I'm a guest this morning on BBC Radio 2’s Michael Parkinson’s Sunday Supplement (presented by Clive Anderson while Parky is on holiday in Oz) providing the week’s entertainment preview. Radio 2 can be found on 88-91 FM, and I'll be on air between 11.30 and noon.
At the suggestion of my friend Ian (if you don’t read his excellent blog, Ian Smith’s UK DVD Review then you should!) I decided to preview the new two-disc DVD re-issue of Warner Brothers’ 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon which is released on Monday.
There's never been a better time to view this film version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel about hardboiled San Francisco private eye, Sam Spade, since the print has been impeccably cleaned up and the stunning black-and-white photography positively zings and fizzes!
There is also, amongst a motley bunch of ‘Extras’, a well-made documentary, tracing the genesis of the film from page to screen, which serves to remind just how much fortuosity and happenstance is always involved in filmmaking.
To start with, Warner Brothers studio had already made two earlier films based on Hammett’s book: in 1931 as The Maltese Falcon with Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale in a version which was, at the time, reasonably well received; and then again, five years later, as - believe it or not - a comedy entitled Satan Meets a Lady, starring with Bette Davis.
Why studio boss Jack Warner agreed to have a third attempt is anybody’s guess, unless it was that already owning the film rights in Hammett's book made a relatively inexpensive project. Anyway, a young contract writer at the studio, John Huston, decided to come up with a new script. As legend has it, he asked his secretary to type up the novel setting out the book’s dialogue in screenplay form and went on holiday. While he was away, Jack Warner wandered into Huston’s office, read the transcript and green-lit the project.
Well, maybe; certainly Huston “shot the book”, following not just the plot and using vast chunks of the original dialogue, but also adhering closely to Hammett’s characterizations.
But Huston was not a director. Yet, somehow, he blagged Warner into letting him get behind the camera and, on a budget that was shoestring thin, made a classic movie that launched his career as one of the great Hollywood filmmakers.
The movie also rocketed its lead actor, Humphrey Bogart, to a new level of fame as a bone fide STAR of the first magnitude.
And yet, Warner’s first choice to play Sam Spade had been George Raft and only when Raft turned it down (as he did several times on movies that later starred Bogart, most famously Casablanca) did the role fall to a man who came to personify the archetypal private eye: taciturn, inscrutable, fearless and, whilst living close to the edge, following his own ruthless morality.
The film itself now stands as a pre-eminent example of the style known as film noir with its claustrophobic sets (Huston repeatedly shows the ceilings of the rooms so that the characters look trapped), the moody lighting, deep shadows and low-level, upward-tilted camera angles of Arthur Edeson’s cinematography.
And Bogart is backed by a stellar supporting cast: Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the shady lady with multiple identities; Peter Lorre as the prissy dandy, Joel Cairo, and Sydney Greenstreet as “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman (who is fat but certainly not a “good man”) making his film debut at the age of 61 and being rewarded with an Oscar and on-going movie career that, again and again, paired him with Lorre in a fascinating oddball double-act…
Anyway, there you are: if you’ve never seen The Maltese Falcon, see it; if you have seen it, see it again!
As Sam Spade says of the Black Bird itself (in a slight misquoting of the Bard): "It's the stuff that dreams are made of..."