablanca, twelve years before. He would be nominated once again for The Caine Mutiny in 1954. He would lose out to Brando for On the Waterfront.

No elephants were harmed during the making of the picture.

Casablanca – Denny Ledger’s Take

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I’ve seen it a hundred times, you’ve seen it a hundred times. I’ll see it a hundred times more. You will too, let’s be honest.

But why?

Nearly eighty years on and it’s lost none of its magic. A simple three-way love triangle set in an exotic locale with a wartime backdrop, it certainly doesn’t sound like a classic on the surface.

It started as an un-produced three-act play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, when Warner Bros. snapped up the film rights, changing the name to Casablanca, following the success of Algiers in 1938.

It would be another film that would slip through the fingers of George Raft, as Jack Warner mentioned his name in consideration for the lead, Rick Blane, an American expatriate running a saloon in Casablanca, but executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz had already made up their minds on the lead, and once again Raft’s loss would be Bogie’s gain.

With a white tuxedo and still with a heavy hangover from some dame back in Paris, it doesn’t quite seem to be familiar territory for Bogie, whose screen persona after High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon was by now clearly defined. However, this is classic Bogie, the classic Bogie role perhaps.

It would be his sixth of eight collaborations with Curtiz, and his first opposite Ingrid Bergman, who got the role after it was decided that the female lead should not be American, but European, where previously Bogie regulars Mary Astor and Ann Sheridan were briefly considered.

She was cast as Ilsa Lund, and the woman who broke Bogie’s heart, and who is still stamping on it, despite his better efforts of trying to forget her with a little help from a gin bottle and a ‘strictly forbidden’ policy on one particular tune.

Never a romantic leading man, and only recently joining the ranks of leading men, there is a natural chemistry between Bogie and Bergman, and also Rick and Ilsa.

The same could not be said of Ilsa and her husband, Victor Laszlo, nor of Bergman and the Viennese Paul Henreid, as the underground resistance leader.

He’s as stiff as Bogie’s gin, – po-faced, emotionless, humorless, too proud, too heroic; it’s little wonder Ilsa has kept the flame burning for Rick all this time.

The crux of the film is the question: who will Ilsa leave Casablanca with?

There is also a sub-question that comes with it: who does Ilsa truly love?

We assume, incorrectly I might add, that the two questions are mutually exclusive, that Ilsa will leave with the man she loves. Right? Right?

Well, let’s look at the evidence.

If we consider what would have happened if she had left with Rick and not Victor at the end of the film, would it still have the same effect and reputation nearly 80 years on? Would film critics, historians and fans still be discussing the implications and reasons for the decision?

No. Bogie or Henreid? Come on. Rick or Victor? Come off it. We wouldn’t give it a second thought, as we want her to leave with Rick, not her husband.

One question, perhaps the ultimate question that remains with us long after the film has ended, is who did Ilsa want to leave on the plane with? After all, her fate was decided by Rick, and although she accepts the reasons for going with Victor (at least she says she does), would she rather have gone with Rick, the man who, deep down, she knows is the love of her life?

Which leads us on to fact two. Censorship.

Ilsa was married, which meant she could never leave with Rick at the end as the censors would not allow it.

Bergman had asked Curtiz which man Ilsa really loved so she could know how to play the role. However, the script was written and rewritten as shooting went on, and as the shoot began, there was no ending, and no decision was made who she would be leaving with or who she really loved.

In answer to her question, Curtiz told her, ‘We don’t know yet – just play it, … in between’.

If Bergman, or anyone else, was in any doubt about who she would leave with at the end of the film, or indeed who she truly loved, she would only have to consider what the Breen Office would dictate.

As the censorship board, there is no way they would have allowed Ilsa to be in love with Rick or leave on the plane with him instead of Victor while Victor, her husband, was still alive. To achieve such a thing would be immoral, and would not have passed the censors.

Another facet to the theory that Bergman did not know who she loved or would be leaving with, was the fact that the film was not shot in sequence. Several key scenes were shot after the end sequence so she would have known during the filming of the remaining scenes who she would be leaving with.

In the end of course, she leaves with her dullard, Cointreau-drinking husband. No wonder she looks upset. It is Bogie, complete with the more familiar uniform of trench coat, fedora and gun, who does the honorable thing.

Now, let’s consider this.

The end scene at the airport is perhaps as famous as any scene in cinema history. In reality, the scene was shot on a small sound stage at the studio. A smoke machine filled the set so you could not get a sense of the size of the airport. The plane itself was a cut out model and the engineers were midgets, as a full-size man would have been taller than the plane itself.

The letters of transit, and coincidentally, there being no such thing in reality, are a MacGuffin. That is, a false prize. The question remains that even with the letters, would Lazlo still be allowed to leave Casablanca?

A bigger question can be asked, as the revelation of who is getting on the plane with Ilsa is revealed:  who was there to prevent Ilsa, Victor, Rick, Louis, and hey, why not Sam while we’re at it, from getting on the plane? Who checked the letters of transit? The airport was deserted, save for the midgets and the pilot, who drives the plane away so he was otherwise engaged.

But let’s back it up a bit and move away from the conspiracy theories.

The film is concerned with two letters of transit which have been stolen and subsequently gone missing. These were documents which would allow the exit from Casablanca. The letters were stolen by one Ugarte, played by Bogie regular Peter Lorre.

There was also a role for another Bogie regular, Sydney Greenstreet, however, any excitement we may have had in another pairing of Lorre and Greenstreet (who would star in seven films together) was slightly diminished as they share no screen time together. In fact, Lorre is out of the picture within the first reel. However, both men bring the usual qualities to the film, and are part of the rich world that makes Casablanca so special to millions of people all over the world. Added to the cast are Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt as well as a host of European actors and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam.

Many a film has tried to play on the themes of Casablanca. Passage to Marseilles which reunited Curtiz and Lorre, Greenstreet, Rains and, of course, Bogie. To Have and Have Not, loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, the first pairing Bogie and Bacall, and The Conspirators starring Henreid, Lorre, and Greenstreet.

There was also room for the Marx Brothers parody / homage, A Night in Casablanca, complete with Groucho’s Kornblow, dressed in white tuxedo as well as the usual huge cigar, painted on eyebrows and mustache.

The film would also get the Looney Tunes treatment in an eight-minute version of Carrotblanca, with Bugs Bunny as Rick, Tweety as an unsettlingly accurate Lorre impersonation as Ugarte, Daffy as Sam, Pepé Le Pew as Renault and Yosemite Sam as Strasser, as well as countless other references, quotes, rip offs and homages.

It was both a film of its time and timeless. It spoke of the plight of refugees, a topic that is still rife in the world today, and having beliefs in a higher cause, ultimately, freedom, and the belief and pursuit of it.

It is almost certainly the most loved film of all time, and it is not remembered as a Bergman film, Henreid film nor Curtiz film, but a Bogie film.

‘Here’s looking at you, kid.’

*Denny Ledger’s new book A Reasonable Amount of Trouble: The Films of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart can be purchased from Amazon hereYou can find him online at @dennyledger on Twitter.  This post is part of the section of the blog entitled Take 2 where Classic Film fans and writers can contribute to the blog.  You can check out the rest of those posts here.*