The Maltese Falcon: The Bird Is the Word

In today’s guest post, Jim Brymer discusses The Maltese Falcon:

Humphrey Bogart was born into the camera (so to speak), if stories can be believed. He was the model for a drawing for an advertising campaign for a brand of baby food called Mellin’s. Note:  It is a false rumor that he was the model for the Gerber’s baby. As noted in a snopes.com  article, Gerber’s did not begin producing baby food until Bogart was well into his adult years.  The Mellin’s baby food picture was indeed drawn by his mother, who surely used him as a model, however.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon was originally published as a novel, by Dashiell Hammett, in serial form in Black Mask, a pulp detective magazine from pre-WWII.  It was published in five installments from September 1929 to January 1930.  The story told of a whole raft of people who are as ruthless and cunning as any you’ll ever meet.  At the end of the fourth installment (in the Dec. 1929 issue), which ended just as Spade walks into his apartment to find the fat man and his cohorts waiting for him,  a footnote was added by the editor.

“To our readers:
I read this story just as you have read it-installment by installment. When I got this far I was as uncertain as you are how the story comes out, or who killed Archer and Thursby. I had ideas, of course, just as you probably have.  It wasn’t until, practically speaking, the very last word of the last installment (the installment you will read next — in the January issue) that I knew the answer and it took me completely by surprise.

As a matter of fact, when I finished reading the last installment I was breathless and overwhelmed. In all of my experience I have never read a story as intense, as gripping or as powerful as this last installment. It is a magnificent piece of writing; with all the earnestness of which I am capable I tell you not to miss it.
THE EDITOR”*

Whew! Barring that it might be hyperbole, it is easily some of the best breathless salesmanship for the next issue of Black Mask, at the very least. Would that I were capable of such prose… “Don’t miss my next blog entry, folks. Suspense! Action! Drama!  All this and more, as I review the fantastic Thomas Edison extravaganza The Sneeze!”

Now, of course I’m just trying to be witty. Both the book and film versions of The Maltese Falcon versions are extremely well written and well done. By the way, today’s version of the Falcon story was actually the third attempt to bring it to the big screen. The first, made in 1931 starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. The second, which actually only had most tenuous of connections to the original story was made (As a comedy! Egad!) as Satan Met A Lady, in 1936. But the Bogart/Huston/Astor version was the gran-daddy of them all, proving that sometimes the remake can be better than the original.

The movie opens with a brief history about the Maltese falcon, which is repeated, more or less, by Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) later in the movie. The action proper begins in San Francisco in present day. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is in his office when his secretary (Lee Patrick) announces the arrival of a potential client, a Miss Wonderley (Mary Astor).

Miss Wonderley wants to hire the firm of Spade and Archer (Jerome Cowan) to get her sister away from a mysterious figure named Floyd Thursby, whom she thinks has either kidnapped or seduced her sister.  Before the night is over, both Archer and Thursby are dead, killed in separate locations, so it wasn’t the result of a shootout.

Spade is visited by Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), a police detective friend, and Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane) at his apartment to try to get some details, but also to intimate that they have suspicions that Spade killed Thursby in revenge for the death of his partner.

The next day Spade gets a call from Miss Wonderley, now going by the name of Miss LeBlanc.  But upon arrival at her new digs, it is finally revealed that her real name is Brigid O’Shaunessey, and that the story she told about her “sister” was not true.  But she is still vague about the real truth.

Spade agrees to do what he can to help her, despite some misgivings about the whole shebang.  After returning to his office he meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who wants his help in finding a missing “ornament” (the titular falcon).  Cairo offers $5000 to get Spade’s help, but missteps when he pulls a gun and wants to search Spade’s office by force.  After knocking out Cairo and determining some of his identity through a search of his pockets, Spade offers his help for a small fee.

A mysterious figure follows Spade as he leaves his office, but Spade manages to elude him and returns to Brigid’s rooms.  When he tells her about his meeting with Cairo, she immediately becomes cagey.  But after a bit she finally reveals some of the details about her past and what part the falcon plays in it.

Spade finally meets his mysterious shadow, Wilmer (Elisha Cook), and manages to make an instant enemy. The twists and turns of this story abound.  Wilmer is actually a hired gunman for “the fat man”, the aforementioned Kaspar Gutman.  Eventually Spade meets up with Gutman and finds out the true story of the falcon.  It turns out that it may be worth considerably more than the $5000 Cairo offered Spade to find it.

I don’t want to get too much more into this movie because it is well worth the watching.  Considered by most people to be one of the best examples of film noir, it could be further detailed here, in this blog entry, but to do so would be denying you of the thrill of discovering it’s assets for yourself.

Bogart, for his part, is defined, in many people’s eyes, for his performance in a handful of movies, of which this is probably the second most common one. Gotta give a nod to him in his role of Rick in Casablanca, even here, as probably being number one.  Of course, there are others, but so as not to offend anyone for leaving a specific favorite out, I’ll limit it to these two…

Bogart plays Spade as a hard and determined individual, one who has his moral compass set in the right direction, but is still willing to manipulate it to achieve his ultimate goal (which, despite any indications to the contrary, I think is still on the side of good, if not necessarily law and order).

Bogart did not get a nomination for Best Actor for his performance (although the film was nominated for several awards, including Best Picture, but lost to How Green Was My Valley, and Greenstreet got a nom for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Crisp).  Film noir was not the pariah that science fiction seemed to be for the Oscars, however.  Just 4 years later Ray Milland won a Best Actor for his performance in The Lost Weekend, as did the movie for Best Picture.

But Bogart would not receive his first (of three) noms for Best Actor until 1943, for the aforementioned role of Rick in Casablanca, and he would not win one until 1951 for the role of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen.  Still the role of Spade should not be discounted (nor, for that matter, should almost any of Bogart’s roles, with the exception, maybe,  of The Return of Doctor X).

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

 

  • John B.

    I’ve watched this movie over and over many times and still find it immensely enjoyable. The cast is so superb, and the interplay of the characters so realistic, that the film moves along without any dull moments. Every word of dialogue seems to be important to the plot. Truly “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

  • Robert Bishop

    It is a great movie, part of the reason is Hammett himself. I believe he wrote much of the screenplay. As a bit of trivia, there was a fictional movie Hammett (came out in the 80’s I think) that has also had (a much older) Elisha Cook in it.