The Maltese Falcon
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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