Thursday

One Great Thing: One Classic Movie You Really Should See If...

...you never really "got" what's so great about Humphrey Bogart.

"The Maltese Falcon"  1941
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cooke Jr.

Like everybody in the world, I love “Casablanca.”  But to be honest, there was a time, even after seeing that film, that I just didn’t “get” Humphrey Bogart. What was the big deal? For a “tough guy” he seemed small and frail, with a weak neck that needed help from starched collars to support his oversized head. He smoked filterless cigarettes, which is not only gross but also seemed to explain why he never chased the bad guys, and why his fight scenes rarely involved more than throwing one punch.

Then I saw “The Maltese Falcon.” Now, every time I notice that it’s on TV, I stop whatever I’m doing and watch ‘til the end. Have to. Too good. Too many new things picked up with each viewing. Incredible movie. And I attribute most of that awesomeness to its star. Bogey has been one of my favorite actors ever since.

What is so great, then, about Bogart as the enigmatic private eye, Sam Spade? There are two elements to Bogey and his performance here that, to me, really makes this film something special. The first is something an actor either has or doesn’t.   Brains.  The intelligence to play a character who is smarter than everybody in the room.

Dashiell Hammett is a smart writer who creates smart plots for smart characters who speak smart dialogue. Sam Spade would never tell you this, but he’s a bit of a genius, a gumshoe-savant, and whoever is playing him needs to convince you of that unspoken fact with every gesture and every twitch, or it won’t work.   It certainly wouldn’t be as good as this movie, anyway. Now it’s true that any actor can probably play the world’s smartest scientist simply by putting on a lab coat and teasing up his hair.  But you’ve got to bring a lot more than a London Fog overcoat and Fedora to play Sam Spade the way Bogart does.

“The Maltese Falcon” is about a detective who suddenly finds himself at the very end of a chase that has been going on for centuries. Imagine that you are dropped into a game of some kind. All you know about the game is that everyone but you knows the rules and the object, it’s played to the death, and it’s almost over. This is basically the situation for Sam Spade. So he has to play catch up... really fast. He’ll live or die by his ability to stay half-a-step ahead of every other character, including the cops who suspect him of murder. His only weapons then are his razor sharp mind and his rock-steady ability to bluff. Add to that equation the film’s low budget, long dialogue scenes that essentially play like a stage play instead of a movie, and you’ll see that the star’s ability to portray this character will either make or break the whole thing. The sheer intelligence that beams off of Bogart in this movie is almost like a special effect. He convinces us with his eyes, his long pauses, a smile, and of course his interpretation of the paragraph-sized chunks of dialogue, that Sam Spade is solving at least four different puzzles in his head while everything else is happening around him. This was not the first filmed version of “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s Bogart that separates this film not only from previous adaptations, but from every other film. He’s what makes it one of the best movies ever.

As the Villain in "The Petrified Forest" (1936)
Second, there is an undeniable “bad guy” quality to Humphrey Bogart that made him the ideal choice (even though producer Hal Wallis originally tried but failed to get George Raft) to play the morally ambiguous Sam Spade. Bogart had made a career out playing villains and heavies up until this point. So any nobility of character that Spade may eventually succumb to, never feels like a given. “One never knows what you’ll do, or why,” says the Fatman (Sydney Greenstreet).

Within hours of his partner Miles Archer’s death, Spade had their secretary, Effie, remove Archer’s name from the door. Which is a little awkward because the police suspect that Spade murdered Miles so he could continue an affair with his wife. Which, of course, isn’t true because, although he IS sleeping with Mrs. Archer, Spade can’t stand her.  He uses Effie, who he’s also apparently sleeping with*, to run interference for him.   And yet... somehow he is the good guy.

That constant undercurrent that he is capable of anything is also what really stirs the drink in “Casablanca.” Both films even end in a similar way, where the decision Bogey must make - to be noble or selfish, good guy or bad, has us on the edge of our seats. That doesn’t work if the actor can’t make us wonder what he’s capable of, or what his idea of a happy ending might even be.  The dialogue at the end of Casablanca, “the troubles of two people...” is some of the most famous in movie history. But Sam Spade’s speech to Brigid O’Shaughnessy at the end of “The Maltese Falcon,” taken directly from the pages of Hammett’s book, is some of the all time best.

Humphrey Bogart delivered in both cases.



Apparently there was sex in 1940's, just not in the movies.
That's what sub-text is for.  And paperback book covers.
*A fun note on sex in “The Maltese Falcon.” According to the movies in 1941, people did not have sex.  So there is a code to this film. Anytime Bogie calls a woman, “Darling,” it means they’ve had sex at some point.  The scene where Effie sensually rolls him a cigarette makes their relationship pretty clear, but when he calls her Darling... you can be sure.  You’ll see the secret code most clearly after the scene where it seems like he and Mary Astor are about to...  we fade out, and when we come back, suddenly they are both “Darling.”


New post - Read how The Maltese Falcon influenced my contemporary fantasy, King’s X.  Click HERE