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Monday, June 26, 2023

Canon Fire #6

Among the One-Hundred: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Should it matter when The Maltese Falcon first flew my way? Those who repeat-screen regularly will understand, so here and now may be time to affirm while generations who yet call it a seminal show still can give testimony.  When did The Maltese Falcon enter your consciousness? That's important where movies represent landmarks of life. Let others be baffled as we relive first sight of the Falcon. Mine was March 1971 after years waiting and thinking the day (rather a late night) would never come. Imagine pining to see the Falcon or most anything today. Thanks to round-clock access, much of what was once rare plays our sleep as well as wake. Precious seeing of what still is scarce requires journey to festivals. Mine for the Falcon went down old Highway 421, still there and thankfully four-lane though not so in 1971 when it crisscrossed every cow path between home and Winston-Salem, my main mission to there for Carolina Theatre rendezvous with King Kong, the Janus reissue with “censored scenes” back after forty years, two days to engage Kong three times (who knew if I would see it again in a theatre, and so far since, indeed have not). The Maltese Falcon was televised cherry atop a first late night, courtesy Channel 2-Greensboro, distant enough from home for signal to sometimes cloud, mere thirty miles however from W-S. Here then were two elephants bagged over a single weekend, luck to beggar belief at the time. What matter if I barely comprehended Falcon’s narrative? (still sort of don’t, which may be essence of its charm). Do or die was seeing The Maltese Falcon lest precious chance never coming back. Futility of requesting movies from local channels was known. I’d wait till college and Channel 36 out of Charlotte for the Falcon to land again.

How often does seeking exceed fulfillment, a wish realized, then knowing you were better off with just the wish? Recent for me was seeing uncommon noir Repeat Performance, of Eagle-Lion 1948 origin with offbeat premise of a murderess reliving year that led up to her crime. Surprise was disappointment with belated surfacing of Repeat Performance (the movie, certainly not the splendid restoration). Was I better off longing for what a pressbook’s cover promised, sparing myself what the film failed to deliver? There is risk for achieving any goal. The list of seek-and-you-shall-finds yield some better unsought, Repeat Performance mine of late. For boyish bafflement with The Maltese Falcon, I did recognize that here was a classic to grow into, a way most of the best ultimately have with watchers. Time improves them while in fact it is us being improved. I cried at the Liberty watching a farewell scene in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao during 1964, was challenged lately to even get through it (frankly sort of expected Lao languor). Not everything stays precious, some hind sights best left behind. The Maltese Falcon gains upon encore, in fact to point where it is my favorite Bogart, favorite Huston, favorite perhaps of all those connected with it. Rank among the hundred brought Dashiell Hammett’s source novel to surface with pledge to self that whole of the novel at last be read. The Maltese Falcon was initially serialized in mystery mag Black Mask over a five-month period, followers obliged to purchase each issue between September 1929 and January 1930. Must have been popular, because Warners bought the property and released a film version in May 1931.


The Maltese Falcon’s literary reputation was bound by lowly genre placement. Hard-boiled mystery got respect like movies got respect, as in little or none. Fiction serialized on twenty cent pulp was not literature, though it helped when The Maltese Falcon was published hardbound soon after and prior to the 1931 movie. A latter-day Black Mask anthology includes Hammett’s story as initially published, noting “thousands” of differences between the magazine version and what emerged between stiff covers. Mine was chance to read it whole, figuring changes meant expurgations, but nothing hot or bothered here, fact is I gave up halfway in. Was The Maltese Falcon bad, dull, overrated? No … but I got restless … kept seeing Bogart et al in my head and wondering, why not just watch them? Any novel amounts to a commitment unless you speed read which I cannot. Many swear by The Maltese Falcon as Hammett-written and call it best ever detective fiction. Writer for The New Yorker Edmund Wilson demolished the book in a 10-14-44 column. “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” was what Wilson titled his screed, saying he outgrew this sort of literature by the time he was twelve. As to The Maltese Falcon, Hammett “lacked the ability to bring the story to imaginative life.” From Wilson’s 1944 vantage, “The Maltese Falcon … seems not so much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.” One could call Edmund Wilson an elite and a snob and be largely right. As for inferring worthlessness of newspaper picture-strips, I’d refer him to life’s mission of late and great Bill Blackbeard.

Maybe Richard J. Anobile saw Wilson’s remark and got ideas, because in 1974 he came out with a first ever “complete reconstruction of a film in book form, over 1,400 frame blow-up photos shown sequentially and coupled with complete dialogue from the original soundtrack.” In short, an updated newspaper picture-strip. A lot of collectors bought Anobile’s book because it was the only way they could relive The Maltese Falcon whenever it pleased them to do so. Reading essence of Hammett (and adapting J. Huston) plus imagery of Bogey/Bogie throughout was next best thing to television furnishing the Falcon by request. Anobile served useful purpose with this and other volumes in his series until video cassette made them superfluous. I have his group and sometimes pull them down for nostalgia’s sake. The Maltese Falcon, minty upon opening, cracked neatly down its center spine despite my careful handling … a silent commentary on folly for having taken it off the shelf? The film could be had by myriad if expensive ways through the seventies/eighties, a rental at $125 per day from United Artists’ 16mm arm ---trouble was you had to give it back after using. Those less scrupulous could own a print via Gutman-like agency. My supplier had “lab connections” who in 1977 fixed me up with a brand new “original” for $250. Seems shady techs were in possession, if briefly, of UA elements from which order for legit television and rental prints was filled, plus whatever could be backdoored for delectation of no-questions-asking collectors. Here again be forbidden gets of old, satisfaction greater than even 4K honestly come by.

Is it fair to say favorites have a power source to stand unique from the rest? Best of them feed off multiple transformers. One I’d pick off Falcon tree has not been credited enough, Adolph Deutsch’s score. How much has he to do with revisits? A whole Warner sub-genre came of music distinct to style initiated by The Maltese Falcon, carried into follow-ups for which Deutsch composed The Mask of Dimitrios, All Through the Night, Northern Pursuit … tingling sources from which collectible CD’s came (issued in 1996 and 2005, OOP since). Was Maltese Falcon the most influential film released by Warners during the forties, at least insofar as their own product? Casablanca might not have worked out as it did were it not for the Falcon. A rogue’s gallery of players emerged from it, power source themselves for variants to recur the rest of a decade. Such ensemble, brilliantly combined first for the Falcon, clearly knew from start that theirs was singular reinvent of melodrama and screen suspense. We look at gag posing of Bogart, Astor, and Lorre cuddled around massive Greenstreet and sense the quartet saw change coming. Separately these were ones of a kind, together they'd be ideal group casting for future seasons. Consult Across the Pacific for further dose of Bogart, Astor, and Greenstreet, first with the trailer, wherein Greenstreet shows us the Falcon team has not scattered, would not so long as a public paid, which it did, and gladly, for each shuffle these players could deal.

I was made to feel dumb by a caption appearing neath a still from The Maltese Falcon in a 1964 Castle of Frankenstein magazine, age ten and having discovered monsters firstly, thus limited room to absorb film culture beyond CoF specialty. Pic showed the Falcon cast with John Huston, an image which by the way I have not seen elsewise since, the director and players identified, with caption concluding, “The picture, if you haven’t already guessed, is The Maltese Falcon,” editor Calvin T. Beck’s inference that of course we can guess, in fact we should know. Any idiot will recognize The Maltese Falcon, for hadn’t it run on a hundred late shows? No doubt it had in places other than North Carolina foothills where nobody was then televising the Falcon, late or in daytime, my failure to ID understandable if not excusable. Here came realizing there was much to learn about movies beyond what vampires and werewolves were up to. The seven years before I saw The Maltese Falcon would have seemed an impossible reach had I known it would take so long, for seven years was seven tenths of a life I had lived to then. Wait for the Falcon might as readily take a century. Surfacing later were costume tests for Lee Patrick and Mary Astor. I’d say “Effie” was more Patrick being her offscreen self, doing what was necessary to check fitness of her outfit. Astor on the other hand seems to have channeled “Brigid” for purpose of posing “in character” as she would if this were occasion to stand (or sit) for stills and perform in accordance with dramatic situation being illustrated. As proposed before, actors had to apply themselves to acting as seriously for publicity as for emoting per direction and dialogue.


Observe Euro poster art above. Anything went from far flung creatives; in fact, I favor these over what/who designed posters on US soil. Falcon's tableau is undated … looks from at least the mid-fifties if not later. Likenesses of Lorre, Bogart, and Greenstreet do them honor, but who’s this standing in for Mary Astor? Artisans concocting here had a laugh in service to hirers who set exploitation policy for what was old merchandise needing latter-day punch. The Maltese Falcon around a same time became lead pearl midst oyster that was the Bogart cult, along with Casablanca. Minus these, would there have been such a cult? Would Dashiell Hammett’s novel be so valued if not for Warners’ film? Much literature depends upon movie adapts for immortality they achieve. The other way around might also apply. The Maltese Falcon was ripe by the seventies for spoofing, The Black Bird a wretchedness I attended in 1975 only because Falcon vets were aboard to share in would-be japery of George Segal as “Sam Spade, Jr.” Posters misleadingly called The Black Bird a “Falcon Funny Movie,” vulgar play upon words to reflect taste and quality of the film. Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook were back as Effie and Wilmer, admirers of The Maltese Falcon wishing both had stayed home to preserve integrity for themselves and what was by then a beloved classic. Lastly, a parting poll. Who believes it was Humphrey Bogart that came up with “The stuff that dreams are made of”? With apology to Shakespeare, this was inspired capper anyone could go proud contributing. It wasn’t in Hammett’s book, and I’m not sure John Huston ever spoke to origin of the foolproof finish. Notwithstanding Shakespeare using it for The Tempest, I’d say stuff/dreams would be contested inspiration if Falcon participants were still around to jockey for credit. For the record, I will nominate Bogart as visionary, if for no reason other than Huston having writ enough great dialogue over his storied career to permit this one line to go a deserving colleague’s way.

Go HERE for Greenbriar previous look (2015) at The Maltese Falcon as "collector's" item. Plus HERE (6/20/14) for what a Falcon prop might bring. Then 3/24/17 on the 1931 Maltese Falcon in Broadway first-run. Finally a comparison between Falcon versions (11/9/2006).


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND # 12 ushered me into the world of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Unable to see the films I read about I read the books. By the time I got to see the movies the experience was one of, for the most part, great disappointment. It took me years to be able to appreciate the films on their own merits. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) lived up to and surpassed expectations except that, as with THE AFRICAN QUEEN, John Huston cut the last chapter.

There will never be a publication as vital to inspiration as FAMOUS MONSTERS. Reading science fiction introduced me to Judith Merril. In 1968 she came to Toronto to be part of newly opened Rochdale College. I went over to meet her. She got me interested in Rochdale. We became friends for life. Inspired by FM I bought a copy of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923). Jane Jacobs (author of THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES) and her family, newly arrived in Toronto, came to see it. We became friends for life.

I read her books.

I am called everything she wrote about.

It started with Forry Ackerman.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had read Jack Finney's book before seeing DR. LAO. I took my brothers and sisters to the Saturday matinee. We stayed until the last showing ended. The next day I went alone. Had an exam I should have been studying for on the Monday. Nailed it. That films. for me, is wonderful. The many I have introduced it to agree.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

As much as I love Huston's "Falcon," I have an odd affection for the '31 version. There's something about seeing the story in its actual period and (as good as Bogart is) Cortez has a little more of a sense of the absurdity of it all, as well as a touch more of Spade's Satanic quality (even if he lacks the blond hair of the novel's Spade).

The less said about the 1936 version, the better (despite my love for Warren William).

6:40 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

My first viewing of the Falcon was either in college in the 1980s - I took a "spare" course of "American Genre Cinema", and we screened a film every week, always 16mm ( I think) - or I first saw this on Ontario Public TV, because back then every Saturday evening for many years they'd screen an old B&W film, or films, with a host named "Yost" - I do specifically remember seeing "The Set-up" on that show back then, and I think "The Thin Man", too, so it is possible that that was where I first saw "The Maltese Falcon".
But at the distance of thirty-five or forty or even more years, I simply cannot remember which it was.

6:47 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

There are a lot of classic films I've seen and enjoyed multiple times, on big screen and small, that for the life of me I can't place my first exposure.

"Maltese Falcon" is one of them. I distinctly recall seeing "Big Sleep" for the first time at the Sash Mill in Santa Cruz, and many other classics there and on campus at UCSC. My first "Charlie Chans" were a triple header at the Vitaphone in Saratoga, which is also where I joined an audience in gasping at "Wait Until Dark" and "Random Harvest" (for different reasons). I frequented the Stanford in Palo Alto, where the double features oft included a totally unknown quality, like "Beauty and the Boss". But for every remembered first-time viewing ("Little Foxes" and "Dead End" in a tiny San Francisco art cinema with my high school drama class, in preparation for performing the former), there are multiple favorites that simply don't have such a beginning (Did I meet Dr. Lao on TV or at UCSC? Which silents were first viewed on "The Toy That Grew Up"? Lost in the mists.). They're like relatives or neighbors who've always been there.

I certainly remember knowing ABOUT various films long before seeing them, even in those pre-Internet days. A souvenir magazine from a late-60s visit to Universal Studios revealed that there was a series of Sherlock Holmes movies, not to mention a Green Hornet serial and a version of the Creature called Gill Man. Library books and magazines alerted me to existence of other items. Amateur theater led me to search the TV pages for movies of shows coming up locally. The Disney marketing machine kept us aware of animated features betwixt spaced-out re-releases via comics, Sunday night clips, and merchandise. There are some I don't think I actually saw until adulthood, despite knowing characters, plots, and songs. And I had some of those once-ubiquitous "The Films of ..." books, from Everson's essential Laurel and Hardy to the cookie-cutter jobs with stills, casts, and review quotes.

12:34 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I, too, am a big fan of the 1931 FALCON.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I, too, enjoy the 1931 Falcon for the same reasons as given by Dave. It's also more frankly sexual -- we're introduced to Spade following an obvious roll on the couch with a woman. The personal subtext between Gutman and the gunsel is pretty clear, too. And while I haven't read the book, I assume the 1931 climax in the woman's prison is more or less identical to the original story, too. I bet Huston screened the original for his cast to get an idea of how to play their characters -- they're quite similar.

8:10 AM  
Blogger DokG said...

My first go with "Maltese Falcon" was (I'm 90% sure) at the Varsity Theater in Palo Alto, CA in the mid-70s. I was on a Bogart kick at the time, and happily, so were the rep houses. I was especially jazzed when Bogart asks if a character had ever heard of an "Ansel Ave in Burlingame" - that being my own home town.
My gateway movie to Bogart was "Casablanca", which I saw under duress (initially). The CBS Movie I was ready to watch was the Matt Helm entry, "The Ambushers". The upcoming promo just before showtime, showing Helm leaping across a flying saucer on a motorcycle, had my secret agent mad self primed for a good time. But the local CBS affiliate, KPIX 5, preempted the network feed with an airing of "Casablanca". I felt so ripped off, I scanned the other channels for any options. Nuthin'.
I grumpily settled for KPIX, resenting the hell out of "Casablanca" for a full five minutes, before being swept away by the magic, power and utter charisma of this classic. Picked up a book on Bogart movies the next day at the library.
"Famous Monsters", "Castle of Frankenstein" and Carlos Clarens' "An Illustrated History of the Horror Film" were teen bibles - the Clarens book leading me to view ALL film genres critically. When my local horror show, "Shock It To Me Theater" on KEMO TV 20, started showing the Universal SHOCK package in the late 60s, it all came together for me. To finally see "The Mummy's Tomb", "Dracula's Daughter" and other films I'd only read about was life-changing.

10:52 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

THE MALTESE FALCON, simply put, has the necessary elements for a classic, including, but not limited to, a great script, fine direction, really good acting, and atmosphere. It's like opening a gift box that has a hundred treats.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

Circus of Dr. Lao was written by Charles G. Finney, not Jack, who wrote Time and Again. Natural error.

10:14 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

My first time seeing FALCON must have been 1972 on Ch. 56 in Boston, where the film programmer would host the classic films. They were doing "Detective" movie week.

11:06 PM  
Blogger lsthwy said...

Three more reasons for liking the'31: Bebe Daniels, Una Merkel--and Thelma.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Watched the '31 version this week after reading this post. Watched the '35 version. Neither does it for me but the '36 version no where near either version.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

It had to be on "Alleghany Playhouse" from Johnstown. Later, State College became a mecca for classic films, foreign films, and independents. Today? The same schlock available at every cineplex in middle America.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The biggest difference between the31 version and the Huston version stems from producer's Hal Wallis' request to speed up delivery of the dialogue. That creates a tight energy the 31 version lacks. Of course, the BIGGEST difference is Bogart himself. Watched the film with the commentary for the first time this week. I ad always thought gunsel meant a man with a gun. It doesn't. They got that by the Breen code. Gunsel is yiddish for a boy or youth who is used for sexual purposes by a man

9:33 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Maltese Falcon has never been a real favourite of mine. Oh, the casting is great (at least that of the male actors) and Bogart and Astor have a great final scene together at the end. But the film has always struck me as a bit of a talk fest. Fine actress that she may have been I still can't take Mary Astor seriously as a duplicitous femme fatale (especially with that middle aged schoolmarm hairstyle she has in the film).

It may be confusing, story-wise (as is Falcon to a lesser degree) but I have always found Hawks' Big Sleep more of a sexy, fun film.

9:37 AM  

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