Monday, March 19, 2012

TV Bites: The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade's Lamb Chops

Hey, it's part two of my Humphrey Bogart double bill. Now while To Have and Have Not was filmed after The Maltese Falcon, I wound up doing this one second. No real reason other than the John Huston books were checked out of the library last month, but not the ones on Hawks. Does that clear up that mystery for you?

This was the big transition role for Bogart. He was no longer a bad guy, he was the hero. And he even got to kiss a girl, albeit a psychopathic one, but still. Strangely, I wound up not talking much about Bogart below and instead wound up focusing more on Huston and all of Mary Astor's stories. I hope you won't hold that against me.

Now please indulge me as I rant a bit. You'll read a lot online that people consider this to be the first Film Noir film. I don't particularly think so. It is clearly an antecedent, but I wouldn't call it the first Noir. I mean, you might as well say Fritz Lang's M is the first, no? Some people say it was Stranger on the Third Floor. (Note: M, Stranger, and The Falcon all feature Peter Lorre, if you didn't notice that.) Others might even say it was Citizen Kane. But this is just cinemagraphic masturbation as far as I'm concerned. Film Noir is a style that evolved and to pick the first film which incorporated all of its elements.... well, friends.... you'll first have to decide what exactly are those elements, which are always up for discussion and disagreement, as well. So there.

One of the most horrible and tragic legacies of the Motion Picture Production Code years is that many people today seem to have the misguided belief that America in those days was actually like those movies. You know, crime never paid, people never cussed, Negroes and homosexuals mostly didn't exist, no one took drugs except those prescribed by their doctor, all women were virgins until married, and once married the happy couple slept in separate beds. And these deluded people seem to think that somewhere in the 1960's, we lost our way and we need to get back, like Dorothy trying to find her way from Oz back to Kansas. But it's the other way around. You can't go back to a place that never existed. And so often, they blame this deterioration of values and such on Hollywood, unable to understand that getting rid of the MPPC didn't change us, it just let the movies show us who we really were, not some fantasy. But some people prefer to live in a fantasy, it seems.

What's my point here? My point is that thankfully we have other sources which give us some insight into how life was really like back then, such as the pulp fiction in magazines such as Black Mask. Over a half-century since first published, those stories are still popular, partially due to the fact their world feels a lot more like our own than say Andy Hardy's. We'll talk about the pulp crime novel more in the Background & Context section below.

Otherwise, all is well. Just survived my 14th South by Southwest, though I have to say in the last few years its commercialism and popularity have made it a lot less fun. Still I've had a bunch of house guests and run ins with old friends and even ran into a fellow I went to grade school with I hadn't seen since sixth grade. He produced a film showing at the fest, Electrick Children. Friends come to town and I get to pretend they're here to visit me.

The Maltese Falcon is available for purchase and streaming @ Amazon, and is home rentable from NetFlix.


"Don't be so sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good for business bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy."

So let's start here....

"I was about 11 years old," recalled Max Wilk, son of Jacob Wilk, story editor for Warner Bros. studio, based in New York. The year was 1929. "There was a magazine called Black Mask [see Background & Context section below] and it was run by a man named Captain Joseph T. Shaw, who lived in Scarsdale. He took the train to New York every day with my father. He said to my father, 'Do you think your son would like to read Black Mask?' A guy named Dashiell Hammett put a [serialized novel] in there called The Maltese Falcon. I came home from school and I read it, and I thought, 'What a hell of a good story!' And it says, 'To be continued in our next issue.' My father came home and he said, 'What are you upset about?' I said, 'They sent this magazine and I can't read the next part. Where's the next part?' He said, 'Do you really like it?' I said, 'I love it! It's exciting!'"

The next day, according to Max, his dad called Captain Shaw and said to him, "'What is this thing you have, The Maltese Falcon?' He sent [my father] the [remaining issues]. My father called the studio and said, 'I can pick this up for twenty-five hundred dollars.' He came home, and he said, 'Here's the rest of the issues. You can read the rest of the story.' And I said, 'How did you do that?' He said, 'We just bought it.'"

Max told a slightly different, but essentially the same, version of this story to AM Sperber & Eric Lax in their biography of Humphrey Bogart. Therein, Sperber & Lax also note, however, that Paramount Pictures "flirted" with the property briefly before it came out in book form in 1930. Also, Max incorrectly states the price Warner's paid for it. It was "a lot" more than $2500; Hammett and his publisher received "the king's ransom" of $8500 for it.

Over the next decade, there were two versions of the book filmed. The first, pre-Hayes Code in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez (born Jacob Krantz and raised in Brooklyn was reinvented as a Latin lover during the silent film era - his last appearance was on an episode of the TV series Bonanza playing "Don Xavier Losaro") and Bebe Daniels (who was 2nd cousin to Lee De Forest, inventor of the audio amplifier - see Background & Context of my Singin' in the Rain post for more on De Forest). Cortez played Sam Spade as a suave cad who gets to have (albeit off-screen) sex with Daniels' character. It was well-received but is by no means a classic. The second attempt reworked the story as an breezy trifle that falls pretty flat, Satan Met a Lady, starring Warren William (who had already played both detective Philo Vance and lawyer Perry Mason in movies) and Bette Davis. "The Fat Man" became "The Fat Woman" and Joel Cairo turned into Fish 'n' Chips icon Arthur Treacher (see A Fish Called Wanda post food section for more on Treacher). They make interesting viewing because together the three adaptations of The Maltese Falcon clearly illustrate how quickly talking pictures technically matured over its first decade. Though, Satan Met a Lady is like viewing some bizzaro alternate universe version. The "Wilmer" part, called Kenneth, is the only reason to watch it. Maynard Holmes - he's just awesome. (Holmes appears to be somewhat of an enigma. I can barely find anything about him.)

John Huston followed his papa, actor Walter Huston, out to Hollywood around 1928. Huston senior was already an established actor, and John, 24, tried his hand at it. He also tried his hands at boxing, journalism, and discovered he was good at screenwriting. His first major script was Bette Davis' Jezebel in 1938, followed by The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, which co-starred Humphrey Bogart. Within two years, Huston had enough clout to ask the unthinkable of Warner Bros. when his contract was up for renewal.

"[M]y agent had it written into my contract that if they took up my option, they'd let me direct a picture," Huston recalled. "When it came time, Henry Blanke, who was a producer at Warner Bros. and a man of great taste and discrimination, became something of a champion of mine, and he backed me up. When I said I wanted to direct The Maltese Falcon, the studio heads were astonished and delighted, because they owned it. It had been a bad picture twice before, but it makes sense to remake a bad picture."

"Only successful pictures are made over again," he elaborated elsewhere. "I've never understood why. I've never known of an instance where the remake was as good as the original. There is no formula that enables one to recreate the unique chemistry that went into making a particular pictures a success. It should be the other way around. Unsuccessful pictures – those based on good material – which for reasons of time, place or circumstances just don't come off the first time around, are the ones that should be given a second chance."

So Warners had to believe pretty strongly in him. At the time, only Preston Sturges was granted permission to both direct and write his own films.

For what happened next, we turn to screenwriter Allen Rivkin, who shared offices in the script department at Warner Bros with Huston. “One day [Huston] came in," he wrote, "tossed a book on my desk, took a stance, pointed a finger at the book and said, 'Kid, Warner said if I can get a good screenplay out of this Dash Hammett thing, he'll let me direct it.'.... 'Let's go,' I said, eager for another assignment. 'Fine, kid, fine. But first, before we do that – let's get it broken down. You know, have the secretary recopy the book, only setting it up in shots, scenes and dialogue. Then we'll know where we are.'.... About a week later, John ambled into my office, looking very puzzled. 'Goddamnedest thing happened, kid,' he said, giving each word a close-up. My eyes asked what, 'Something maybe you didn't know,' he said. 'Everything these secretaries do, a copy's got to go to the department. This Maltese thing our secretary was doing, went there, too.'" And Jack Warner had read it personally, he sighed. Rivkin figured Warner rejected it. “[H]ell!,” Huston exclaimed. “Warner said he wants me to shoot – and I start next Monday!

But not so quick, actually. Joseph Breen of the Hayes Office also got a look at the script, and apparently there was too much drinking, cursing, and sexual innuendos. For one thing, Breen wrote, "[I]t is essential that Spade should not be characterized as having had a sex affair with Iva [Archer's widow].... [and] no indication that Brigid [Mary Astor's role] and Spade are spending the night together."

But what really got Breen all atwitter were the homosexual references. “We cannot approve the characterization of Cairo as a pansy as indicated by the lavender perfume, high-pitched voice, and other accouterments," Breen continued. Also, "where Cairo puts his arm around the boy's shoulder and is struck by the boy for so doing. This action, in light of Cairo's characterization, is definitely unacceptable.”

Watching the movie, it's pretty obvious both Misters Cairo and Gutman do not seem interested in the ladies, shall we say.

Now Huston wanted Bogart to play Spade, as they knew each other socially as well as been involved together on several pictures, most recently High Sierra. But the studio heads were playing games so they assigned the role to George Raft. Raft was a problem child to put it mildly. He surrounded himself with bodyguards, and believed his own publicity. Warners was pissed at Bogart who was then on suspension for refusing an assignment. But you also have figure in this: Bogart had done a series of pictures in roles Raft had turned down, including Dead End and High Sierra. And all those roles were responsible for propelling Bogart's career forward which pissed Raft off. And Bogart was pissed because he was tired of being the studio's second choice. So Jack Warner decided to get at both of them, knowing Raft wouldn't want to work with a first time director (Huston), and knowing Bogart wanted the role, and also knowing full well he was going to give it to Bogart in the end.

Mary Astor had her own set of baggage. In 1936, a custody dispute for her daughter prompted her ex-husband to steal and leak portions of her diary to the press. Amongst other items, her diary detailed her secret affair with writer George S. Kaufman (whom, she claimed, could give her 20 orgasms in one evening). As well as her struggle with alcoholism and suicide attempts were revealed. ("As part of the custody agreement," according to the LA Times, "the judge ordered that the diary be locked away in a bank vault and eventually destroyed. In 1952, a judge and several officials supervised as the diary was burned page by page.") Jeffrey Meyers suggests in his book on Bogart that “these lurid events made her perfect for the role” as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Sadly, her drinking continued to get the worst of her and she was eventually hospitalized some years after this film.

Peter Lorre, it has been said, owed his life and career to three directors. Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Huston. First in Germany, then in England, and then California. The Hollywood studios were never sure how to cast him and it was his role as Joel Cairo herein which saved him from B movie hell. The experience also began his life long friendship with Bogart. I should also note Lorre suffered a lifelong addiction to morphine he tried several times to beat.

Peter just seemed to me to be ideal for the part,” Huston said. “He had that international air about him. You never knew quite where he was from, although one did, of course.” Elsewhere, he added, that Lorre "was one of the finest and most subtle actors I have ever worked with. Beneath that air of innocence he used to such effect, one sensed a Faustian worldliness. I'd know he was giving a good performance as we put it on film but I wouldn't know how good until I saw him in the rushes."

Sidney Greenstreet made his screen debut - at the age of 61 - in The Maltese Falcon. He at one time ran a tea plantation in Ceylon, and had been acting since 1902 both in England and the US, mostly in comedic roles. Huston spotted him in a theater production in Los Angeles. "[H]e was perfect from the world go," Huston recalled, "the Fat Man inside out. I had only to sit back and take delight in him and his performance."

Finally, one of my favorite character actors, Elisha Cook, Jr. What Huston says here only makes me dig him even more. Huston noted that Cook, "lived alone up in the High Sierra, tied flies and caught golden trout between films. When he was wanted in Hollywood, they sent word up to his mountain cabin by courier. He would come down, do a picture and then withdraw again to his retreat." (And to clear up any misunderstanding, according to Hammett's granddaughter Julie Rivett, “The original meaning of the word gunsel is a boy who is kept for illicit purposes by hobos.”)

Huston drew meticulous storyboards for the entire film (much like the Coen Brothers would do for their first film in Chef du Cinema pick Blood Simple). "I didn't want ever to be at a loss before the actors or the camera crew," Huston noted. "I went over the sketches with Willy Wyler. He had a few suggestions to make, but, on the whole, approved what he saw. I also showed the sketches to my producer, Henry Blanke. All Blanke said was, 'John, just remember that each scene, as you shoot it, is the most important scene in the picture.' That's the best advice any young director could have."

"I remember the cameras turning for the first shot of my first picture," he recalled when he accepted his AFI Lifetime Achievement award. "The actors were all in their places — looking at me expectantly. I’d no idea what was required. Finally, my assistant (Jack Sullivan), whispered: 'Say action.' I did so and The Maltese Falcon was underway."

Because he had planned everything so well, the production went quite smoothly. Interestingly, the production designer Robert Hass had been the production designer on the 1938 version, and Arthur Edeson had also been the DP on Satan Met a Lady.

"I rehearsed with Mary Astor before the picture started, and together we worked out her characterization of the amoral Brigid O'Shaughnessy: her voice hesitant, tremulous and pleading, her eyes full of candor. She was the enchanting murderess to my idea of perfection," Huston wrote. Astor had this little trick she'd do before each take, which was to hyperventilate so she'd always sound slightly out of breath. I'll also note in passing that she and Huston had an affair during filming.

"I had a lovely pot to boil for [the character of] Brigid. It was quite a bitches' cauldron," Astor noted. "[John] used his own personal intensity to excite us; we were never 'back on our heels.' And when he said: 'Let's make it...' We were ready. As a result there were never many takes to a scene and so we had lots of time to play."

And play they did. "The Lakeside Golf Club was just across the highway from Warner Bros. studio," Astor recalled, "and had a pleasant poolside dining area. Several of us were members and almost every day the company would gather there for a long hour and a half lunch period. People from other companies would eye us suspiciously because we weren't wolfing down sandwiches in a hurry to get back to work. We could boast smugly, 'We're way ahead of schedule.'"

During filming, the cast would play elaborate practical jokes on each other. But their favorite thing to do was play jokes on visitors to the set. "We didn't want people around watching us," Astor explained. "We had an odd childlike territorial imperative about our set. It was hard work, and we didn't want anyone looking over our shoulder, so to speak. Also, we had a sneaky feeling that we were doing something different and exciting, and we didn't want to show it to anyone until it was finished."

"It all started one afternoon when we were lined up on a shot where I sit down and cross my knees elaborately," she continued. "I looked down and said, 'Hold it a minute. I've got a goddamn run in my stocking.' I looked up and a little to the side of the camera was the publicity man with a half-dozen gentlemen of the cloth. They were ushered out politely by the publicity man who looked a little pale. When the big doors closed, everybody whooped and hollered and said, 'That's our girl! That's the way to get 'em off the set!' After that, John dreamed up an act for each one of us – designated by numbers."

If Huston called out "Number Five!" that meant, according to Astor, that Greenstreet and Bogart would get into a verbal argument. But if he called out "Number Ten!" that meant, Astor recalled, "I had to get into my portable [trailer] with Peter Lorre before a group got over to where we were working. When [the visitors] had been guided into position by the gracious John Huston, saying politely, 'I think you'll see just fine right over here,' in sight of the door of my dressing room, he would then call out, 'OK, I think we're ready for Number Ten, now.' Peter would open the door and come down the steps fastening his fly, and I would stick my head out the door, waving coy fingers as he said, 'See you later, Mary.'"

There were only two major changes made after they started production. They decided to drop the final scene and end with Mary Astor going down the elevator. This decision led to Huston (or Bogart, depending on the story) dashing off perhaps the most memorable line of the film, a bit of cribbing from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Also, after an audience test screening showed people were having problems following Astor's opening story in Spade's office, they reshot it to make it less complicated sounding.

Lee Patrick, who played Effie the secretary, recalled, “You felt you were working in an atmosphere of love. You were with a director who loved every one of you and wanted everyone to be good in his own way.... He made you feel somehow that you were so important to the picture. And it only led to good performances.”

Bogart once said of The Maltese Falcon, “[I]t was practically a masterpiece. I don't have many things I'm proud of... but that's one.”

Lorre remembered it to be “one of my happiest memories and very nostalgic one, because for a few years we used to have a sort of stock company, an ensemble.... It was a ball team... Each of those people, whether it was Claude Rains or Sydney Greenstreet or Bogart, or so on, there is one quality about them in common that is quite hard to come by. You can't teach it and that is to switch an audience from laughter to seriousness. We can do it at will, most people can't.

"The publicity department wanted to call it The Gent from Frisco, but [producer] Hal Wallis persuaded Jack [Warner] to let it remain The Maltese Falcon," noted Huston. The film was nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Greenstreet – Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay) and took none. A plan for a sequel, The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, never materialized, though a 1975 comedy, The Black Bird, starring George Segal as "the son of Sam Spade," could be considered a sequel of sorts.


In 1896, the magazine Argosy, began printing on recently-invented paper made from cheap wood pulp. Other similar magazines began springing up about the same time, all catering to short or serialized fiction. And because of this cheap paper stock, they were dubbed "pulp magazines."

By the early 1920's, there were specific pulps dedicated to various popular genres, including westerns, pirates, romance, espionage, science fiction, and horror. The first detective pulp began publication in 1915, Detective Story Monthly.

Many biographies, at least online, of 20th century curmudgeon HL Mencken are negligent in noting that in 1920 he founded (along with George Jean Nathan) Black Mask magazine, the greatest and most influential of all the pulp publications. They didn't think much of it, its primary purpose was to help fund their more upscale The Smart Set magazine. After a year they sold it for a profit, but it was the new owners and the editors they hired who nurtured a new kind of detective story, featuring a character who became known as the "hard-boiled" detective.

This new genre depicted a different kind of world. A post-World War I, prohibition era world. It was a time of deep distrust in authority and government. Author Raymond Chandler once described it thusly: "Most of the plots were rather ordinary and most of the characters rather primitive types of people. Possibly it was the smell of fear which these stories managed to generate. Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night."

The author generally credited as "the first" hard-boiled writer was Carroll John Daly, shortly followed by Dashiell Hammett (writing under the name Peter Collinson in 1922).

These magazines were hugely popular. When The Maltese Falcon was first published in book form, it went into seven printings in its first year. But after World War II, comic books, paperbacks, and eventually television superseded the pulps and only a few, such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery magazine, continue offering a regular place for short detective/crime fiction. (My grandmother was a voracious reader of both in the 1960's and she would pass them along to me when she was done with them. I owe my dark, cynical nature to her. But as I always say, "her maiden name was Sinick, which makes me 'a born Sinick.'")

Some of the other great writers of the Black Mask era I personally love include, WT Ballard, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Frank Gruber, Frederick Nebel, and Norbert Davis.


"[Sam Spade] went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, and ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table." - from The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

Another great writer who explored the underbelly of San Francisco, Frank Norris, wrote in his novel McTeague (aka Greed): "Fancy a novel about Chicago or Buffalo, let us say, or Nashville, Tennessee! There are just three big cities in the United States that are 'story cities'— New York, of course, New Orleans, and, best of the lot, San Francisco."

Yes, "Baghdad by the Bay" (as it was oft-referred to by columnist Herb Caen) is truly a great city to set a story in, as well as a movie. Hitchcock adored it so much he used it twice. And seriously, could the Dirty Harry films have been set in any other burg? No, I say.

And while many of its famous haunts have made way for the hip and trendy, several still remain to remind folks of what made it such a beloved place. And John's Grill is certainly one.

In San Francisco you have the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and John’s Grill,” the restaurant's fourth owner John Konstin said in 2008 when the restaurant celebrated its 100th anniversary. “We have people who have been coming here for decades and some come here five days a week for lunch.”

A year earlier, the Maltese Falcon statue which had been there for decades (one of the few plaster props made was given to the restaurant as a present by Elisha Cook Jr.), was stolen.

The restaurant offered a $25,000 reward for its return, "no questions asked," but there were no takers.

"I'd go after the fat man and the pretty girl," suggested Dashiell Hammett scholar Richard Layman at the time. Of course, another theory is that it was a publicity stunt to get some press ahead of the restaurant's hundred anniversary.

Whatever happened to it, a replica of the replica was commissioned by owner Konstin which now stands watch over patrons as they eat.

And while the scene in the restaurant did not make it into the movie, this is still considered the "official" meal of Sam Spade and therefore it's what I'm eating with it. All that's needed to add is a cocktail with a "Mickey" slipped in it.

As always, cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Sam Spade's Lamb Chops
based on a dish served at San Francisco's John's Grill "Home of the Maltese Falcon"
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 2

4 French Cut Lamb Chops
freshly ground black pepper
garlic powder

Bring chops to room temperature. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder.

Broil or grill until medium-rare.

Serve with sliced tomatoes and baked potato. Finish with coffee and a cigarette.

The Maltese Falcon Screenplay (PDF)
John Huston & The Making of The Maltese Falcon, by Jeffrey Meyers
Roger Ebert on The Maltese Falcon
TCM's The Maltese Falcon Page
Official Humphrey Bogart Page
Black Mask magazine
Pulp World
The Pulp.Net

The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Special Edition) DVD
The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, director (Rutgers Films in Print), edited by William Luhr
John Huston: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), edited by Robert Emmet Long
An Open Book, by John Huston
John Huston: Courage and Art, by Jeffrey Meyers
Bogart: A Life in Hollywood, by Jeffrey Meyers
Bogart, by AM Sperber & Eric Lax
Life On Film, by Mary Astor
The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, by Stephen D. Youngkin
Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade: The Evolution of Dashiell Hammett's Masterpiece, Including John Huston's Movie with Humphrey Bogart (The Ace Performer Collection series), edited by Richard Layman
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

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