Don’t be fooled by the mind-boggling obviousness of including Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade in a sluethathon. Spade might be one of the silver screen’s most familiar private investigators, but he’s also one of its most important. Although the The Maltese Falcon was director John Huston’s first film it was one of his most influential, setting the standard for subsequent detective films. For Bogart, Sam Spade was a career defining role – rescuing the actor (as Roger Ebert observed) from a decade of middling roles in B gangster movies.
There’s a school of thought that suggests The Maltese Falcon was the first film noir. Certainly it includes many of the themes that would come to define the genre – a focus on human despair, a flawed hero and a complex, layered plot – but it lacks certain stylistic qualities. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson shot in natural realistic lighting, a far cry from the high contrast, stark black and white visual style that noir borrowed from German Expressionism. In fact, much of The Maltese Falcon has a distinctly ‘studio’ feeling that’s atypical of noir, and was the result of Huston’s decision to shoot mostly on set, rather than on location. That’s not to the film’s – or indeed the production’s detriment though. Apparently filming wrapped two days ahead of schedule – and $54,000 under budget.
Clearly, Huston wasn’t taking any chances with his debut feature film. The Maltese Falcon had already been adapted for the screen twice before (in 1931 under the same name and as Satan Met A Lady in 1936), and both movies had enjoyed only modest success. An undeterred Huston was convinced there was value in the original novel, written by Dashiell Hammett – and Howard Hawks agreed. According to Alex Ballinger, Hawks instructed Huston to “…make The Maltese Falcon exactly the way Hammett wrote it, use the dialogue, don’t change a goddam thing and you’ll have a hell of a picture.” Heeding this advice, Huston instructed his secretary to break the book up into basic shots, using “the novel as a word-for-word guide.”
Hawks clearly knew what he was talking about. Published in 1929, The Maltese Falcon was Hammett’s first successful novel, and inspired by his own experiences as a private investigator. The author was also responsible for The Thin Man and The Glass Key, both of which were also adapted for the screen. In fact almost all of Hammett’s novels have been adapted at least once, and the impact of his work on the development of film noir cannot be overestimated.
The success of Huston’s Falcon cannot solely be attributed to the screenplay. The casting was key. George Aft was originally cast as Sam Spade, but he was unconvinced by the role, the ‘novice’ director and, because he had a veto clause written into his contract, was able to turn down the role. Now, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bogart playing Spade; he inhabits the role like a well-worn overcoat and his distinctive voice lends gravitas and authority to the the character.
Unsentimental, cynical and suspicious, Spade lives by a strict moral code. When his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) is murdered, Spade pursues the case with zeal, although its clear that he didn’t particularly like Archer, and is acting solely out of duty. The ultimate anti-hero, his fast, tough talk is cut through with wisecracks. Although Spade is the central character, in almost every scene, he remains distant, almost untouchable. Of course, this plays into one of the film’s key themes: all the characters are skilfully duplicitous, and no-one is what they seem, or who they claim to be. The audience puts faith in Spade without knowing why, indeed they learn very little about his past but are able to discern that his actions are (generally) motivated by what’s right.
This uncertainty pervades The Maltese Falcon. Everyone is a performer and all the characters excel at deception – although it’s easier to forgive Spade because he not only recognises this aspect of his character (and doesn’t take pride in it), but uses it against others. His deception is practiced for the right reasons. One scene displays this sensibility perfectly: Huston juxtaposes an interview with the scheming Kasper Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet) with an interview with the District Attorney. In both, Spade plays the outraged private investigator, perfectly pitching the level of outrage needed for each interview. He understands that deceit isn’t just confined to the lawless – sometime those on the ‘right’ side can benefit from a spoonful of the same medicine.
Although the film is so much about Spade, Bogart doesn’t carry it alone. He’s supported by some excellent character actors, including Sydney Greenstreet (as Gutman) and Peter Lorre (playing Joel Cairo. Lorre also appeared alongside Bogart in Casablanca). Cairo wears immaculate three-piece suits and carries a perfumed handkerchief and a cane, which he strokes suggestively. Everyone in the audience knows exactly what Huston was suggesting but, thanks to the Hays Code, Cairo’s homosexuality had to be downplayed a lot more than it was in Hammett’s original text.
What sets Huston’s Falcon apart from its predecessors was the director’s decision to inject some softness and warmth into Spade. For Huston’s version to work, Spade’s potential romantic attachment with Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) had to be believable, and to Huston’s credit, he didn’t give into studio demands for a ‘happy’ ending – in fact, the final scene between Spade and O’Shaughnessy is one of the most powerful in the entire movie.
As she pleads with Spade to spare her from the law there’s a feeling that he’s going to give in – in fact you want him to give in, and for the two to walk off into the San Francisco sunset together – but he remains cold and unyielding, governed by that aforementioned moral code. He always chooses the right path, even if it’s to the detriment of his happiness. That’s quite an unusual concept in the movies, and especially those released in the early 1940s, when Europe was in the grip of WWII, and moviegoers were looking for happy-ended romanticism. By creating a flawed character that gave up everything and gave away nothing, Huston and Bogart set the benchmark for a whole new Hollywood genre, an achievement that, although not deliberate, almost guaranteed the film’s longevity.