"It's a Noir World - Why Bogart made "The Maltese Falcon" what it is."
By Eddie Muller
I can never watch "The Maltese Falcon" without acknowledging the invaluable contribution George Raft made to its creation -- by turning down the role of Sam Spade. Raft thought it beneath an actor of his magnitude to be offered recycled material (the book had already been filmed twice) and he had no patience for some greenhorn making his directorial debut.
Raft was a bona fide star, but it was his connection to bona fide gangsters that gave him leverage with his home studio, Warner Bros. He had right of first refusal on every "tough guy" part. The previous year he'd turned down "High Sierra," giving Humphrey Bogart his first romantic lead. The following year he'd pass on "Casablanca." The year after that, he nixed Paramount's "Double Indemnity." It's a safe bet nobody ever asked George for advice on stocks or horses.
"The Maltese Falcon" director, 34-year-old John Huston, was ecstatic when Raft finally rejected the part, only days before the start of production. (Huston later said he was prepared to beat Raft senseless with a blackjack if he'd shown up on the set.) Into the role slipped Bogart, Huston's confidante, drinking buddy and first and only choice to play Dashiell Hammett's cynical San Francisco shamus.
For his maiden effort, Huston specifically chose "The Maltese Falcon" because of his affinity for Hammett's jaundiced world view and crisp prose style. Hammett's terse "camera-eye" exposition was, in fact, influenced by Hollywood -- or more specifically, Hollywood's money.
His correspondence during the book's creation indicates that Hammett originally envisioned the novel as a sort of Joycean detective saga, a first- person, stream-of-consciousness narrative laden with reflective detail. It would have given a literal slant to the term "private eye."
But when Hollywood starting sniffing for material in the pages of Black Mask, the pulp magazine that serialized his stories, Hammett abruptly shifted gears and shaped "The Maltese Falcon" into a dispassionate third-person narrative, ready for silver-screen adaptation. Warner Bros. paid him $8,500 for the book, but Hammett rued the day he accepted it: He'd unwittingly sold the rights to the character of Sam Spade in the bargain. He'd never earn another cent off his greatest creation, and later suffered the indignity of having to listen to "The Adventures of Sam Spade" on the radio while languishing in prison, where he was sentenced in 1951 for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The first movie adaptation of "The Maltese Falcon," made in 1931, is largely faithful to the novel, especially the more salacious parts. Ricardo Cortez, however -- sporting polka dot pajamas -- was nobody's idea of Sam Spade. The 1936 version, "Satan Met a Lady," was reworked as a vehicle for Bette Davis, and completely misfired. Writers trying to justify their paychecks felt obligated to rearrange the story's geometry, and wound up diluting rather than distilling Hammett's essence. Charles Belden, scripter of Charlie Chan movies, took another crack in 1939, to be called "The Clock Struck Three." Fortunately, he gave up in frustration.
Legend has it that Huston, himself a writer, simply handed the book to script supervisor Meta Carpenter and told her to re-format it as a screenplay. Retained was everything we'd come to expect in hardboiled fiction -- murder, greed, avarice, lust, betrayal, adultery, amorality, sexual perversion and really, really good dialogue.
Studio boss Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis loved the script. They gave Huston the standard $381,000 budget for a "B" level gangster picture, and a relatively expansive 36-day shooting schedule. Associate Producer Henry Blanke told Huston to "shoot every scene like it's the most important one in the picture," which the director called "the best advice I ever got."
Huston wanted to prove himself. He sketched out every scene, detailing all the actors' blocking and camera moves. He consulted with an elder colleague, William Wyler, who'd shown great flair the previous year directing "The Letter," which, like Hammett's story, was stage-bound and talky. Huston wanted to use claustrophobia to his advantage, re-creating the unique feel of San Francisco's lobbies, corridors, stairwells and elevators, entirely on Warner Bros. soundstages. He also planned to defy convention by shooting the whole film in proper story sequence, to better capture the escalating tension between the characters.
But it was once production started -- Monday, June 9, 1941 -- that Huston displayed true genius. He got out of the way and let the actors take over. He could afford the luxury; he'd cast the roles perfectly, and he knew it.
Delectable newcomer Geraldine Fitzgerald was everyone's pick for the role of duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy, but having just played opposite Olivier in "Wuthering Heights," she thought herself a bit above such pulpy material. Geraldine, you're fabulous -- but go take a seat next to Raft at the back of the bus.
Huston's next choice was Mary Astor. She'd been a star since the silents, and had recently endured scandalous notoriety when her diaries were made public, exposing affairs with prominent artists such as John Barrymore and George S. Kaufman. During production Huston happily added himself to Astor's roster of lovers. As the "enchanting murderess," Astor was a pitch-perfect femme fatale. When she wasn't lying, scheming or shooting someone in cold blood, she was shopping the lingerie department at Magnin's.
Broadway actor Sydney Greenstreet made his screen debut as garrulous and grotesque treasure hunter Casper Gutman. "Mary dear, hold my hand," he said to Astor before his first take, "Tell me I won't make an ass of myself." He became, at well over 300 pounds, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, as well as one of the most graceful and urbane actors ever to appear before a camera.
As Gutman's cohort, the fragrantly queer Joel Cairo, Peter Lorre was barely recognizable as the pudgy child murderer from "M," the movie that brought him international acclaim 10 years earlier. He was now a slimmed-down, permed-up version of Old World decadence, such an ideal foil for Greenstreet that they ended up making eight more movies together during the 1940s.
Gutman's jittery punk, Wilmer Cook, was memorably portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., the lone San Francisco native in the cast. By 1941, he was already Hollywood's worm-of-choice. Between parts, "Cookie" shelved the weasel routine and retreated to a cabin in the Sierra, where he spent virtually all his free time fly-fishing.
Through the midst of this bunch of devious dervishes sauntered stoic Humphrey Bogart. "The Maltese Falcon" owes its status as a great and influential film more to its leading man than to either its writer or director. That's because Bogart embodied something many post-Depression Americans, about to face another "War to End All Wars," were hungry for, something words and pictures could only suggest -- attitude. No one could put one over on this guy. In his withering, sardonic glances, in the wickedness of his vulpine smile, he sketched out the essential qualities of a new anti-hero, soon to be a staple of American cinema -- the man with no trust in the inherent goodness of people, yet who still manages to strike a workable balance between amusement and contempt. You completely believed Bogart as the kind of guy who'd have an affair with his partner's wife, hunt down said partner's murderer, then go right on sleeping with the widow. Bogart knowingly smacked audiences in the face with the nastiness of a world gone bad. We took it and liked it.
Mary Astor later wrote that "Bogey looked at the world, at his place in it, at movies, at life in general, and there was something about it that made him sick, contemptuous, bitter. And it showed. He related to people as though they had no clothes on, and no skin for that matter."
Try picturing George Raft, if you're old enough, clutching Mary Astor and sneering, with equal measures of lust and disgust, "I won't play the sap for you." Huston's film would have been the third Falcon to flop.
Bogart's Sam Spade brought a new maturity to Hollywood movies. He remains the grave heart of "The Maltese Falcon," long after the story's Byzantine specifics have faded. More than any other actor, he became the face of what would become known as film noir.
It's entirely appropriate that Bogart -- not Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne or Cary Grant -- stood alone atop the American Film Institute's public balloting as the 20th century's "Greatest Film Star Legend. "
It's a noir world, after all. Bogart knew it all along. The rest of us are finally catching up.
Local author Eddie Muller writes prize-winning crime fiction and film histories, and programs and hosts Noir City: The Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival.
[This Article first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle on February 6th, 2005 and has been reprinted here by permission of the author, Eddie Muller... ]