Pulp Masterpieces, Part 3: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

There was a pulp magazine published in the ’20s and ’30s called Black Mask. With a name like that, you might be thinking it was a “saucy pulp” delivering racy content, but in reality when it first got started, it was a pretty generic “five magazines in one” delivering adventure, mystery, the occult, romance, and love. What the difference between romance and love stories are, I have no idea; if somebody knows, please feel free to enlighten me. Over time, under the editorial reins of a man named “Cap” Joseph Shaw, the magazine steadily focused more and more on mystery stories until finally that was the only kind of tale appearing in the pulp. While there were other detective pulps being published at the time, there are a couple of things that make Black Mask stand out, historically. It was in the pages of Black Mask that the first quintessential fictional private detective appeared: Terry Mack, created by John Daly. And some historically important people were getting their stuff published in the pages of this magazine, like Raymond Chandler, Earl Stanley Gardner, and Dashiell Hammett.


Now, perhaps Hammett didn’t create the greatest American private detective (that honor goes to Chandler and his private eye, Phillip Marlowe), or the most famous pulp era mystery figure (that honor would go to Earl Stanley Gardner and his creation, crime solving lawyer Perry Mason, who thrived on TV in the ’50s and ’60s, to experience a revival in the ’80s and ’90s. And how many literary figures could inspire a rock star like Ozzy Osbourne to write a song with their name in the title?), but “Dash” created what is arguably the greatest American detective novel, The Maltese Falcon.

Published in 1928, The Maltese Falcon was adapted into a motion picture not once…

…not twice…

…but three times!

So if it seems like Hollywood only recently became obsessed with remakes, think again: they’ve been recycling stories almost since day one. The first version was released in 1931 and… it sucks. No polite way to say this: it’s a forgettable mess of a movie. I mean, look at hard boiled detective Sam Spade:

Did his mommy pick out those pajamas for him? This movie stars people I never heard of, and it’s one of those films you kind of wish had decomposed in a huge vault somewhere. At least then it would have taken on some near-mythic quality. Instead, it still exists, and the world is a tiny bit sadder because of it.

Falcon got adapted a second time in 1936, and at least this time we got real actors in it. Re-named Satan Met a Lady (no Satan in the movie, and the femme fatale is no lady), it stars Warren William as detective Ted Shane, and instead of a statue of a bird, everybody is hunting a horn. The story is turned into a comedy, and not even the incomparable Bette Davis and her god-like acting ability can salvage it.

While Davis would go on without looking back to become Hollywood royalty, William remained a B-movie actor, albeit a likable one. He would be the first man to play Perry Mason in four films, and then, among other projects, he did a series of films as the Lone Wolf, a reformed jewel thief who would aid those in trouble.

So now it’s 1941, and there are two mediocre film adaptations of this stellar literary work. And along comes a guy named John Huston. If the name sounds familiar to you nerds, John Huston was the first Gandalf in the animated (and far superior) Hobbit movie:

What else is Huston famous for? Oh, yeah, he was a writer, actor, and one of the greatest directors in motion picture history. And The Maltese Falcon, ver. 1941, considered by most to be the first true film noir motion picture, one of the most iconic movies of all time, was his first film.

Not a bad way to start your career.

The plot (warning: spoilers!): San Francisco private detectives Sam Spade and Miles Archer…

…are approached by a Mrs. Wonderly…

…who wishes to have her sister rescued by a man named Thursby. Archer winds up getting killed, apparently by Thursby, and then later Thursby himself is shot. The police discover Spade has been sleeping with his dead partner’s wife, and now they have two theories: Spade killed Archer to get him out of the way, or he killed Thursby to avenge his partner’s death. Whichever murder the police like Spade best for, Sam knows he must find the real killer(s) to clear his name. Who is Wonderly really, and who is Joel Cairo…

…and who is the young punk gunman trailing him…

…and who is the man he works for…

…and why is everyone so obsessed with a black figurine of a falcon?

I’m going to say up front that as remarkable a film as this is, and as amazing a talent as John Huston proved to be, the man did have help. Legendary Warner Bros. producer Hal B. Wallis worked on it behind the scenes and Jack Warner himself had a hand in shaping the film (for example, it was he who demanded Bogart’s dialogue be sped up), and Huston was surrounded by experienced people like veteran director of photography Arthur Edeson. I know it sounds like I’m dumping all over a legend, but fair is fair; a person doesn’t make a movie all on their own. But what Huston did for his first film is pretty damn remarkable. The Maltese Falcon is a tremendously stylish, well-paced, well-written, well-acted motion picture, and a genre-defining film.

So what makes this film so awesome that I have to watch it every time TCM airs it? Well, let’s start with the performances. Humphrey Bogart was 41 years old by the time this movie came out, and he had seen mixed success over the years. Yeah, The Petrified Forest got him some much deserved recognition in 1936 when he played escaped convict “Duke” Mantee (a role he played on the stage with fellow actor Leslie Howard. Howard went to bat for Bogart and insisted he be paired with him again for the film adaptation, which probably saved Bogart’s film career as he had done nothing of note before this)…

…but before and after this movie, Bogart was always playing second fiddle to some other actor like James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. And then something strange happened. George Raft, a big star, started turning down movie roles. He decided not to play conflicted criminal Roy Earle in High Sierra, and then he turned down the part of Sam Spade. Both came out in ’41, and suddenly Bogart had arrived.

While Bogart is now considered one of the greatest actors who ever lived, a man who defined cool (the fact he was married to Lauren Bacall, a woman some twenty years younger than him and one of Hollywood’s great leading ladies doesn’t hurt either), George Raft is not nearly as well known these days, a guy whose impact, in my opinion, pales in comparison to the man who stood behind him for years.

Would that have changed had he taken the two roles he turned down and Bogart then snatched up? It’s hard to say. I think that both parts needed a rougher, grittier actor than the too-smooth Raft. In both cases, these films defined Bogart’s career as much as Bogart elevated the films above the standard crime dramas of the time.

As Sam Spade, Bogart seems to have little or no morals, manipulating everyone around him as he tries to find the killer and at the same time get his hands on “the black bird”. The only thing that makes him a touch more redeemable than the rest of the cast is his code: if a man’s partner is killed, no matter how much you hated him, you have to do something about it. It’s the sort of sentiment you see in later films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, that even the most evil of men can’t call themselves men without showing at least a trace of honor towards their fellow thieves. Bogart delivers his lines in a rapid fire style, using them as weapons instead of guns to keep everyone else off their game. But there are many instances where the man can slow the pace, delivering pathos as he discovers he’s in love with Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy and at the same time has to turn her in, both because it’s the right thing to do and if he doesn’t, sooner or later she might turn on him.

Sydney Greenstreet was 61 when he did this film. A veteran stage actor, this was his first experience in front of the camera. Yeah, with a first-time director directing his first film. The story goes he would cling to Mary Astor’s hand because he was terrified of looking foolish. Considering how he spent some 40 years on stage acting in front of a live audience seven or eight days a week, that might sound silly, but if you have a bad night on stage it’s usually forgotten about and pushed out of a person’s memory by the next bad performance. But if you have a bad performance in front of the camera, that’s potentially kept for posterity forever. No wonder the guy was terrified his first turn as a movie actor might blow up in his face.

Fortunately, Greenstreet is all kinds of awesome in this film. Gutman is affable, charming, and a likable, jolly man. Until you get in the way of what he wants. Then the lean predator hiding under all those layers of fat peeks out.

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo is delightful. A Hungarian actor, his most famous film was Franz Kafka’s M, where he played a notorious child killer. Lorre fled Europe when the Nazis came to power and he didn’t miss a beat when he landed in Hollywood. As Joel Cairo, Lorre is foppish and maybe a tiny bit gay.

But maybe I’m reading too much into things.

Cairo is cunning and mistrustful, and the last man you would turn your back on if you truly knew him, but likely you wouldn’t see past his preening exterior until it’s too late.

Unless, of course, you’re Bogart.

Mary Astor is great as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the “femme fatale” who Bogart/Spade doesn’t trust, and who he’s also undeniably attracted to. How much of her fear is an act, and how much of it is a put-on to engender sympathy from Spade? We’re left wondering perhaps to the very end of the film; it’s possible we never know the real O’Shaughnessy, and she might take that to the gallows.

O’Shaughnessy should remain a cypher; not all mysteries should be solvable, and not even the incomparable Sam Spade can know all the parts of a woman’s heart. In a way, all three characters—Gutman, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy—have that one thing in common: deceptive exteriors hiding their true selves.

Elisha Cook, Jr. plays Gutman’s “boy”, Wilmer…

…but in reality he was only three years younger than Bogart. He was the sort of guy who had baby face looks, who could play young roles for decades. As Wilmer, like everybody else, he’s wearing a mask, showing a tough exterior hiding a scared little man.

As I mentioned previously, The Maltese Falcon is considered by some to be the first true film noir motion picture, and I don’t dispute that claim. Film noir is a genre that’s largely about morally ambiguous characters engaging in crime, often resulting in an ending that, if not tragic, then is at least not truly what a person could call “happy”. But The Maltese Falcon to me also has some very pulp characteristics to it. Bear in mind, the pulp genre was as much about detective stories as it was adventure and science fiction and outrageous vigilantes. Hell, a vast majority of the Shadow’s stories were mysteries. Even a lot of Doc Savage stories had mystery elements to them. But it isn’t just that. Look at some of the characters involved in this story; while Wilmer is your typical gunman, and O’Shaughnessy is a classic femme fatale, the likes of Cairo and Gutman are colorful characters and larger than life.

In some cases, almost literally.

And the Falcon itself is a remarkable MacGuffin. This statuette has a fascinating history to it, a prize so exotic that it’s easy to imagine Indiana Jones hunting for it.

“That bird belongs in a museum!”

If the film has any flaw, I think it’s the opening text scroll describing what the Falcon is. It’s wholly unnecessary, because Gutman’s recitation of its history to Spade is fantastic. Greenstreet has a wonderful voice and his delivery is spot on as a man who’s obsessed with the prize and is enthusiastically recounting what it is he’s after to a man who at the time he thinks is no longer needed. Gutman is just waiting for the effects of the drug in Spade’s drink to kick in, but he’s nevertheless having a wonderful time telling his tale.

The Falcon represents the exotic and the unusual, two things Spade, a private eye used to dealing in the petty and sordid details of desperate people, seldom gets to see. I love the scene where O’Shaughnessy and Cairo are talking, going back and forth about details that Spade is ignorant of and he’s interested in hearing. He’s come in in the middle of an unusual conversation, and despite the fact he has two murders hanging over his head, he’s fascinated by what he’s hearing. You get the feeling through the film that Spade might on some level be enjoying himself. While greed and clearing his name are his two greatest motivations, I can’t help but feel that when he lays his eyes on the Falcon for the first time it’s with a sense of wonder; it exists, and a touch of the outlandish has lent color to his strict gray existence.

The Maltese Falcon started off as just another film, an inexpensive project for a first-time director. But a combination of fate and talent brought about a groundbreaking masterpiece. Maybe you might turn your nose up at old black and white films, thinking they aren’t worth your time. If you feel that way, I urge you to make an exception and give this film a look. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

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