The stuff that dreams are made of: The Maltese Falcon's incredible film noir casting
A tarnished hero, a colourful cast of characters and a prized Falcon.
It was a pleasure to recently watch John Huston's directorial debut The Maltese Falcon, a powerhouse film noir adapted from the novel penned by Dashiell Hammett. I'd watched a few weeks earlier The Big Sleep, the Howard Hawks adaptation of Raymond Chandler's famous Philip Marlowe novel. I found that in comparison to the Hawks movie, Huston bringing Hammett's PI Sam Spade to the screen seemed more dynamic and cynical, more lived-in and yet with more life in the character.
Humphrey Bogart plays both characters, making comparison inevitable. But Marlowe is a lady-killer, with woman flirting hard and fast on first meeting our laconic hero. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has a more complex and ambiguous relationship with Mary Astor, the femme fatale of the piece. What The Big Sleep did have that elevated the scenes around it for me was Bogart and Lauren Bacall - with sexual tension palpable - driving in a car on a set with rear projection showing a desert-like terrain, with Bogart then stopping to kiss Bacall for the first time. Incidentally, that's not an insult to refer to the way the shot is clearly staged, it's reflective of it's dream-like ambience. A charismatic hero, a beautiful woman, a fast car, and night falling on a harsh and mysterious landscape. That's all getting very close to the epicentre of why we watch movies. To be transported into an intoxicating, heightened state of emotion. Add some strings and you've got a scene.
A charismatic hero, a beautiful woman, a fast car, night falling on the harsh landscape. Film noir in a photograph.
The Maltese Falcon has a different approach, in a departure for the time and genre, back-projection isn't feature. Therefore we're not in a dreamscape, we're in a world were a Private Detective's partner gets killed and his concern is that now he has to fix the sign-writing on the office door to reflect that he's now sole proprietor of the business. The plot has the Falcon as the prize everyone is chasing, but it's really about the characters and how they need to make deals with each other just to survive a beating, the city and each other. At the end of the chase for the prize, Detective Tom Polhaus asks Spade what the heavy statuette is. Spade wearily replies that it's 'the stuff dreams are made of'.
Fittingly, the cast is uniformly superb and brings great weight to the film as a melting pot of personalities. In a scene near the end, henchman Elisha Cook Jr. wakes up and realises that while unconscious the others have been plotting against him. This sequence, brilliantly edited, showcases the great faces of the cast:
Sydney Greenstreet lurks.
Would you trust Peter Lorre?
Elisha Cook Jr. slowly realises he been played.
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.
Looking around for a friend desperately.
Mary Astor is not that friend.
The effect of The Maltese Falcon is palpable - it's confident, atmospheric and paced to perfection. This makes me want to check out the darker side of Huston's work, such as The Asphalt Jungle and Fat City. Previously, I'd only seen his more adventure-themed work such as The African Queen and The Man Who Wanted to be King. Those works never grabbed me as strongly as The Maltese Falcon and it'll be a joy to dig further into the work Huston made. Those films named are decades apart, and his career to the end was unpredictable tonally. Along with his noir films, Huston also contributed one of the noir great supporting roles (surprisingly not Oscar-nominated) in Chinatown as Noah Cross. Appearing for only a short time of the running time, Huston nevertheless creates an indelibly portrayal of casual evil.
'The future, Mr. Gittes. The future.' Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, our tarnished hero discovering his purpose, the case he's going to go the extra mile on. John Huston is Noah Cross, ceaseless in his pursuit of money and power.
In Robert Towne's script directions for Chinatown, Cross (then with the first name of Julian) is described as 'reedy but handsome in a rough linen shirt and jeans. When he talks his strong face is lively, in repose it looks ravaged.'1
A fitting description of the character actors in the above named films; they all feature those great, fascinating character actors that will hook new viewers in the future.
1 Robert Towne, Chinatown screenplay (1974), p. 60.