7 July 2001 | guy-72
Great film, but not the definitive Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon was John Huston's first chance at directing. He was 40 years old and he probably knew that if he failed he might never get another chance. And if that had happened, the Maltese Falcon would probably have been cut down and issued as a B film.
Everything was against Huston. He had been lumbered with an aging second-rank actor, Bogart; a fading actress Mary Astor who was quite unsuitable to play a vamp; a beginner Sydney Greenstreet; and Peter Lorre who was type-cast as the same psychotic type he had always played since he starred in Fritz Lang's 'M' in the 1920s. The studio wasn't going to waste money on a new script, and had simply dusted-off the one that had been used in the 1931 Maltese Falcon. And in 1941 the plot would have seemed ridiculously old-fashioned, with it's fanciful history of the Black Bird, and talk of Constantinople, Hong Kong, the 'Russian', etc.
What is miraculous is that Huston pulled it off so beautifully and created a film perfectly in tune with the mood of the times. It's not Film Noir as is so often claimed. There isn't the disturbing psychological tension that you get in real Film Noir from 1944 on. Neither is it the sleazy world of Dashiell Hammett - where's the sex element?
Huston recasts the story in the early 1940s mould where the hard-boiled hero was king. Huston adds little touches to build up Bogart's tough-guy persona. Bogart takes guns away from the gunsel (which is quite unnecessary to the plot), and Huston also adds a typical hard-boiled scene in a hotel lobby.
Nor can Bogart be allowed to appear as sleazy as Sam Spade was in the original book, so his affair with his partner's wife is played down - in fact in typical 1940s misogynist-fashion poor Iva gets all the blame! Neither does our hero strip-search Miss Wonderly as he does in 1931. And at the end his motives are the standard 'a man's got to do what a man's got to do' with no hint of the sleaze Dashiell Hammett envisaged. In the original story his secretary Effie is horrified at what he has done.
In the 1931 version, Effie (played by Una Merkel) comes across as a believable character, but here she has been turned into a 1940s cliché. She is no longer a vulnerable teenage secretary for Sam Spade to paw, but a 'pal' who rolls cigarettes for him. This is to become part of Bogart's persona. In the Big Sleep a young female taxi driver is eager to give out her phone number to this middle-aged man, and another young woman closes her bookshop early just to get the chance to drink hard liquor with him - believable, it ain't!
But it is to Huston's credit that he created all this and made such a superb 1940s-style film. There are only a few respect in which the film fails, and those are due to the changes Huston was forced to make in the 1931 script. For example, to suit Bogart's persona he has to live in a 'modern' high-rise building with elevators, not an old fashioned apartment block - and that precludes the fire escape by which Joel Cairo sneaks into Spade's apartment in the 1931 version. The scene in the 1941 version lacks the logic of the 1931 version.
Similarly when Miss Wonderly says to Spade "But I thought you loved me, Sam!", the viewer might wonder how that came about. They have only seen each other a few times, and probably for less than an hour in total. The answer is a missing episode which the censors would never have passed in 1941. I won't give away what happens, but it's worth watching the 1931 version for that alone. In fact the scene where an apartment gets ransacked is as close to Film Noir as you can get.
The 1941 version is a great film, but it's not the best version of the Maltese Falcon. In my opinion that has to be the 1931 version. The dialogue is exactly the same, the story has better inner logic, and when you get right down to it and compare the Miss Wonderly's, the sexless Mary Astor couldn't hold a candle to Bebe Daniells.