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The Maltese Falcon: A detective story



Based on the 1930 detective novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) was a film noir written and directed by John Huston, which also became the debut vehicle of this legendary filmmaker.

The original novel contained considerable amount of homosexual subtext concerning the characters of Wilmer Cook and Joel Cairo, which had to be excised from the 1941 film due to Production Code restraints. In fact, three films adapted from this novel were produced between 1931 and 1941. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1931), the first version, a pre-Code production starred Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In 1936, Warner Brothers attempted to re-release this film but was denied approval by the Hays Production Code censors because of its “lewd” content, which in turn led to the production of the 1936 version. It was not until after 1966 that unedited copies of the 1931 film could be shown in the United States. ‘Satan Met a Lady’ (1936) was the comedic adaptation starring Bette Davis and Warren William, with Sam Spade becoming Ted Shane. The film received poor reviews, and Davis later referred to the film as “junk”. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941), the third version dropped much of the suggestive content in the 1931 version. ‘The Black Bird’ (1975), a spoof sequel came into 1970s and featured George Segal as Sam Spade Jr.

Actor, George Raft, who was under contract with Warner Bros was originally cast as Sam Spade by producer, Hal B Wallis. Raft turned it down taking advantage of a clause in his contract that said he did not have to work on remakes. He felt that it was “not an important picture”, as he was also reluctant to work with an inexperienced director. The 42-year-old Humphrey Bogart was more than delighted to play the detective. Bogart’s convincing interpretation became the archetype for a private detective in the film noir genre, providing him near-instant acclaim, rounding and solidifying his onscreen persona.

The role of the deceitful femme fatale character, Brigid O’Shaughnessy was originally offered to actress, Geraldine Fitzgerald but eventually went to Mary Astor when Fitzgerald decided to appear in a stage play instead of shooting for the film.

Like John Huston, senior actor Sydney Greenstreet also made his film debut with ‘The Maltese Falcon’, although he had been working as a prominent stage actor for 40 years. The character of ‘Fat Man’ was not easy to cast, and it took some time before Wallis solved the problem by suggesting that Huston give a screen test to Greenstreet. The then 61-year-old actor, who weighed between 280 pounds and 350 pounds, impressed Huston with his sheer size, distinctive abrasive laugh, bulbous eyes and manner of speaking.

Elisha Cook Jr, a well-known character actor was cast by Huston as Wilmer Cook, while Peter Lorre was Huston’s first and only choice to play Joel Cairo.

Walter Huston, an accomplished actor and father of John Huston did an un-credited cameo in the film as a good luck gesture for his son. He however had to promise to the notoriously tight head of studio, Jack L Warner that he wouldn’t charge for his appearance.

Huston planned each second of the film to the very last detail, tailoring the screenplay word-for-word and scene-for-scene as the original novel. He even got prepared sketches for every scene, so filming could proceed fluently and professionally. Huston was adamant that the film keep to schedule, and that everything be methodically planned to the fullest to ensure that the film never went over budget. By providing the cast with a highly detailed script, he was able to let them rehearse their scenes with very little intervention. Such was the extent and efficacy of his preparation of the script that almost no line of dialogue was eliminated in the final edit of the film.

Interestingly, the shooting went so smoothly that there was actually extra time for the cast to enjoy themselves; Huston brought his performers Bogart, Astor, Ward Bond, Lorre and others to the Lakeside Golf Club near the Warner lot to relax in the pool, dine, drink and talk until midnight about anything other than the film they were working on.

With its low-key lighting as well as inventive and arresting angles, the work of cinematographer, Arthur Edeson is one of the film’s great assets. Unusual camera angles, sometimes low to the ground revealing the ceilings of rooms – a technique also used by Orson Welles and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland in ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) – were utilised to emphasise the nature of the characters and their actions.

The American artist and sculptor, Fred Sexton was asked to prepare the statue of the falcon, which represents the title of the film. The statue itself is said to have been based on the Kniphausen Hawk, a ceremonial pouring vessel made in 1697 for George William von Kniphausen, the Count of the Holy Roman Empire. It is modelled after a hawk perched on a rock.

Upon its release, hailed as the “best mystery thriller of the year” by critics and audiences alike, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ produced at a budget of $381,000, had a cumulative worldwide gross of $1,772,000. It received three Oscar nominations, including one in the Best Picture category, but failed to win any.

As a result of the film’s success, Warner Bros immediately made plans to produce a sequel titled ‘The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon’, which Huston was to direct in early 1942. However, due to Huston’s high demand as a director and unavailability of the major cast members, the sequel was never made. Huston however did write a sequel script entitled ‘Three Strangers’ featuring the Sam Spade character. But Hammett informed Warner Bros that they had purchased only rights to the novel, and that he owned the rights to the characters. Later, Huston’s script was revised by Howard Koch and filmed by Jean Negulesco, with this movie starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre released in 1946.

‘The Maltese Falcon’ was colorized for television by Turner Broadcasting System and released on video by MGM/UA in 1989, but that version is no longer available.