Monday, January 20, 2014

The Three Faces of The Maltese Falcon, Part 3: The Maltese Falcon, 1941: “The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of”

"In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain,by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels...but pirates seized the galley carrying this token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day...."
Open your Golden Gate,and get me Rice-A-Roni!

The classic 1941 version of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon was his first film as a writer and director, as well as being the third big-screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel about cynical San Francisco private detective Sam Spade, and how he gets embroiled in the quest for the Maltese Falcon, a black statuette that might be worth a fortune—or get the adventurers killed—or maybe both!  The cast is a perfect quartet of crime—and the best, as many film fans agree!  Check out this great Rogue’s Gallery:

*Humphrey Bogart as Sam SpadeKids sure grow up fast!  Who’d have thought Maud Humphrey’s darling baby boy, born on Christmas Day to a patrician New York City family, would become a Best Actor Oscar-winner particularly known for his roles as tough, complicated men, as well as eventually having a happy marriage with his co-star Lauren Bacall until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957.

*Mary Astor
(one of Team Bartilucci’s favorites) as the alluring but treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy.    Fun Fact:  Take a good look at the scene where Joel Cairo is leaving the theater; the movie marquee is for The Great Lie, for which Mary won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar!  More about Mary shortly…

*Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s ill-fated partner.  The busy Cowan was also the District Attorney in Miracle on 34th Street, as well as Torrid Zone; Mr. Skeffinington; There’s Always a Woman; and many TV appearances.

*Sydney Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman, a.k.a.“The Fat Man,” whose benevolent chuckles thinly disguise his ruthlessness.   Ironically, despite his great performances with the famous husband and-wife team of Lunt & Fontanne, Greenstreet was a nervous wreck when it was time for his very first scene in the film, despite his many years as a renowned stage actor!  On the Maltese Falcon set, Greenstreet begged his co-star: "Mary, dear, hold my hand.  Tell me I won't make an ass of meself!"  Huston was holding his breath, too!  Luckily, Greenstreet performed his first scene flawlessly, and the renowned stage actor became an in-demand character actor and film star!  Greenstreet was always a trouper despite his chronic illness, the kidney disorder Bright’s Disease, bless him.  (I’m reminded of a gag by another of my favorites, the humorist and screenwriter S.J. Perelman: “I have Bright’s Disease, and he has mine!”  But I digress….)

*Peter Lorre as the exotic and wily Joel Cairo, he of the gardenia scent, among other things. Lorre became a star in Fritz Lang’s searing drama M, and Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. As an in-demand character actor, Lorre’s many roles ranged from dramas to comedies, including Crime & Punishment; All Through the Night; My Favorite Brunette; Casablanca; several pairings with Greenstreet and Lorre, including The Mask of Dimitrios; and The Verdict. Lorre was also the first James Bond villain, playing the evil Le Chiffe in a 1954 TV version of Casino Royale in the series Climax!  (The decidedly un-British Barry Nelson played “Jimmy Bond”!)

Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook, Kaspar Gutman’s weaselly henchman and gunsel (a word of many meanings).  Whether the 5-foot-five Cook was comical, sinister, or poignant, he was always memorable and often a scene-stealer in such films as The Big Sleep; I Wake Up Screaming; The Killing; Electra Glide in Blue; and so much more!  Fun Fact:  Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr. were the only cast members to reprise their original roles in the 1975 comedy spoof/sequel, The Black Bird, which Vinnie will be discussing!

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, Sam’s trusty secretary and kind yet firm voice of reason.  She too was a multifaceted actress, shining in such hits as Auntie Mame playing bigoted boob Mrs. Upson; The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao; Dangerously They Live; Caged; Mildred Pierce; and Vertigo.

Gladys George as Iva Archer, Miles Archer's hot but clingy widow, who's hoping to become Mrs. Spade, even though Sam's just not that into her!  Ms. George earned an Oscar nomination for Valiant Is the Word for Carrie She was also in Flamingo Road and The Best Years of our Lives.

Meet Miss Wonderly...Or is it LeBlanc?
O’Shaughnessy?! Heck we'd retain her anytime!
The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon proves the old adage: “The third time’s the charm!”  No wonder John Huston’s taut, wryly cynical take on Hammett’s tale put Huston on the map as a writer/director.  His version has the best of everything in one terrific package: the best private eye thriller; the best Dashiell Hammett movie adaptation; the best remake; and the best nest-of-vipers cast, including the signature Humphrey Bogart role/performance!

Sure, I’ve been a completest when it comes to watching all three versions of The Maltese Falcon for the past few weeks, and it’s been interesting and fun to watch all three versions to compare each of them, but let’s face it, the 1941 version is the best; accept no substitutes!  Once I settled in to watch the DVD (because I never get tired of that, either), I said out loud, “Now this is more like it!”  Even the opening credits are better, with the fabulous Maltese Falcon statue glaring in shadowy profile as Adolph Deutsch’s brassy main title music blares.  Musical director Leo F. Forbstein really nailed it this time, blending suspense, foreboding, and wry wit. The fateful falcon’s background story scrolls up, lending “The Black Bird” a mythical aspect that the previous movie adaptations lacked.  It’s no wonder John Huston’s take on Hammett’s tale put him on the map as a writer/director.  For my money, the 1941 version has the best of everything in one package:  the best private eye thriller; the best remake; the best Dashiell Hammett novel-to-movie adaptation; and the best nest-of-vipers cast, including the signature Humphrey Bogart role/performance!

Cairo tries to eliminate the middleman, the fool!
Granted, I’m biased, but to me, Huston’s powerhouse 1941 cast makes the previous casts look like rejects from high school class productions of the film, and not good ones, either!  That said, don’t confuse those with writer/director Rian Johnson’s fascinating Hammett-influenced high school noir 2005 Brick—but that’s a blog post for another time!  Huston’s actors were born to play these characters.  The cast is perfection; even the great Walter Huston shows up, doing a memorable cameo for his son John as the ill-fated Captain Jacobi!   Huston’s lean, mean pacing and striking visuals come broodingly alive, thanks to Director of Photography Arthur Edeson and his expressionistic images.  Thomas Richards’ editing is right on the mark.  I love the way the overall faithfulness to the novel makes me feel like Huston & Company opened the book and shook it until the characters fell out and started filming!  In the One Magnificent Bird documentary, it’s claimed that Huston and/or his secretary typed the exact dialogue straight from the book into script form.  I can believe it!

Ah, shadows, a classic element of film noir!
As I said earlier, Humphrey Bogart may not look like Hammett’s “blond satan,” but he’s got Sam Spade’s attitude down perfectly.  Besides, he’s Bogart, with all the toughness, charisma, and wry humor that implies.  What’s not to love?  Indeed, The Maltese Falcon was the film that truly made Bogart a full-tilt star at last.  Even if I’d read Hammett’s novel before I saw the 1941 film back in my high school days at dear old St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx, Bogart’s star-making  performance would still be engraved on my brain.  Bogart deftly balances toughness, trickiness, and tenderness, but he never lets his tender side make a sap out of him, unlike Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade or Warren William’s Ted Shane, both of whom apparently live to chase skirts, and seem to be trying just a little too hard in my opinion.  Then again, some people might say, “Hey, nice work if you can get it!”  But as far as I’m concerned, Bogart’s performance as Sam shows him to be as sexy as he is tough and wily, with just enough tenderness to show he’s not made of stone.  Women are drawn to Sam out of his sheer charisma and strength of character, not just throwing themselves at them willy-nilly.  Somehow, he doesn’t seem to need to work at it. Now isn’t that more fascinating and appealing than a guy who aggressively pitches woo at dames until they give in out of sheer exhaustion? 

Sardonic Sam tells Miles Archer, "You've got brains. Yes you have."
But not enough for Miles to dodge a bullet! R.I.P!
In an early scene with Brigid, Sam has a line about how all he has to do is stand still and the cops will be swarming all over him.  Substitute “women” for “cops” and the line would still be accurate!  But Mary Astor's career was nearly scuttled twice during her long career, due to public scandal in the mid-1930s.  First of all, Mary, who was still quite young at the time, was sued for support by her greedy parents.  Later, she was unfairly branded an adulterous wife by her vindictive ex-husband during a custody fight over Mary’s daughter—what nerve!  Luckily, Mary was able to turn her lemons into lemonade when her performance in The Maltese Falcon brought her well-deserved accolades!  As the quicksilver Brigid, Mary’s watchful eyes, elegance, and that beseeching throb in (her) voice as she enlists Sam’s aid makes her utterly fascinating.  She's totally believable as an avaricious adventuress with a prim, sweet façade—a woman who would kill a guy as soon as kiss him, and keep him guessing about her intentions until the bitter end!  That’s what made Astor and Bogart such a great team in both The Maltese Falcon and Across The Pacific that year.  In Bogart and Astor’s capable hands, Brigid and Sam are two wily, street-smart people who are onto each other, yet also into each other!   (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere at TotED, Mary Astor looked and sounded remarkably like my late Auntie Joy back in her youth—and if you knew what a stylish, rambunctious pair my late mom and Auntie Joy were, you’d know that’s a big compliment!)  Let’s face it, The Maltese Falcon is another one of those superbly-cast films that doesn’t have a bum performance in the bunch.  By the way, not to sound like a prude, but after the way women fawned over our hero in the first two films, it was refreshing to see Effie being both friendly and professional with Sam.  Sure, there’s warmth between Effie and Sam, but it stops well short of neck-nuzzling and lap-sitting!  

The Hat Squad arrives! Lt. Dundy and Detective Tom Polhaus
visit Sam after Miles' murder, cracking foxy and such!

Even Elisha Cook Jr. shines in his supporting role as Wilmer.  One of my favorites among his scenes is that brilliant scene where Wilmer is on the verge of shooting the cool, calm Sam while Wilmer’s eyes fill with tears of rage as he whispers, “Get on your feet.  I’ve taken all the riding from you I’m gonna take.”  Vinnie and I also love the scene where Wilmer comes to after Sam has punched him out, dread and horror spreading over his face as each of the conspirators stare at him coldly, in another triumph of skillful editing  and Edeson’s photography.  When Wilmer comes to, he knows he’s in big trouble without anyone saying a word!

Huston’s powerhouse cast was born to play these characters.  Between the perfect performances (even the great Walter Huston is memorable in his brief cameo as the dying Captain Jacobi), Huston’s lean, mean pacing and striking visuals (Arthur Edeson’s expressionistic photography and Thomas Richards’ editing work beautifully), and the overall faithfulness to the novel, it’s as if Huston & Company just opened the book and shook it until the characters fell out, then started filming. 

Humphrey Bogart doesn’t match Hammett’s description of Sam Spade as a “blond Satan,” but he’s got Spade’s attitude down perfectly, and besides, he’s Bogart!  What’s not to like? Bogie deftly balances toughness, trickiness, and tenderness, but he never lets his tender side make a sap out of him. I find Bogart’s Spade sexier than skirt-chasing Ricardo Cortez or Warren William in the previous films because the dames are drawn to Bogie because of his sheer charisma and strength of character, as opposed to him aggressively pitching woo at them until they give in from sheer exhaustion.  In an early scene with Brigid, Spade has a line about how all he has to do is stand still and the cops will be swarming all over him; substitute “women” for “cops” and the line would still be accurate!

"Sam, are you sure we can trust Miss O’Shaughnessy?
She keeps asking for Prince Albert in the can!"

Mary Astor’s supposed so-called "shady-lady" past informs her spot-on performance as quicksilver Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but it’s her watchful eyes, elegance, and that beseeching “throb in (her) voice” as she enlists Spade’s aid, making her so fascinating and believable as an avaricious adventuress with a prim, sweet façade—a woman who’d kill a guy as soon as kiss him, and keep him guessing about her intentions until the bitter end.  That’s what made Astor and Bogart such a great team; in their capable hands, Brigid and Spade are two wily, street-smart people who are onto each other as well as into each other.

Every actor in The Maltese Falcon shines, from Bogart and Astor to Ward Bond and Barton MacLane (also Team Bartilucci faves) as Sgt. Polhaus and Lt. Dundy, to to Gladys George as the clingy, vindictive Iva Archer, to the only cast members who reprised their roles in the otherwise so-so 1975 sequel/spoof The Black Bird. Elisha Cook Jr. as gunsel Wilmer Cook and Lee Patrick as Spade’s trusty secretary Effie Perine.  After Spade’s tomcatting with Effie and other babes in the early films, it's kind of refreshing that Effie’s interest in Spade here is a bit more professional than personal.  Sure, there’s warmth between them, but it stops well short of neck-nuzzling and lap-sitting.  

"Hey, Brigid, what do you want to do tonight?"
"I don't know, Sam, what do you want to do tonight?
Still, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre come closest to stealing the show.  As Kasper Gutman, Greenstreet blends menace with avuncularity, his voice a cultured growl.  Greenstreet’s performance is so assured, it’s hard to believe The Maltese Falcon was this veteran stage actor’s first movie job, but it’s easy to see why he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Huston also earned a Best Screenplay Oscar, though Mary Astor wasn't nominated.  Happily, she soon had her own Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Great Lie!   The Maltese Falcon also made Greenstreet an in-demand character actor and one of cinema’s most memorable villains, especially in his team-ups with Peter Lorre.  Lorre’s witty, sly performance as the smoothly effeminate yet ruthless weasel Joel Cairo is a marvelous addition to the rogues’ gallery of lowlifes Lorre played over the course of his long career. After The Maltese Falcon's success, the great cast worked together in various combinations in many movies, including Casablanca.
Brigid: "What else can I buy you with?" SOLD!
I’ve always wondered what a Maltese Falcon sequel would be like.  Can you imagine a caper film sequel following Gutman and Cairo to Istanbul, with Sam on a case and wily Brigid somehow getting the gang back together for one last caper?

Meet Kaspar Gutman, a man who likes talking with men
who like to talk. But is his talk cheap?
Poor Captain Jacobi!  But at least it gave Walter Huston a swell cameo!
Wilmer has a rude awakening as the rest of the gang gives him the Hairy Eyeball!
Sam: "The stuff dreams are made of." Tom: "Huh?"
(I love that Tom gets the last word, and unwittingly at that!)
The Maltese Falcon has so much memorable dialogue, often laced with sardonic humor, that I’d be virtually transcribing the whole script if I quoted all my fave lines.  Here at Team Bartilucci HQ, we often quote such ...Falcon lines as “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter;” “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!” (not that we've ever done so, being gentle folk despite our goofiness) have often been jokingly quoted.  Then there’s Gutman’s deliciously ironic toast with Spade:  “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”  Plain speaking and clear understanding with this band of greedy, duplicitous cutthroats?!  Good luck!  But it’s fine with us, because the talk’s a joy to listen to; as Gutman continues: “I distrust a closed-mouthed man.  He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says all the wrong things.  Talking is something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.” The Maltese Falcon has one of cinema’s greatest last lines, Spade’s answer when Polhaus asks what the statue is:  “The stuff that dreams are made of.” (To which Polhaus replies, “Huh?”  Good old Ward Bond, getting the last word!)  I also love the climactic scene with all the principal players, especially the dialogue between Spade and Gutman about how to go about getting what they want: “If you kill me, how are you gonna get the bird? And if I know you can't afford to kill me, how are you gonna scare me into giving it to you?”  By the way, Perry Mason fans should keep an eye out for TV’s Perry Mason co-star William Hopper in a brief early role as a reporter!

The bottom line:  The Maltese Falcon is truly “The stuff that dreams are made of”!

(Comments also from TCM’s Scott McGee & Sarah Heiman)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Three Faces of The Maltese Falcon Part 2: Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Dashiell Hammett’s best-selling mystery novels became even hotter than ever when Hollywood adapted them for the silver screen.  The Maltese Falcon was now reworked into a screwball comedy, Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis and Warren William.  Like they say, if works, milk it for all its worth!  I kind of think of this version as Maltese Falcon 2, Sam Spade’s playful, mischievous sister. Still, I must admit I have a personal soft spot for this particular …Lady, because this film was:
  1. The first movie Vinnie and I saw after our daughter Siobhan (“Shugie” to our loved ones) was born in New York City, in 1996.  This also meant that:
  2. It was also the first movie I had ever watched on Turner Classic Movies. I think folks were still calling it Turner Classic Movies instead of TCM at the time! 
NYU Medical Center, the Manhattan hospital where Shugie was born, had its own cable TV system, and the channels included TCM (Grease was on, as I recall).  Interestingly, the hospital also happened to have a TV channel where they seemed to constantly run 101 Dalmatians (yes, the original animated Disney version; accept no substitutes!).  A visiting friend quipped that a film about puppies in peril in a plot to kidnap Dalmatian puppies might not be the best film  choice for an anxious new mom…but I digress!
Many people bad-mouth Satan Met a Lady, but I think it’s only because many people don’t seem to realize this version is supposed to be played for laughs!

From the start, I found Satan Met a Lady to be madcap fun, starting with our own Sam Spade manqué Ted Shane (William) , who’s being run out of town almost literally on a rail.  William Dieterle (Portrait of Jennie; The Devil and Daniel Webster) worked from Brown Holmes’ screenplay, but this time they made a few changes to make it more rib-tickling.  This was also where Arthur Edeson practiced for his future stint as The Maltese Falcon’s Director of Photography, as an assistant on Satan Met a Lady.

Fun Fact:  Ricardo Cortez and Warren William each played Perry Mason in the movies (no, not the same movie; see, I told you he was racy!).

Bette Davis as “The Beautiful Valerie Purvis:
“Do you mind very much, Mr. Shane, taking off
your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun?”
But it’s a fresh young *Bette Davis* who gets top billing here as wily Valerie Purvis, or as she’s often described: “The beautiful Valerie Purvis” (any relation to G-Man Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger’s foe?).  Played by the fabulous Ms. Davis, she could be Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s witty, bantering sister.  Satan Met a Lady and The Maltese Falcon have more in common besides being loosely inspired by the same Dashiell Hammett novel: in Satan Met a Lady, our rakish hero is played by Warren William from Three on a Match; the 1930s Perry Mason movies; and Gold Diggers of 1933, among others.  William plays racy detective Ted Shane, a man so racy that the spelling of his name sometimes plays hide-and-seek.   Maybe it’s to keep his creditors at bay!

Shane gives The Lovely Valerie Purvis her gun,
a kiss, and a promise!
They say it’s always five o’clock somewhere, but in…Lady, William always looks and acts like a fun-loving troublemaker no matter what time it is!   Sheesh, Shane’s even more of a tomcat than Ricardo Cortez was in 1931!  William and Davis play off each other most enjoyably as they seek out, not The Maltese Falcon, but rather an ancient ram’s horn rumored to be stuffed with fabulous jewels.  They’re aided and abetted by a rambunctious supporting cast, including:

Will Shane and Travers have to pass the hat
to get the legendary Ram’s Horn? 
*Arthur Treacher* —  I must confess I first knew who Treacher was from his Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise in the 1970s, with its tag line “The Meal You Cannot Make at Home,” as well as seeing him on the big screen at our local bijou in Mary Poppins when I was a kid.  Appropriately enough, in Satan Met a Lady, Treacher plays another character named Travers—what are the odds?  Here, Treacher is transformed from a Peter Lorre type to Travers, a somewhat bumbling English gentleman crook.

*Alison Skipworth* — Often paired with W.C. Fields, Ms. Skipworth began her career on Broadway, and continued in such films as The Devil is a Woman and Dangerous (both in 1935). “Skippy,” as her friends and colleagues called her, essentially gets a sex change here, since her character was originally Kaspar Gutman.  I like Ms. Skipworth’s take on the character, the jolly yet slyly dangerous Madame Barabbas; even her Biblical name is cool!   Shane and Madame Barabbas have something of a friendly-adversary relationship.  I got a kick out of the scene where each of them proved the other each was too clever to let the other one slip them a Mickey Finn.

*Porter Hall*  — The ill-fated Miles Archer and his restless wife Iva in The Maltese Falcon are now Mr. and Mrs. Ames, played briefly but entertainingly by Hall, best known here at Team Bartilucci HQ as Macaulay in The Thin Man, and Jackson, the “Medford Man” in Double Indemnity.   Ames’ hot wife Astrid—soon to be Ames’ widow— is played by lovely big-band singer/actress *Wini Shaw,* popular on stage and screen, including her success on The Ziegfeld Follies and her Broadway triumph in Call Me Madame!

Don’t  let buffoonish  “Kenny-Boy” and his silly beanie fool you,
 he’s a killer!  Would his Auntie Madame Barrabbas lie to you? 
*Maynard  Holmes*
  —  Instead of gunsel Wilmer, Madame Barabbas’ sharpshooting right-hand man is her obnoxious, buffoonish, beret-wearing nephew Kenneth, or as his Auntie calls him, “Kenny Boy.”  Hey, at least he loved cats!  Holmes was also in Dead Reckoning; Somewhere in the Night; The Lady from Shanghai (though he unfortunately didn’t get screen credit).

*Marie Wilson*  —   Of all the wacky characters in Satan Met a Lady, my favorite was Marie Wilson  redoing trusty secretary/receptionist Effie Perine as the endearing cutie Miss Murgatroyd, a cheerful blonde uber-ditz.  Her cute little squeak of surprise/distress always cracks me up!  Both her film versions and TV versions of My Friend Irma were smashing successes, in addition to her voice work on the 1970 animated Hanna-Barbera sports comedy Where’s Huddles?

*Olin Howland* was a character actor from the silent era until Howland’s death in 1959.  I myself always enjoyed Howland in his 1930s Perry Mason films, often playing Coroner Wilbur Strong or Dr. Croker.  (Don’t you just love these names?) He was also a scene stealer in THEM! as the drunk offering our heroes to “Make me a Sergeant, charge the booze!”, as well as the ill-fated old man in The Blob.

Zesty quips abound, including:

Valerie:  “Do you mind very much Mr. Shane, taking off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun?”

Shane, discovering Ames has been murdered: “It’s the first time he ever did anything in an appropriate place.”

Shane (cheerfully) to Miss Murgatroyd when it seems she’ll be out in the cold with no job:  “Have you finished packing all your things?...And all the things that weren’t yours, but that you thought you could use?

Miss Murgatroyd: (flustered): “Yes—um, I mean, I’m all packed.”