View Full Version : Greatest Film Noir of all time

10-07-2006, 12:57 PM
The Maltese Falcon – directed by John Huston (1941)

The story that took detective fiction ‘out of the drawing room and into the alley’ almost wasn’t a major film. Twice Warner Brothers tried and failed to make something out of their property obtained just two weeks after its publication (though the story first appeared in serial). Writer Dashiell Hammett (that’s dah-shee-el) separated from his wife and child to protect them from his tuberculosis. He eventually moved into a one bedroom flat in San Francisco and work temporarily for the Pinkerton Detective Agency on and off for years. Observing how far removed most fiction seemed to be regarding detection fiction; Hammett started to pound out a series of stories he published in the magazine, “The Black Mask.”

Enter, years later, John Huston, a young screenwriter, having just finished his twelfth film “High Sierra.” The writers eat together in the prestigious ‘green room’ on the Warner’s lot, a place forbidden to actors except by invitation. Huston and Bogie become great friends from their experience on “High Sierra” and while enjoying lunch together in the green room, discuss finding a vehicle by which Huston can start a directing career and also use as a star vehicle for Bogart.

Enter producer Henry Blanke, an assistant producer to famous Hal Wallis the man responsible for just about every great hit at Warner Brothers. They recommend to Huston he resurrect “The Maltese Falcon” only this time to ‘write the book as it was written’ instead of embellishing on the plot. Huston then writes the screenplay with Bogart in mind. But the studio has George Raft under contract. Raft doesn’t want to do any more ‘gangster’ pictures and wants to go to Fox. Reportedly, Huston was prepared to cause an accident on the set if necessary. However, Raft never showed up, stating he did not want to work with a first time director. Huston denied the story for years until he later recanted his story (with a chuckle) because he wanted Bogart all along.

The plot thickens. Now enter cinemaphotographer Arthur Edeson. He is impressed when he sits in on a screening of “Citizen Kane” rushes being made up the street at RKO. He goes to Huston with the idea of shooting at low angles and putting in ceilings, using deep focus, high contrast lighting, etc. Huston agrees and the two men create a style of filmmaking that will be emulated for years to come. Almost everyone agrees that Falcon started the so-called Film Noir genre with its many night shots, wise cracking tough detectives that live on the edge, and hard-boiled plot. Huston’s debut honored him with Best Pix and Best writing nods for 1941.

The cast of this film is another story entirely, every one a seasoned actor that had not really stood out until “The Maltese Falcon” gave them that chance.

Take the career of Humphrey Bogart. He had already made over forty pictures at Warner Brothers and was considered to be washed up, acting mostly as ‘bad’ men that get killed by the sixth or seventh reel. He appears in every scene but one. This movie cemented Bogie as a leading man and elevated his film status for all time after that.

The first woman considered for the role of Brigid was Geraldine Fitzgerald. But her contract stated she could leave Hollywood for six months out of the year, and did so. Mary Astor turned out to be a god send, creating a part so convincing that women working the ‘Noir genre’ had trouble following it there after. Astor stated that almost every day after shooting, most of the cast would retire to a nearby bar and ‘belt a few back’ to relieve the tension from the day’s shooting, creating a bond of friendship that extended far beyond the shooting schedule and lasted for years.

Then consider Sydney Greenstreet, acting in a play at the Biltmore Theater and brought to the set for his film debut. He got so frightened on the set of doing such a bad job that he asked Mary Astor to hold his trembling hands before each scene so he could build up his nerve. Shot repeatedly from the waist up and with layers of clothing on emphasize his fat role of ‘Gut’man. However, Greenstreet pointed out correctly on the set that Gutman is actually German for good man (Goot mahn). The sixty-one year old actor went on to fame and fortune, starring in several films at Warner’s before diabetes shortened his life in the 1950’s. The Academy gave him the supporting nod that year for his first outing.

Peter Lorre agreed to play the effeminate Joel Cairo, portrayed as a gay man in Hammett’s novel. Wallis insisted they follow the production code and tone down the role. However, 1941 audiences could easily see the character was a gay man (of the period). Lorre also gained status as a character actor resulting from his work on this film and went on to have a long and prosperous career.

Huston’s own father performed a cameo (“You know… Falcon!”). The two men, estranged during John’s upbringing by divorce, reunited later in life and formed a close warm friendship. Upon learning of his son’s first writing job, Walter Huston reportedly requested, “Just write a good part for me, someday.” They went on to do “Treasure of Sierra Madre” together, considered by many to be John’s greatest film, and one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

This DVD set is loaded with extras and is definitely a feather in the cap of those at Warner Home video. No self-respecting film collector should be without this pressing. Without a doubt, this is the finest restoration of a film this old I have ever seen. Not only is the print completely flawless (I mean not one bit of artifact!), the DVD second disc includes the other two ‘silly’ versions of the film, while a third disc contains a new doc, which has filmmakers and historians young and old singing the praises of this great cinema classic. Even the narration soundtrack is outstanding, performed by writer and historian Eric Lax. He gives the run down on everything connected to this film. Also included are such extras as a musical short, two classic cartoons, trailers, radio shows, make up tests, and the hilarious Breakdowns of 1941 showing outtakes from other Warner films made that year.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this new release and treatment by Warner Brothers and would suggest to my younger film aficionados to rush out and get yours before they are gone. This is definitive film noir movie, and holds up surprisingly well even after all these years. See why film experts and historians alike praise The Maltese Falcon. From a historical stand point, the narrative alone holds many surprising facts and the whole package is well worth the investment cost. Highly Recommended!

oscar jubis
10-07-2006, 09:02 PM
I don't love this film nearly as much as you do (when I read the thread's title I thought you were referring to Force of Evil or Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Heat) but Falcon is a must-see and your post is excellent; very well-written, insightful and informative. Muchas Gracias.

10-10-2006, 01:26 PM