—Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet, Astor, Huston – ‘Nuff Said—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: John Huston
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.
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:
“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!”
The Bottom Line
It’s the stuff that cinematic dreams are made of!