Monday, October 3, 2016

The Maltese Falcon (1941) Turns 75

It was 75 years ago today that The Maltese Falcon (1941) premiered in New York City. It opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews and it also did well at the box office. It has since become regarded not only as a classic, but also as one of the greatest movies ever made.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) was based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The novel was originally serialised in  the pulp magazine Black Mask in five parts starting with its September 1929 issue. In 1930 it was published as a book by Alfred A. Knopf. What is not widely known to day is that The Maltese Falcon (1941) was not the first film adaption of the novel. In 1931 Warner Bros. released its first screen adaption of the book, starring  Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. As a fairly faithful adaption of the novel, The Maltese Falcon (1931) featured content that would later be considered objectionable once the Production Code was more strictly enforced in 1934. When Warner Bros. tried to re-release the film in 1936, they were denied approval by the Production Code Administration. Warner Bros. then made a very loose adaption titled Satan Met a Lady (1936). Satan Met a Lady departed so much from the novel that the lead character was not even named "Sam Spade", but "Ted Shane" instead. Satan Met a Lady received abysmal reviews and would soon be forgotten.

That having been said, The Maltese Falcon was still a very popular book in the late Thirties and early Forties, and Warner Bros. still owned the film rights. It should be little wonder then that screenwriter John Huston chose it as his directorial debut. Unfortunately, while Warner Bros. liked John Huston's screenplay of the novel, they decided to place restrictions upon him since he was a first time director. They gave him only six weeks in which to shoot the film and they gave him a budget of only  $300,000. What was worse is that Warner Bros. made it clear that if he went over budget he would then be out of a job. John Huston then storyboarded every scene and outlined the film shot by shot in the screenplay for both him and his crew. He also broke with traditional Hollywood filmmaking by shooting most The Maltese Falcon in sequence.

Today Sam Space is one of Humphrey Bogart's best known roles, so much so that it is hard that anyone could be considered for the role. Amazingly enough, Warner Bros. originally wanted George Raft to play Sam Spade in the film. In fact, as late as four days before shooting was to begin Mr. Raft was scheduled to report to the set. That having been said, George Raft was not very enthusiastic about the role. He did not like the idea of working with a first time director and he did not think The Maltese Falcon (1941) would be a very important film. George Raft had a clause in his contract that allowed him to veto films that he did not think were worthy of him, and so he exercised that power on The Maltese Falcon (1941). Warner Bros. then briefly considered Edward G. Robinson for the role before deciding upon Humphrey Bogart.

Not only was Humphrey Bogart not the first actor considered for the role of Sam Spade, but neither was Mary Astor the first actress considered for the role of Ruth Wonderly. Warner Bros. originally wanted Geraldine Fitzgerald, whom they had under contract, in the role. Geraldine Fitzgerald was not particularly interested in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Fortunately Mary Astor had read the script and was very interested in the film and the role of Ruth Wonderly. She was then cast in the part.

John Huston's father, actor Walter Huston, had wanted to appear in his son's first film for good luck. It is for that reason that he makes a very important, but uncredited cameo in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Walter Huston played Jacobi, the captain of the freighter La Paloma, who staggers into Sam Spade's office with the statuette of the title and then promptly dies. 

Of course, at the centre of the novel and The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the black bird itself. The statuette for the film was designed by sculptor Fred Sexton. Two "Maltese Falcon" props were made for the film, but only one actually appeared in the movie. The surviving Maltese Falcon (and the one that appeared in the film) would be sold at auction in 2013 for $4,085,000. This made it one of the most expensive pieces of film memorabilia ever sold.

Ultimately The Maltese Falcon (1941) would be very faithful to the original novel. Almost all of the dialogue in the film is taken straight from the book. Most of the scenes in the novel made into the film as well, with John Huston only omitting one scene when he realised it could be handled through a phone call instead. Of course, the Production Code would require some major changes to the material. Any overt references to homosexuality were strictly forbidden, so it could only be strongly implied in the film. The Production Code Administration had also wanted the consumption of alcohol to be reduced, although John Huston refused to do away with it entirely as it was central to the character of Sam Spade.

Upon its release The Maltese Falcon (1941) received a good deal of critical acclaim. It also did very well at the box office. It received three Academy Award nominations: Best Picture; Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor; and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Due to the film's success, Warner Bros. had planned a sequel to the film. John Huston had written a script titled Three Strangers that Warner Bros. had purchased many years ago, and the studio thought the script could be altered to feature the characters from The Maltese Falcon (1941). Plans for the sequel would be squashed when Warners Bros. learned that they neither owned the sequel rights to The Maltese Falcon nor did they own the rights to the characters. Three Strangers would eventually be made with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre playing very similar characters to the ones they had played in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Since its release The Maltese Falcon (1941) has come to be regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. In 1989 The Maltese Falcon (1941) became one of the very first films added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry as a movie that is ""culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".  On the American Film Institute's 1998 list  AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies it was ranked at no. 23. In 2002 author Andrew J. Rausch included it in his book The Hundred Greatest American Films: A Quiz Book. In July 2013 it made the list of Entertainment Weekly's All Time Greatest Movies. On the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes it is one of the very few movies with a score of 100%.

Not surprisingly The Maltese Falcon (1941) would have a lasting impact on film. Its influence on film noir has often been acknowledged, to the point that some believe it to be the first film noir. Parodies of and homages to The Maltese Falcon (1941) are plentiful, with everything from the classic TV show The Avengers to the movie The Black Bird (1975) referencing it. The Maltese Falcon (1941) would led to yet more hard boiled detectives similar to Sam Spade making it to the big screen. Humphrey Bogart himself would play Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). What is more, its influence would go well beyond the Forties. The hard boiled detectives of Chinatown (1974) and Blood Simple (1984) owe something to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

Seventy five years after its premiere the reputation of The Maltese Falcon has not diminished. It is still regarded as one of the best films ever made and its influence on cinema is still being felt.

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