The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)

Not to be too obvious, but I really wasn’t expecting a twist ending for The Maltese Falcon. But only because I’ve… read the book, seen the 1941 version, seen spoofs of it; I sort of figured I’d be able to guess the plot turns. And I did, right up until the end, when Falcon shows its been doing an entirely different kind of subterfuge than usual. The film even takes a moment to acknowledge that twist and take a bit of a bow. It’s all quite the surprise.

But Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes’s script always seems too good for the production. Falcon is an early talkie. Director Del Ruth has no idea how to do close-ups—he and cinematographer William Rees—don’t match the angles right, the actors aren’t in the same spots, editor George Marks isn’t doing any extra favors (he doesn’t know how to cut line deliveries). The film does have some good visual storytelling ideas, but they’re mostly transition stuff; who knows maybe the script has the transitions. Or they’re just where Del Ruth has the best ideas. But—throughout—it’s clear this script deserved a better execution. Not as an adaptation of the source novel, but the script itself.

It’s not just the choppy filmmaking, it’s the acting. The best performance in the film is Una Merkel as Ricardo Cortez’s girl Friday. There’s a lot of implication they’re having an affair, but she doesn’t mind playing wing-girl for him hooking up with every other woman he meets in the movie until the last scene. Like, Cortez is a shocking man slut, so much so it forgives his performance. He comes off like a bit of a dandy, but then he’s able to toggle into being tough; he’s better at being tough. He’s a sociopath. So’s leading lady Bebe Daniels. Or is he falling for her and blind to it? Or vice versa? And those aspects of both characters is straight from the script, from how they behave, react to outside stimuli, whatever. It comes through in the film, but isn’t really presented well. It’s like the script has a point to make about the source novel, but the actual film doesn’t get the script is trying to make a point, but still precisely follows the script.

Falcon’s also pre-Code, so lots of sexy, lots of scanty. Since the film revolves around Cortez and Cortez is apparently only in the private detective racket so he can score with vulnerable women… even though Del Ruth and Rees can’t figure out how to match a shot perspective between close-up and two shot, they do manage to create a fantastic narrative distance. It’s just it needs to be identified, which doesn’t happen until the twist ending.

Back to the acting.

Cortez is okay. It works out, but it’s occasionally a little much. He’s only got like two things he can do. Three if you count him putting his hands in his vest pockets. Daniels is similar. She’s got some really good moments, but they’re spread out wrong. The film doesn’t know how to emphasize its actors’ deliveries, which is most on display with ostensible scenery-chewer Dudley Digges. Digges is a sweaty mess of vague but obvious sinfulness with major interpersonal communication issues. And somehow Del Ruth, Rees, and Marks manage to drain all the momentum from his deliveries with how they cut between shots. Maltese Falcon has a lot of pacing issues, down to reaction times for actors. There’s a lot of talking in the film; the vast majority of the film is just talking. And Del Ruth never figures out how to keep up the momentum of it. It’s like it ought to be stagy, but isn’t. Del Ruth is overenthusiastic when it comes to emphasizing the performances.

And it mostly hurts Digges. Hurts Matieson a bit, but not as much. Matieson doesn’t bit down on a sofa arm and rip it apart. Digges goes wild.

Walter Long’s good enough as Cortez’s partner. Thelma Todd is about as good but wasted as Long’s wife, who Cortez is having an affair with; naturally. Though, again, the twist. It covers a lot of storytelling choices from the script, including who gets screen time and how. Robert Elliott is annoying as the by-the-books cop. He comes off as an idiot, not a capable crime solver. J. Farrell MacDonald is fine as the good cop. They’re around a lot, but they don’t really matter because they’re not women Cortez can try to make time with.

The Maltese Falcon is way too blasé about itself. It’s got an exceptionally good script, but Del Ruth doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William Rees; edited by George Marks; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), and J. Farrell MacDonald (Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse).


The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

Even though almost every moment of The Maltese Falcon is spent with Humphrey Bogart’s protagonist, director Huston keeps the audience at arms’ length. Most of the film’s more exciting sounding set pieces occur off-screen, but so does Bogart’s thinking. The audience gets to see him manipulating, often without context.

His most honest scenes are with the women in his life–secretary Lee Patrick, damsel in distress Mary Astor, ill-chosen love interest Gladys George. Of course, Huston’s script doesn’t even make it clear (right off) Bogart’s going to be honest in those scenes. Huston reveals it a few minutes later, which is important as Falcon is an intentionally convoluted mystery but only on the surface. It’s more an epical character study of Bogart, something Huston doesn’t feel the need to reveal until the last seven or eight minutes.

Huston’s approach leads to a briskly moving film with a bunch of fantastic scenes. Bogart (and the viewer) see the result of the villains’ machinations, but Bogart saves all the conclusions. He doesn’t share, not with Patrick, not with Astor, not with the viewer. Huston’s exceptionally controlled with the narrative structure. It’s brilliant; he’s able to set up a fantastic conclusion for the mystery, but also for the character study, all because of that structure.

And the acting. Bogart’s phenomenal, so’s Astor, so are Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. Greenstreet almost gets as good of material as Bogart.

Wonderfully playful score from Adolph Deutsch.

It’s a magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Thomas Richards; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Samuel Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Ward Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus), Barton MacLane (Lt. of Detectives Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook), Gladys George (Iva Archer) and Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON 2015 HOSTED BY KRISTINA OF SPEAKEASY, KAREN OF SHADOWS & SATIN, and RUTH OF SILVER SCREENINGS.


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