'The Maltese Falcon' was made on a low budget, even by 1941 standards, of $300,000, and was originally released as a B picture by Warner Brothers. The public response to the movie was so positive that it was quickly re-assessed to an A status. It was a resounding success both critically and financially, and its reputation has continued to grow ever since. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet), and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Director, John Huston.)
It was further honored in 1989 when it was selected by the Library of Congress, for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In the American film Institute's 2007 list of top 100 Movies it is ranked at number 31.
The movie is considered to be one of the first of film noir genre movies which became so popular during the next two decades. It certainly has many of the noir properties: it is influenced by hard boiled crime fiction, it has a troubled hero in a city setting, with the action taking place almost entirely in anonymous and claustrophobic hotel rooms and offices frequently photographed at night, murky symbolic shadows - which are withheld until the elevator door casts jail-bar shapes across the face of the duplicitous heroine at the end, and a general sense of doom and cynicism.
PlotHumphrey Bogart, plays cool private eye Sam Spade who lives by his own moral code. He is out to bring in the murderer of his partner and thwart a group of treacherous adventurers who have become so caught up in the search for the fabulous jeweled bird of the title that they make the fatal mistake of assuming everyone is as corrupt and greedy as they are.
Huston's clever and complex script drives the film forward well, and the mystery of the falcon and the murderer is resolved by Spade in a highly entertaining manner, with plenty of plot twists and turns along the way.
ProductionThe movie was based on the Dashiell Hammett's novel 'The Maltese Falcon', originally serialized in the crime magazine "Black Mask" beginning with the September 1929 issue. Hammett apparently drew on his years as a Pinkerton detective to create his characters. The novel had been filmed twice before, firstly in 1931 under its own title starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and then as 'Satan Met a Lady' in 1935 with Warren William as the Spade character and a young Bette Davis.
Director John Huston who, remarkably, wrote the screenplay, as well as making his directorial debut, remained faithful to the original Hammett novel, particularly the dialogue which is quite superb. Whereas other great Hollywood directors pursue their own visions, Huston was at his best when making faithful adaptations of minor classic novels. Having served an apprenticeship as a writer, he selected the book from Warner Brothers' catalogue of properties and was so confident in the strength of his material that his script consists essentially of a transcription of Hammett's dialogue although removing any references to sex that the censors might find unacceptable. For instance, the homosexuality of Joel Cairo is shown quite clearly in the novel but is only hinted at in the movie.
Huston was fortunate enough to be able to obtain a letter-perfect cast down to the smallest bit parts. Warner Brothers had originally wanted the popular George Raft for the Spade role but he turned it down, refusing to do a remake. Huston's first choice was Bogart, who had become a dependable leading man in films such as 'They Drive by Night' in 1940 and 'High Sierra' in early 1941. The studio wanted Geraldine Fitzgerald for the role of Brigid but she passed to do a play, leaving the way clear for Huston and Bogart to choose Mary Astor.
Huston carefully tailored the screenplay shot by shot, and did his own detailed sketches for every scene, in the same way exactly as Hitchcock made his movies. Huston also, unusually, shot most of the scenes sequentially. He gave the actors free rein to work out their scenes themselves, following his carefully detailed script. It was a happy film to make, with the cast, crew and director often socialising together after filming. Huston's careful planning paid off - the film kept to schedule and never went over budget.
Behind the camera Huston used the experienced cinematographer, Arthur Edeson and the lighting, framing and composition of some scenes are ground-breaking. Many scenes are shot over Bogart's shoulder so that the audience sees what Sam Spade sees.
The film's tense atmosphere is heightened by low camera angles and clever use of ceilings to suggest confinement. Close ups and shadows are used to emphasize the dark personalities of most of the characters. When Wilmer wakes up, we see Gutman, Cairo, Spade and Brigid looking at him from Wilmer's viewpoint and we know what they, and Wilmer, are thinking without a word being said.
Main CastThe casting could hardly be bettered. All the performers are consummate character actors giving great performances with subtle nuances.
Humphrey Bogart ... Sam Spade
Mary Astor... Brigid O'Shaughnessy
Sydney Greenstreet ... Kasper Gutman
Peter Lorre ... Joel Cairo
Elisha Cook Jr. ... Wilmer Cook
Barton MacLane ... Lieutenant Dundy
Ward Bond ... Det. Sgt. Tom Polhaus
Lee Patrick ... Effie Perrine
Jerome Cowan ... Miles Archer
Gladys George ... Iva Archer
Walter Huston ... Captain Jacobi
James Burke ... Luke
Murray Alper ... Frank Richman
John Hamilton ... District Attorney Bryan
Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) Graduating from B-movie bad-guy roles to tough romantic heroes, Bogart dominates the film - the only scene in which he does not appear is when the murder takes place. After being a regular stage performer in the 1920's and 30's Bogart's first movie success was in 'The Petrified Forest' in 1936. The year after 'The Maltese Falcon' he became a superstar and cultural icon with the classic 'Casablanca'. In the AFI's list of Greatest Actors he is number one.
Mary Astor (1906-1987)
Mary revels in the pivotal role of the "femme fatale" around whom all the action revolves. she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 'The Great Lie' 1941
Gladys George (1904-1954) After appearing in several silent movies from 1919 to 1921, Gladys had a successful Broadway career and returned to filmmaking in 1934. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in for her performance in 'Valiant Is the Word for Carrie' in 1936 and she became one of the finest character actresses in Hollywood before her early death at the age of 50.
The criminals are played consummately well by brilliant actors Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr.
Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) Greenstreet is a delight as the talkative, self-absorbed Kasper Gutman. This was his first movie role at the age of 61 and he took full advantage. He teamed up with Bogart and Peter Lorre again in 'Casablanca' later in 1941 and in 'Passage to Marseille' in 1944.
Peter Lorre (1904-1964) Lorre gives a brilliant performance as the sad, whiny villain, Joel Cairo. Austrian born, he became famous playing a child killer in the Fritz Lang film 'M'. He escaped from the Nazis and settled in Hollywood in 1935 becoming a specialist in playing sinister foreigners. He and Greenstreet made nine movies together in total.
Elisha Cook Jr. (1903-1995) Cook plays the fall guy, Wilmer, the angry little gunman who is doomed always to be on the outside of the deal. After an early stage career he appeared in his first movie in 1930 and became one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood usually playing a similar type of weak, crooked character.
CreditsDirector ... John Huston
Producer ... Hal B. Wallis (executive)
Screenplay ... John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Format ... B & W
Music ... Adolph Deutsch
Cinematography ... Arthur Edeson
Distribution Company ... Warner Bros.
Release date ... October 18, 1941
Running time ... 101 minutes
Academy AwardsNo Wins:
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Warner Brothers
Best Supporting Actor ... Sydney Greenstreet
Best Writing, Screenplay ... John Huston