It seems not just unlikely but a little crazy that after 80 years [Yes, 80. Count ‘em] John Huston’s film version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, re-released by the BFI, should be as absorbing and, in its portrayal of characters caught up in a maelstrom of sex, violence and betrayal, recognisable today. Only the stakes and the levels of betrayal have changed.
Huston wrote the script, sticking very closely to the original, so that much of the dialogue is more or less straight from the novel; one thing that is different, of course, what the film adds, is the fleshing out of the supporting characters – and in Sydney Greenstreet’s Kaspar Gutman, often filmed from below to emphasise his impressive girth, fleshing out is the appropriate term. He and his co-conspirator, Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, seem never to have quite decided if they are playing comedy or something altogether more dangerous and sinister, and its greatly to the benefit of the film that they manage both, simultaneously.
Their other function is to offset the stubborn seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who, through it all and despite the temptations of Mary Astor’s femme fatale and a share of the wealth the Falcon represents, stays true to his code.
“When a man’s partner gets killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when of your organisation gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organisation, bad for detectives everywhere.”
And Hammett should know: he worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before turning to writing.
The lines above are delivered to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom Spade is convinced was responsible for murdering his partner, Miles Archer, whose body was found in an alley after being shot at close range.
“Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb. …. But he’d have gone up there with you angel … He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”
When, with increasing desperation, Mary Astor/Brigid attempts to use his feelings for her, his attraction to her, as the means for letting her, literally, get away with murder, he is adamant that whatever those feelings might be, he is neither going to be taken for granted, nor made a fool of. “I won’t play the sap for you,” he says. “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” And, with macabre humour, “I hope they don’t hang you, angel, by that sweet neck.”
In the film’s final scenes, Brigid is taken into the lift by the police and we move to a close-up of her face behind the bars of the lift’s inner door, before the outer door closes, shutting her deeper inside and as the lift begins to descend – she’s, literally, going down, Bogart/Spade walks past towards the stairs with the Falcon in his arms.
If I do have a problem with the film, it’s quite believing in the Bogart/Astor relationship. David Thomson [no less] says “it’s the love story that is riveting” and refers to a “lovely crisscross of screwball and noir”, whereas it seems to me that description is far more accurate if applied to the other famous Bogart private eye film from the forties, Howard Hawk’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, built as it is around the relationship between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which was first revealed on screen two years earlier in the same director’s To Have and Have Not.
Here Bogart’s hero, Philip Marlowe, is as hard-headed and hard-hearted as Sam Spade where necessary – towards the film’s climax, and without compunction, he sends the gambler Eddie Mars off to a certain death at the hands of his own gunmen – but he’s also portrayed as someone who can charm the birds out of the trees and, in the famouses bookstore scene, the glasses from Dorothy Malone’s nose. And the scenes between Bogart and Bacall are brilliant examples of sex by inference and innuendo – each one sparking back and forth against the other. Look, speak but don’t – quite – touch. At least, not until the director has called ‘Cut!”