John Huston was one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters as the forties dawned. His colorful actor father Walter gave him some advice that, with a reputation as a top industry writer it was time for him to make a move to strike at the heart of the power of the film business. The elder Huston believed that this goal could be best achieved by moving into directing.
The younger Huston was barely able to convince studio boss Jack Warner to give him an opportunity to make that initial move by adapting noted detective Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon to the screen.
Warner provided a reluctant go ahead, but advised that Huston would be working on a tight budget and that he would be looking over his shoulder during the entire production. The studio boss knew that Huston was a talented writer but wondered about him in his new capacity. He was also fearful about The Maltese Falcon as a project since two earlier adaptations of Hammett’s novel were notably unsuccessful.
A strange twist of fate early on should have convinced Huston that he was on a roll. Huston instructed his secretary to break down Hammett’s novel into scenes, leaving everything unchanged. It was his intention to proceed with his screenplay adaptation of Hammett’s work from that point.
When Huston was away from the studio a curious Warner managed to smuggle a copy of what he believed to be a script in progress. When Huston returned Warner startled him by praising what he had seen, proclaiming that the production was ready to roll and the script was fine.
Huston had every reason to believe he was on a roll since not only was The Maltese Falcon a roaring commercial success that satisfied his studio boss; he actually won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for what was supposed to be a beginning outline.
An interesting element to film buffs is that one of the screen’s most influential directors made his debut in what cinema historians regard as the first film noir production. Huston’s solid knowledge derived from his screenplay days assisted in enabling him to draw up ideally structured stories that worked on screen. In fact, John Huston has three of the greatest film noir efforts ever on celluloid to his credit.
Let us take a look at the first, The Maltese Falcon, and observe the essential structure that provided the ingredients for success:
1) A lead character in San Francisco detective Sam Spade, played by Huston’s friend and the last movie he wrote prior to his directing debut, High Sierra. In the earlier film Bogart played a tough, no nonsense, individualist in career criminal Roy Earle.
In The Maltese Falcon Bogart as Sam Spade operated on the opposite side of the law. His credo is stated early in the film when, after his partner, someone he strongly dislikes, is waylaid and shot to death in the evening San Francisco fog, he states that when one’s partner is killed one is expected to do something about it.
2) An ensemble of offbeat criminals – The imaginative casting by Huston is a work of genius unto itself. Sydney Greenstreet at 61 was making his film debut after being seen by Huston on Broadway, where he had made his living for years playing butlers. Peter Lorre became one of the screen’s masters of a corrupt but fascinating character effortlessly displaying foreign intrigue with his swarthy appearance and unique accent. Elisha Cook Jr. would appear in numerous films over the years, many in the noir orbit, including another memorable casting with Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.
Unlike most noir films that feature criminals of a more sinister mode such as Neville Brand in D.O.A. or Mike Mazurki in Murder, My Sweet, the criminal trio pursuing the expensive and elusive Maltese Falcon is often comedic, particularly when Greenstreet attempts to be smoothly clever, thinking he can outsmart definitively street smart Bogart as Sam Space, while the crafty detective ruffles the egos and wounds the pride of Lorre and Cook. He takes particular delight in slapping Cook around, treating him like a naughty child, an element made all the more convincing by Cook’s baby face look.
The innate craftiness of Bogart as Spade is evidenced in a unique scene displaying the detective play acting for effect. While Greenstreet seeks to be smoothly effective as he delivers his repertoire, Bogart’s disarming response is to shriek loudly, alarming the perceived mastermind of the criminal trio to the point where he bewilderedly asks him what has made him so angry.
Bogart terminates the scene, one of the most memorable of the film, by darting out of the hotel suite occupied by the criminals and storming down the hall. A close-up tells the true story of how he really feels when he is seen grinning with satisfaction, knowing that his well timed tirade had accomplished its purpose of confounding Greenstreet.
3) A unique romance angle; turning the woman you love in to the police – The film ends with resolution of the story’s leading conflict. Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy comes to Bogart as a client. In the duration of the film he falls deeply in love with her.
The leading character conflict of The Maltese Falcon arises when Bogart displays through facial rather than verbal expression, a tougher way to display inner turmoil, in which he must turn in the woman he loves to the police for murder to be true to his personal morality code. The reason, as stated early in the film by a solemnly determined Sam Spade, is that when your partner is killed you are expected to do something about it.
Nine years later John Huston ventured into the film noir terrain once more. On this occasion as well the result was stellar success. The basic skeletal thread pertaining to the story bore strong similarities to The Maltese Falcon.