Tuesday was a pretty intense day, starting with farewelling CGB, ending revelling with my old friend PHC. In all the tumult, I forgot a fact lingering in the back of my mind: that The Maltese Falcon got its cinematic release on 18/10/1941, or in american 10/18/1941.
The film was a remake of an earlier film from 1931 which has essentially been forgotten – I’ve never seen it; both of which are based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) was significant for a couple of reasons. Amongst other things, it really launched the careers of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and John Huston.
Bogart had been a minor player on contract with Warner Bros, mostly playing minor low-lifes. 1941 was a good year for him, also starring in High Sierra and All Through The Night. Both of which I own on DVD and are at turns terrible and forgettable. My favourite of his baddie bit parts is definitely Valentine from The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse. That’s a fantastically awful movie, with Edward G Robinson monstering a nothing part. In other words, 1941 made Bogart who he became in terms of star power.
Sydney Greenstreet was a British stage actor, and at 61, The Maltese Falcon was his first picture. Almost more than Bogart, Greenstreet is the mesmerizing centre of the film for me. As Kaspar Gutman he is somehow blunt and charming, sinister and genial. He also happens to be eminently quotable. Almost everytime I farewell someone it crosses my mind to say “And as the shortest farewells are the best, adieu”. He went on to play a number of roles as a studio player, and achieved some fame, but I think his first outing is comfortably his best.
Huston, like most in the film business I suppose, are known for a handful of gems amongst their oeuvres. My favourite is obviously The Maltese Falcon, but Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a study in human weakness that can’t be beaten. However, when I think of John Huston, I remember him in an interview talking about The Red Badge of Courage, where he talked about how the studio was riven by disagreements between the big bosses of the studio as to whether the film should be made – he went to Louis B Mayer, the head honcho, and said that he’d withdraw from making the project since he didn’t want to be the source of this strife. LBM said to him, in Huston’s words, that if he believed in the project, he should fight for it, LBM be damned. I remember Huston laughing, saying LBM was one hell of a performer, even if just for an audience of one. Huston understood human beings, and they populate his films.
The importance of the film itself is no news to anyone who’s reading this, I’m sure. Like Metropolis, almost every film which follows in its general situation owes it something, and probably something substantial. You can’t watch an american detective without thinking about Bogart as Sam Spade, you can’t feel the allure of a femme fatale without seeing Mary Astor, you can’t help but unfavourably compare every thief with the inimitable Sydney Greenstreet, and you can’t picture any heist objective without recalling what dreams are made of.