No Good Action

This post is written in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Scribe Hard on Film. Full listings for SUTS programming on Turner Classic Movies can be found HERE.

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The Maltese Falcon (1941) is an iconic film in American cinematic history. Let us do away with the lore: George Raft turned down the leading role (ditto for Casablanca); Falcon marked the debut for both John Huston as director and Sidney Greenstreet, at age sixty, as an actor. In fact, Greenstreet was so nervous that he asked Mary Astor to hold his hand before scenes. Astor had not been the first choice for the leading lady: Geraldine Fitzgerald of Wuthering Heights had been. Astor became romantically involved with Huston during the film. Other Hollywood ladies who had been considered for the Brigid O’ Shaughnessy role were Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth. John Huston, the perfectionist director, shot and re-shot scenes. He had made Captain Jacobi, played by his father, enter and fall down several times. I think this covers trivia facts for fans of the Maltese Falcon.

Here are some little known facts about the Falcon:

  • Bogart wore his own clothes. The studio was that cheap. Warner Brothers had Sidney Greenstreet’s clothes tailored to order. Greenstreet was a big man: 357-pounds large.
  • While director John Huston’s adaptation of the 1930 novel is definitive, The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before: Dangerous Female (1931) and Satan Met A Lady (1936).
  • Eve Arden had been the first choice for Effie Perrine. Lee Patrick got the part. Huston was grateful to William Wyler for his advice. Huston knew he was filming his first film in the shadow of Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’s influence is seen throughout the film.
  • John Huston and Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot became enemies on the set. The marriage ended in 1945 with Bogart’s marriage to Bacall.  Methot died, alone and alcoholic, while Bogart was filming The African Queen (1951).
  • Cameraman Arthur Edeson used natural lighting instead of overhead lights, shot from the floor up in most takes, particularly with Greenstreet to create a sinister, tense, and tight effect; it also emphasized Greenstreet’s mammoth size.
  • Warner Brothers had budgeted 36 days for shooting. The film finished $54,000 under budget and two days ahead of schedule, which is amazing, since Huston filmed the scenes sequentially. Huston pushed hard and Hal Wallis, the executive producer, pushed harder.
  • Wallis had originally entitled the film as The Gent from Frisco, but Jack Warner changed it (thankfully!) to The Maltese Falcon.

I’d like to draw attention to some neglected observations. Much of the film’s dialog is lifted directly from Hammett’s novel. As I’ve mentioned in my own blog posts, Hammett influenced Hemingway with terse, minimalistic descriptions and speech. Gertrude Stein acknowledged Hammett’s influence. Sadly, it was Hemingway who wrote “literature” while Dash wrote “pulp.” There are other subtle differences between the novel and screenplay, such as the fact that Spade is “a blond Satan.” Bogart is clearly neither blond nor Satan.

Shifting between novel and film, the reader and viewer realize that both texts, book and film, are intensely dialog-driven. There is plot, but the action is limited to scenes. Conversation carries the movie; it exhausted the actors during the filming. Each chapter in The Maltese Falcon novel is a scene, which is why it adapts so well to screen. Huston picked a gem for his first effort.

The film would make the forty-two-year-old Bogart a leading man. Casablanca secured it. The reason Bogart was so good in The Petrified Forest, a Robert Sherwood play, and undeniable perfection in Maltese, is that he drew upon his years on the stage to play Spade. Watch every scene in Falcon and observe how Bogart watches the actor opposite him, how he relates to him or her. Bogart the actor is always kind and generous to those opposite to him, in this film and others. Bogart does so much with so little. This is why he was the perfect match to Hammett’s prose. Huston provided the dialog, but Bogart filled in all the narrative space. Bogart is the actor who provided emotion with an arched eyebrow, sour disdain, a lit cigarette and a crimped mouth. There is no better example of Bogart’s physical acting than the smooth scene in which Brigid enters Spade’s apartment with him and they find the criminals waiting for them. It ends with the police arriving and his handing her over. This scene takes up twenty minutes of the Falcon’s total 100 minutes. It is all words, empty space, and no action.

As for the scenes in the novel, but not in the film…Huston’s Falcon ends with the elevator’s grate, simulating prison bars, crossing Brigid’s face. Bogart quotes Shakespeare, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” The film ends. The film’s “message” is a variation of the “Bro” Honor Code. Spade may not have liked his partner, Miles Archer, and he may have been sleeping with the man’s wife, Iva, but “when a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” In contrast, the novel ends with Miles’s wife coming to the office. Effie, the wise and somewhat suffering Girl Friday, is disgusted with Sam.  The film ends with justice. The novel ends on a cynical back-to-business note.

There is one telling scene that I think many viewers have overlooked: the love scene. Bogart disliked love scenes. Louise Brooks wrote a revealing essay about Bogie, about him and women, about him and his relationship to drink. Bogart was no prude but he was self-conscious when it came to kissing. In her memoir, A Loving Gentleman, Mary Astor discusses the numerous takes of Scene 35. As a reminder, this is the scene in which Spade kisses Brigid and the fireplace is burning a nice romantic fire. The scene was shot, re-shot, debated and discussed because Bogart could not kiss convincingly. Bogart had joked that he was no leading man, having played the “heavy” in so many films. In reality (and Astor realized this later), Bogart was self-conscious about his scarred upper lip. The cause of the scar has been romanticized, as was Bogart’s date of birth by the studios, but the truth is that it was an accident made worse by medical malpractice. The harelip did affect his speech and it collected saliva. Louise Brooks speaks at reasonable length about how “St. Bogart” practiced and practiced his lines around his perceived impediment. Astor phrased her conclusion differently, but in effect she leaves the reader with the impression that Bogart would rather convince the girl and the moviegoer how he felt with a look than an overt physical display of affection.

Another scene in the novel that never translated to screen is the character of Rhea Gutman. In the novel, her father drugs her, which is what makes it more disturbing, and shows his ruthlessness. She pricks herself with a pin, so she won’t lose consciousness. The movie doesn’t highlight this, and as a result, I don’t think the viewer is as scared of him. We know that The Fat Man drugs Spade. The chapter is indeed bizarre and eerie, but not as mysterious as the fates of the bird statues used in the movie. Huston’s friend, the sculptor Fred Sexton casted four statues of the black bird (some sources say more, but only three remain, all valued at $1 million each) as props the movie. The statue at John’s Grill in San Francisco was stolen in 2006; it remains missing. Two statues were made of lead, weighing 47 pounds each, and the other birds were made of light resin. In watching the film it is clear which bird, the lead or resin one, was handled by the actors. Bogart is said to have dropped one of the birds, damaging it, and creating the need to have duplicates made. In the subsequent years, the whereabouts and provenance of each bird, and the copy of a copy of a bird have become a compelling legend and mystery worthy of Dash himself.

One last fact and this concerns the billing. In the draft of the billing notice, Bogart had been listed above Astor’s name, in larger type but smaller than the film’s title. Jack Warner, after the preview, had it changed, with Bogart and Astor sharing the same line space, same size type, as well as the same type as the film title.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. Ronan Bennett short-listed Gabriel for the 2010 Fish Short Story Prize and he won the inaugural Lit Bits Contest at ZOUCH. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series: Book 1, Roma, Underground (February 2012), Book 2, Wasp’s Nest (November 2012), and Book 3, Threading the Needle (October 2013). Books 4, Turning to Stone and 5, Corporate Citizen are scheduled for 2015. His novels are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble in trade-paperback and in e-book for Kindle and Nook. Rachel Anderson of RMA Publicity is his publicist. His website is at http://www.gabrielvaljan.com
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2 Responses to No Good Action

  1. Pingback: 2013 tcm SUTS Blogathon Day 1: Humphrey Bogart | ScribeHard On Film

  2. Jill says:

    Gabriel,

    Sorry it has taken me a while to get over here and comment. I like to make sure I read every contribution to the blogathon, but it sometimes takes me a while to do so.

    Thanks for this great insight into one of my favorite movies. The Louise Brooks article is particularly interesting. Did you know that Bonhams and TCM are partnering to sell the statuette from The Maltese Falcon? http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21427/

    Thanks again.

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