Hef’s Movie Notes: The Maltese Falcon

By Hugh Hefner

Hef introduces the classic detective film.

Tonight: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s film noir mystery The Maltese Falcon.

If Casablanca is my favorite film, The Maltese Falcon is a close second.

It is a perfect film-noir thriller and the film to which all others of this genre are necessarily compared.

It defined the hard-boiled detective drama and the public persona that Humphrey Bogart would use for the rest of his life—both onscreen and off.

Dashiell Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective in San Francisco, the setting of tonight’s film.

Hammett was 27 in 1921, when he investigated the sensational rape and murder allegations involving Hollywood’s Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle in a scandal that rocked the movie industry.“

Hammett turned to writing in the Twenties, knocking out short stories for Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine. The short stories turned into novels, including three classics that became definitive detective films: The Thin Man, The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon.

He gave Sam Spade his own identity and also gave him his first name. Hammett’s full name was Samuel Dashiell Hammett, but he dropped the “Samuel” when he became a writer.

Hammett had a long, turbulent romantic relationship with fellow writer Lillian Hellman, who wrote the screenplay for Dead End and the play and screenplay for The Little Foxes.

Nick and Nora Charles, the sophisticated fast-talking, heavy-drinking husband and wife in The Thin Man were based on Hammett’s relationship with Hellman.

The Maltese Falcon was first serialized in 1929 and published in book form in 1930. Warner Brothers purchased the screen rights for $8,500.

The first screen version was made in 1934 by Roy Del Ruth, who also directed such pre-Code delights as Blonde Crazy, Taxi!, Beauty and the Boss, Employees’ Entrance and Lady Killer.

Ricardo Cortez played Sam Spade in the 1931 version of Falcon.

Bebe Daniels played the Mary Astor role. Dudley Diggs was the homosexual leader of the pack, played to perfection by Sydney Greenstreet in tonight’s film.

Thelma Todd was the cheating wife of Sam’s partner and Dwight Frye was the gunsel.

The first version of The Maltese Falcon was made for $278,000, but failed to turn a profit.

When Warner Brothers tried to reissue the film in 1935, Joseph Breen, representing the new, far stricter Production Code, refused permission.

So the property was remade as Satan Met a Lady in 1936.

This version starred Warren William and Bette Davis, with the Sydney Greenstreet character turned into a woman, played by Alison Skipworth.

So much for the homosexual sub text.

Satan Met a Lady was made for just $195,000, and still didn’t show a profit.

Bette Davis called it “one of the worst turkeys I ever made.”

John Huston, the son of actor Walter Huston, was a screen writer at Warner Brothers.

He wrote High Sierra in 1941. It was Bogart’s first starring role.

Huston followed that with the award winning Sergeant York.

When he handed in the story outline for The Maltese Falcon later that year, he campaigned for the chance to direct the film.

Jack Warner reluctantly agreed, on the urging of Production Chief Hal Wallis, with the proviso that the film be shot in six weeks—at a budget of no more than $300,000.

“Make every shot count,” was the advice given to the director—and he did.

Houston planned every scene before the filming began. A technique that Alfred Hitchcock had perfected with similar success.

The film was actually shot in chronological order, which helped his actors.

Bogart was not the first choice for the starring role in this film. The part was initially offered to George Raft, who turned it down.

Raft didn’t want to work with a new, untried director in what he perceived as another “B” movie—and a “remake” at that.

Raft had already turned down the roles in Dead End and High Sierra that had helped make Bogart’s reputation.

It was Bogart’s performance in The Maltese Falcon that convinced Ingrid Bergman to appear opposite him in Casablanca, made the following year and released in 1943.

This was Sydney Greenstreet’s first film. He is the leader of an effeminate bunch of greedy conspirators—including Peter Lorre, and the “gunsel” Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook, Jr.

The term “gunsel” first appeared in a crime novel titled The Gay Cat, published in 1914, and referred to as “a passive male homosexual who is also too quick on the trigger!”

In the book version of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett has Sam Spade’s secretary refer to the Peter Lorre character as “a queer.” A term not acceptable in movies in the 1940s.

John Huston wanted Geraldine Fitzgerald of Wuthering Heights and Dark Victory for his female lead.

But Mary Astor read the script and, on May 19, 1941, she proclaimed it a “humdinger,” and announced her conviction that she should play the part. The studio agreed.

Although Mary Astor was most famous for her off-screen sexual shenanigans—having lost her virginity to John Barrymore as a teenager and been the center of a widely publicized sex scandal involving George F. Kaufman in the 1930s—she had just finished work on The Great Lie that would earn her an Oscar.

She proved to be a perfect choice for the part.

Huston and the cast had a wonderful time making The Maltese Falcon, and it established a relationship between Huston and Bogart that would last a lifetime.

The collaboration also produced some of Bogart’s best films—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen.

The appearance of the great character actor Walter Huston, disguised in a small cameo as the sea captain who delivers the falcon to Bogart’s office, was done as a “good luck” gesture for his son in his directorial debut.

Principal photography was completed on July 18, 1941.

With retakes shot on August 8, and a preview screening on September 5th.

The picture opened at the Strand in New York on October 3rd and was released nationally on the 18th.

Released with relatively little fanfare, the studio was not prepared for the overwhelming critical and popular response it received.

The picture generated an initial worldwide gross of $1,772,000, with a net profit of $850,000.

There were Oscar nominations too—for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (by Huston) and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet).

The film made a star of Bogart and established Huston as a major director.

The studio wanted a sequel—to be titled The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, which John Huston was to direct in early 1942. But he made Across the Pacific instead—with much of the same cast.

Of the original, Bogart said it all, in the final scene in the picture: “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”

So now—from 1941–



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