The Maltese Falcon – 1941

The Maltese Falcon Poster

My Review

—Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet, Astor, Huston – ‘Nuff Said—

Your Bogie Film Fix:

5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director: John Huston

The Lowdown

A private detective (Humphrey Bogart) tries to unravel the mystery behind a priceless statue after a beautiful woman (Mary Astor) hires him for a case that leads to his partner’s (Jerome Cowan) death.

What I Thought

Writing something up for Bogart’s more obscure classics always seems like a breeze. Writing something for these iconic classics however . . . that’s always tough. So much has been written about The Maltese Falcon that it’s hard to know what I could ever add to the conversation.

Warner Brother’s originally assigned George Raft to the role of Sam Spade – not because they really wanted him for the role, but because they wanted Henry Fonda for another film and Fonda worked for Twentieth Century Fox. So follow this . . . Raft didn’t want to do The Maltese Falcon. He supposedly hated the script and didn’t want to work with first time director John Huston. (Huston didn’t want him either. Bogart was always Huston’s first choice.) So Warner Brothers, knowing that Raft would balk at Falcon, gave him the option of going on ‘suspension’ so that he could go over to Fox and Fonda could come over to Warner Brothers.

Raft in the Spade role would have been different. I don’t think it would have killed the film if the actor and the director could have put their personal differences aside and shot the movie as Huston wanted it, but it probably wouldn’t be the classic that it is today.

Looking back, Warner Brothers had all of the ingredients for a timeless classic. Bogart, Lorre, and Greenstreet. John Huston writing and directing. A film based on a famous novel that had never been filmed well in two prior attempts. But Bogart was an unproven draw. Lorre was still regarded as a foreign character actor that could do well, but was considered more of a novelty than anything else. And Greenstreet was making his film debut after years in the theater. For Warner Brothers, this was still gamble with a whole lot of unknown variables in the mix.

Look how well it paid off.

The legend of this film is so wide and so deep that when one of the falcons from the film came up for auction in November of 2014 it went for over 4 million dollars and the story was covered by all the major news outlets. (The only movie memorabilia item that I could find to have sold for more was one of James Bond’s Aston Martins which went for $4.1 million.) People love this film deeply.

A small cast of brilliant actors, tight directing with no wasted scenes, a faithful adaption from the novel that lifts moments directly from the book, and a hungry first-time director who happens to be a genius make The Maltese Falcon flawless in a lot of people’s eyes. I really can’t disagree. This is one of those films that could play on an endless loop in my house and I’d never get tired of it.

The Bogart Factor

I love watching The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep back to back. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are so similar and yet so different at the same time. Both are private eyes who let money lead them down some pretty dark paths, yet while Spade seems cynical and embittered by humanity, Marlowe is able to hold onto a more playful outlook on life, flirting and quipping his way through every situation without quite as much sarcasm dripping from every line.

Bogart had made a splash with High Sierra just months before The Maltese Falcon premiered, but this was definitely one of the first big films that showed Warner Brothers that Bogart’s name could really start to become a draw for fans. His B-movie career all but died after The Maltese Falcon won over audiences and his filmography quickly filled with some of Hollywood’s most beloved classic films.

Bogart’s interactions with Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr. show a man who seems in complete control of every emotion and physicality in an actor’s toolbox, and there’s a level of confidence on display that I don’t think Bogart hit so highly in any of his previous films.

The Cast

Mary Astor plays femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the woman who pulls Bogart into the danger and mystery surrounding the falcon statue. According to a few different bios and websites, Director Huston had Astor run around the set before takes in order to lend a constant, breathless quality to her performance. After re-watching this film for the umpteenth time, I have to say that it certainly seems to be true and it works well for her performance. I guess Astor had a bit of a reputation around Hollywood at the time for enjoying her time with lots of different men and that helped feed into the excitement of this film when it came out. While that aspect might be lost on modern day viewers, Astor is still amazing in the role – hitting all the right notes and keeping the audience’s sympathies despite a string of nonstop lies and manipulations.

Peter Lorre plays Joel Cairo, one of the criminals who’s been chasing around the world in order to lay hands on the statue. I can’t say enough good things about Lorre here. He looks to be in the best shape of his life. He plays a coward who’s able to muster some courage when there’s a gun in his hand, giving both an air of humor and danger to many scenes. His moments with Bogart and Greenstreet are all the more fun when you consider how much he thought of both men in real life. Strangely enough, I think that one of my favorite aspects about his performance might be his hair! It’s so wonderfully dark and curly and thick and slick looking! I’ve read a lot about what a ladies’ man Lorre was and this film is always the one that convinces me that all the stories could well be true!

Sydney Greenstreet made his film debut at 62 years old playing Kasper Gutman, the main goon who’s following the falcon around the globe. Every single scene Greenstreet’s in is pure joy. His laugh is amazing, his amusement over Bogart’s confusion is wonderful, and it’s a real shame that it took so long to get this man to the big screen. I’m incredibly jealous of all the audiences that got to see him on stage in England for years before coming to Hollywood as there hasn’t been a big-man actor with such a commanding presence onscreen since his last film over 60 years ago. By gad! The scene where he turns on Wilmer is so painfully funny and well done that it might be my favorite bit from all of his films. A villain who so believably loves life while committing dastardly crimes at the same time is the best kind of bad guy a film could ever hope for.

Elisha Cook Jr. plays Greenstreet’s diminutive sidekick and gunman, Wilmer Cook. The other actors in this film are so great that Cook often seems to be overlooked in reviews, but he’s really good. His moments with Bogart and his betrayal at the hands of Greenstreet would be considered the best of the film if Lorre hadn’t been so good at stealing scenes.

Lee Patrick plays Bogart’s secretary, Effie. I love the fact the woman who works for Sam Spade seems almost as sultry and dangerous as the woman who hires him onto a case that almost gets him killed. Patrick’s role isn’t huge, but she’s great. This is exactly the kind of woman that Spade would want working for him as she seems almost as sardonic as he does. Yet, she still seems to have a good heart buried beneath the cynicism as she quickly agrees to take Astor into her apartment to keep her safe when things start to get rough. I need to check out the rest of Patrick’s filmography.

Bogie Film Blog favorite Barton MacLane plays Lt. of Detectives Dundy. This guy is such a solid supporting actor and it’s fun to see him in a role where he’s not completely against Bogart. They get to have some fun back-and-forth teasing with just the right amount of edge to it. I can’t wait to add MacLane to ‘The Usual Suspects’ portion of the blog.

Jerome Cowan plays Bogart’s ill-fated partner, Miles Archer. It’s a very small role for Cowan as he’s bumped off early on in the film, but he does well. He’s a good reminder for the audience that private detectives can run a bit on the sleazy side as his love for women is probably what gets him killed in the first place.

Gladys George plays Cowan’s widow, and Bogart’s mistress, Iva Archer. Again, it’s another small role that seems to be in place in order to show us a darker side of Spade’s character, but George does fine in the role with what she has to work with.

Classic Bogie Moment

So much to love here. I’m torn between a shot of him behind the desk as Astor enters his office, a shot of him with the falcon, a shot of him with Astor, and a shot of him with Greenstreet. But I just can’t resist this moment from the film where two men who genuinely came to love one another’s company in real life create one of my favorite moments in film history:

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Bogart Lorre Falcon

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!”

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The Bottom Line

It’s the stuff that cinematic dreams are made of!

The Roaring Twenties – 1939

roaring twenties

My Review

—Great Film—

Your Bogie Fix:

3 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Raoul Walsh

The Lowdown

Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) returns from fighting in World War I and finds that the only way he can make a decent living is by selling homemade liquor.  Soon Bartlett is running a bootlegging operation, in love with a naïve young singer (Priscilla Lane), and teaming up with two old war buddies (Jeffry Lynn and Humphrey Bogart) to deliver cheap booze to as many speakeasies as he can muscle.  Before long though, Bartlett finds that his unrequited love and his jealous partner are more than he can handle while running a business.

What I Thought

This film is a whole lot of fun.  While it may not be Cagney or Bogart’s best gangster movie, it’s still fantastic and well worth the watch.

Cagney gets to run the gamut from celebrated soldier boy to big time gangster, and then all the way down to flat broke drunk.  I use the word charisma a lot on this blog when I talk about Bogart’s command of the big screen, but Cagney is another one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off of.  He looks great in a uniform, a tuxedo, and a bum’s clothes.  He can switch from coy and charming one minute, to fierce and ruthless the next, and it always plays believably.  Plus, he has a great sense of comedic timing and isn’t afraid to let his costars shine.  Good guy or evil, it’s hard not to root for him in any role.

While the story of bootlegging gangsters might not be new or groundbreaking, it is quite layered, weaving many different characters in and out of the life of Cagney’s returning war veteran, Bartlett.

Many gangster movies of the time were satisfied with introducing one female lead to hold the main hood’s coat and be a good little mobgirl stereotype – The Roaring Twenties gives us two, and neither one of them turns out to be the typical squeaky moll that we might expect.

The young singer that Bartlett adores won’t return his loving glance, let alone his proposal ring.  All the while, the older speakeasy madam is quietly pining away for him, but Bartlett can’t bring himself out of his puppy-love daze long enough to notice.

Then there are Bartlett’s two pals that would give him the shirt off their backs and all he does is lead them down a dangerous and tragic path.  Bartlett’s roommate Danny (Frank McHugh) is willing to do absolutely anything to help his buddy make it, and it costs him big when Bartlett continually puts him in harm’s way.  And Bartlett’s old war buddy, Lloyd (Jeffry Lynn), who’s now a lawyer, barely makes it out of Bartlett’s racket by the skin of his teeth.

What sets this film apart from so many gangster of the time is that director Raoul Walsh gives us a story that’s more epic in nature than what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of crime films.  These are three dimensional characters that all have interests and desires that, like in real life, don’t all orbit around one central character so that everything wraps up nicely before the credits.

Cagney’s Bartlett is a man with a serious tragic flaw – he can’t always put aside his own ambition to see the bigger picture.  It costs him in the end when he passes up one too many chances to take care of his business partner, and rival, George Hally (Bogart), leaving us with a bittersweet finale after Bartlett finally does the right thing, albeit a little too late.

The Bogart Factor

Bogart’s got a strong first ten minutes in the film and then disappears until about halfway through.  It’s not as well rounded a character as Cagney has to play with, as Bogart plays a slightly more typical bad guy, but it does have its moments.

Director Walsh is able to misdirect us a bit, making Bogart’s George Hally a borderline likable guy.  There’s an inkling here and there that Hally could go bad, but we really don’t know for sure until the final act of the film.

Small scenes are given to Bogart’s character that are able to show his menace, while at the same time giving us motivation for his eventual turn on Cagney.  In particular, Walsh crafts a great little side story where Hally comes across his old, belligerent army Sergeant (Joe Sawyer) as the bootleggers are committing a robbery.  Through just a few lines earlier in the movie, we know that Hally feels as if he’s been mistreated by the Sergeant, a man that Hally has always felt superior to.  At both points in the film, we don’t yet know that Bogart’s going to turn on Cagney, and so it’s not hard for us to understand Hally’s satisfaction in getting revenge on his old tormenter. It also adds a little color to Bogart’s character as we learn that he doesn’t like taking orders from anyone – which ends up being George Hally’s tragic flaw.

The Cast

Priscilla Lane is very good as Jean Sherman, the teenage girl who writes Cagney during the war and then steals his heart when he gets home.  She very convincingly plays ignorant to Cagney’s advances, and it’s easy to believe that she’d fall for a character like Jeffrey Lynn’s stand-up Lloyd.

Perhaps my favorite moments of the film happen with Frank McHugh’s portrayal of Cagney’s best friend, Danny.  McHugh’s comic timing and expressive face inject a lot of good nature and levity into the early part of the movie, and he works very well with Cagney.  McHugh pops up here and there in a lot of Classic Hollywood films, and I need to further explore his filmography.

Another high point is Gladys George (Iva Archer in The Maltese Falcon) as a speakeasy hostess who has a thing for Cagney.  She takes the role well beyond the caricature that it could have been, and gives the audience a strong character that we can relate to as she watches Cagney spin out of control.

Don’t Forget to Notice

A number of Bogie regulars show up in character roles – Joe Sawyer as the Sergeant, Ben Welden as a bar owner, and Eddie Acuff as a taxi driver.  My goal before this blog is done is to create a cross referenced list of all the actors who pop up in Bogart’s movies again and again.

Classic Bogie Moment

The scene that sticks out to me most is one that comes early in the film and shows Bogart’s skill at mixing humor and menace in the same moment.  Bogart, Cagney, and Lynn are all in a firefight, taking shots at Germans just before the war ends.  Lynn lines up a man in his sights, but can’t bring himself to fire:

Bogart:  What’s the matter Harvard?  You lose the Heinie?

Lynn:  No, but he looks like a kid about fifteen years old.

Bogart:  (TAKES THE SHOT AND SNEERS) He won’t be sixteen . . .

The Bottom Line

This is a great film, and while it might not be one of Bogart’s most iconic roles, he plays his part very well and gives us a heavy that can stand up against Cagney as a believable threat.