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The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon(1941)

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teaser The Maltese Falcon (1941)

SYNOPSIS

After his partner is murdered while trailing a suspect named Thursby, detective Sam Spade vows to avenge his friend. He soon discovers that Thursby had also threatened a Miss Wonderly, an alias for Brigid O'Shaughnessy. As Spade digs deeper into the mystery, he learns that Ms. O'Shaughnessy is in cahoots with some sinister characters, all of them desperate to retrieve a priceless figurine containing rare gems. Using his wits, Spade expertly turns the conspirators against each other, eventually learning the true killer of his partner.

Director: John Huston
Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Henry Blanke
Screenplay: John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editing: Thomas Richards
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O'Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Barton MacLane (Detective Lieutenant Dundy), Ward Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Wilmer Cook).
BW-101m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

Why THE MALTESE FALCON is Essential

Today, many film scholars refer to The Maltese Falcon as the first official film noir. To Huston's credit, he did not change one line of dialogue, and he only dropped one short scene when he realized he could substitute a phone call instead. Bogart's role in this film elevated him to cult status, and Ingrid Bergman studied him as Sam Spade to judge how to interact with him in Casablanca one year later.

During production on The Maltese Falcon, the cast and crew had the feeling they were shooting something exciting and tried to deter any unwanted visitors from coming to the set. The publicity people once brought a group of priests to the set. Before shooting began, Astor looked down at her legs and said, "Hold it a minute, I've got a g**damn run in my stocking" while the publicity man quickly ushered the priests off the set. Despite the numerous practical jokes his cast and crew played, however, Huston proved himself to be the consummate professional and was so efficient at his job that the crew often finished shooting for the day early, well ahead of schedule. On one of these days, Huston had set aside an entire day to shoot one elaborate moving camera sequence. The sequence lasted about seven minutes, and they nailed it perfectly in one take; the rest of the day was spent at the golf club. It was because of days like this that production finished two days ahead of schedule and $54,000 under budget.

The cast couldn't have been better. Mary Astor was an inspired Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Peter Lorre turned in an excellent performance, as usual, as Joel Cairo. Sydney Greenstreet earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his first ever film role, as Kasper Gutman. The other Academy Award nominations included Best Picture and Best Screenplay. To this day, it is considered one of the quintessential detective thrillers and has attracted a loyal cult following.

For Humphrey Bogart, the experience of The Maltese Falcon was the tops. He later said, "It was practically a masterpiece. I don't have many things I'm proud of but that's one." Bogart so respected Huston and the Sam Spade character that he searched until the end of his life for a script that recaptured the excitement he found in The Maltese Falcon. A few years before his death, Bogart revealed that he had purchased a book to be adapted into a film for he and his wife, Lauren Bacall. "We might do it," he told a radio interviewer, "in association with John Huston...It's a little on the order of The Maltese Falcon."

Warner Bros. had the bright idea of casting contract player George Raft in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, and he was scheduled to report to the set only four days before shooting began. Raft, a veteran of 1930s gangster and tough guy pictures, just like Humphrey Bogart, had other ideas though. He did not think The Maltese Falcon was a very important picture, and as he reminded Jack Warner in a June 6, 1941 memo, his contract gave him veto power over films that he thought were not worthy of his name. Raft also chaffed at the idea of working with a novice director. That's how Humphrey Bogart got the role. He had just scored a hit in High Sierra (1941), another picture Raft turned down. In fact, Raft continued to advance Bogart's career through his own inability to recognize potential hits: the actor reportedly turned down the lead in Casablanca (1942) as well.

With Raft out of the picture, Warner Bros. briefly flirted with the idea of Edward G. Robinson in the role, but cooler heads prevailed and Humphrey Bogart was taken off suspension for refusing to appear in Bad Men of Missouri (1941) and given the lead. When John Huston was informed of who was to be his leading man, "I thanked God. It was a blessing!" It was also divine providence that the studio allowed Huston a good deal of leeway in the casting, particularly in the case of Sydney Greenstreet. The sixty-one year old actor made his film debut in The Maltese Falcon, all 285 pounds of him, after a long career as a stage actor. Huston had discovered Greenstreet in a Los Angeles play called There Shall Be No Night, co-starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Ironically, Sydney Greenstreet was a nervous wreck when it came time for his very first scene. Despite his years of stage experience in front of a live audience, Greenstreet implored Mary Astor before a scene, "Mary dear, hold my hand, tell me I won't make an ass of meself!" As Greenstreet performed his first scene flawlessly, John Huston held his breath, a nervous tic that stayed with him throughout his career as a director.

Warner Bros. executives initially wanted to offer the Brigid O'Shaughnessy part to contract player Geraldine Fitzgerald until freelance actress Mary Astor read the script. Fitzgerald cost a great deal less than Astor, and she was also eight years younger than Astor, whose career at the studio dated back to the silent days when she was a teenage leading lady opposite such heartthrobs as John Barrymore. The only problem was that Fitzgerald had no interest in starring in a low-budget whodunit with a novice director and a B-movie leading man, Humphrey Bogart. Having reportedly hailed the script as "a humdinger," Astor did not have to be talked into taking the role. She found Brigid O'Shaughnessy to be a ripe and juicy role. As she wrote in her memoir, A Life on Film, Brigid "was attractive, charming, appealingly feminine and helpless, and a complete liar and murderess." The girl next door, Brigid O'Shaughnessy was not.

Between shooting films in Hollywood, Elisha Cook, Jr. lived alone up in the High Sierra hills, where he spent his days fishing for golden trout. When his services were requested for a new film, producers would send word up to his mountain cabin via courier. He would come down for the shoot, then retreat as soon as production wrapped. Interestingly enough, Cook had last shared billing with Humphrey Bogart on Broadway in the play Chrysalis.

by Scott McGee & Sarah Heiman

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teaser The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Even though the Warner Bros. executives were happy with John Huston's draft of the screenplay, they put restrictions on the first-time director's production by allotting him only six weeks to shoot the film with a $300,000 budget. If Huston happened to go over budget, Warner Bros. warned him that he would be looking for a job elsewhere. But Huston left nothing to chance. He tailored the screenplay to include shot-by-shot instructions for him and his crew, detailing the set-up of each and every scene. The final screenplay was so finely laid out that one could read the script and perfectly visualize the finished film. This method was used by Huston only for The Maltese Falcon. Other directors, like Alfred Hitchcock and later Steven Spielberg, would employ this method more frequently throughout their career.

Aside from sticking close to the novel and providing visual and written instructions for each scene breakdown, John Huston also defied conventional Hollywood production procedure by shooting much of The Maltese Falcon in sequence, with the exception of a few exterior shots. This method helped not only the novice director, but also gave the actors a continuity that strengthened their performances amid the densely plotted mystery.John Huston instructed Mary Astor to run around the set several times before appearing in a scene so as to give her character a nervous, out-of-breath appeal. In fact, the director worked very closely with Astor on her characterization of the amoral Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Very closely. Except for Huston's closest friends (like Hollywood director William Wyler), no one knew that Huston and Astor were having a romantic affair during filming. And speaking of William Wyler, Huston showed many of his production sketches to Wyler, who made some important suggestions that Huston eventually incorporated. But it was producer Henry Blanke who gave John Huston what he recalled as the single greatest piece of advice he would ever receive as a director: "Shoot each scene as if it was the most important scene in the film."

A few of the principal actors became close friends during the shooting of The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond, and Mary Astor would often join John Huston at the Lakeside Country Club for drinks, buffet supper, and good conversation, usually until midnight. Bogart always considered Lorre and Huston great pals, mostly because they met two principal criteria: they weren't boring and they could drink like fish.

John Huston's father, veteran character actor Walter Huston, wanted to appear in his son's directorial debut picture for good luck. But what was intended as a sentimental gesture soon turned into a hilarious practical joke. Walter's walk-on part, as the wounded ship captain who staggers into Spade's office holding the bundled-up Maltese Falcon, was such an easy scene to shoot, that it should have required only two or three takes to successfully complete. And given John Huston's tight production schedule and budget, multiple retakes for frivolous scenes were not encouraged or even possible. Nevertheless, John Huston shot the scene over and over again, holding back his laughter when the elder Huston complained, "Didn't expect to have to put in a day's work!" John Huston came up with myriad reasons why his father would have to re-do the scene: he missed his mark, he staggered too much, he overacted, technical difficulties, and so on. By the time the scene was printed, Walter Huston left the set in a foul mood and covered in bruises sustained from falling down dead so much. However, his son wasn't finished with him just yet. The next day, the director had Mary Astor, whom the elder Huston had co-starred with in Dodsworth (1936), call his father. Pretending to be John Huston's secretary, the director had Mary say, "Mr. Huston is sorry, but something happened to the film in the lab and we'll have to retake your sequence this afternoon. Could you be ready to shoot at one o'clock?" Walter Huston vehemently replied, "You tell my son to get another actor or go to hell! He made me take twenty falls, and I'm sore all over, and I'm not about to take twenty more." John made it up to his father several years later, after directing him in an Academy Award-winning performance in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Huston and company tickled themselves with a number of other on-set jokes. As Mary Astor recounted in her autobiography, the cast and crew had a system, whereby Huston would signal for a certain practical joke to be played for visitors to the set. For the benefit of visiting star-struck social clubwomen, the "No. 5" had Bogart going into a prepared act with Sydney Greenstreet. He'd start yelling and cursing at him, calling him a fat old fool. "Who the hell do you think you are? You upstaged me, and I'm telling you I'm not having any--," at which point Huston would jump into the act, holding back Bogart's mock rage. Very quickly, the embarrassed and disillusioned ladies would shuffle towards the nearest exit. Meanwhile, the "No. 10" had Peter Lorre coming out of Mary Astor's dressing room at the appropriate moment, adjusting his fly and saying, "See you later Mary."

by Scott McGee

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teaser The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon had already been made into a movie twice before its most well known version was created in 1941 and became an American cinema classic. The Maltese Falcon (1941) was John Huston's directorial debut, and it made quite an impression on audiences and critics alike. George Raft, a Warner Bros. contract player, was the studio's first choice to play detective Sam Spade, but he turned down the opportunity because he felt that it was not an important picture. Humphrey Bogart, who had been on suspension for refusing to appear in Bad Men of Missouri (1941), was drafted into the role instead. Geraldine Fitzgerald was first choice to play Brigid, the role that ended up being immortalized by Mary Astor.

John Huston cast his father, Walter, in an uncredited cameo as the man who staggers into Spade's office with the infamous statue, then dies. John had some fun making his father do the scene over and over again, and that same night Mary Astor called Walter pretending to be John's secretary. She said that John would need him to re-shoot his scene because something had happened to the film in the lab. Walter screamed, "You tell my son to get another actor or go to hell!" as Mary held out the receiver for everyone to hear. Jokes such as this were commonplace on the set. The cast and crew had the feeling they were shooting something exciting and tried to deter any unwanted visitors from coming to the set. The publicity people once brought a group of priests to the set. Before shooting began, Astor looked down at her legs and said, "Hold it a minute, I've got a g**damn run in my stocking" while the publicity man quickly ushered the priests off the set. From that moment on, jokes like that became a way for the cast and crew to amuse themselves and keep unwanted people off the set at the same time.

The people involved in The Maltese Falcon were so efficient that they often finished shooting for the day early and went to lunch at the nearby Lakeside Golf Club. On one of these days, Huston (who made detailed plans and sketches for each shot, much like Hitchcock later did) had set aside an entire day to shoot one elaborate moving camera sequence. The sequence lasted about seven minutes, and they nailed it perfectly in one take; the rest of the day was spent at the golf club. It was because of days like this that production finished two days ahead of schedule and $54,000 under budget.

Today, many film scholars refer to The Maltese Falcon as the first official film noir. To Huston's credit, he did not change one line of dialogue, and he only dropped one short scene when he realized he could substitute a phone call instead. Bogart's role in this film elevated him to cult status, and Ingrid Bergman studied him as Sam Spade to judge how to interact with him in Casablanca two years later. Mary Astor would hyperventilate before shooting for her scenes began in order to achieve that breathless quality she retained throughout the film, the look of a liar. Peter Lorre, as usual, turned in an excellent performance as Joel Cairo. And Sydney Greenstreet earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his first ever film role, as Casper Gutman. Greenstreet was extremely nervous just before shooting his first scene. "Mary dear, hold my hand, tell me I won't make an ass of meself!" he begged Astor before he began his long monologue telling the history of the statue. Obviously, his fears were unfounded and the entire cast was perfection; critical acclaim and Oscar nominations followed - Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Greenstreet's nomination solidified the opinion that the film was indeed a great one. To this day, it is considered one of the quintessential detective thrillers and has attracted a loyal cult following.

Director: John Huston
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editing: Thomas Richards
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O'Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Casper Gutman), Barton MacLane (Detective Lieutenant Dundy)
BW-101m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Sarah Heiman

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