Sam Spade. An iconic figure in both American cinema as well as American literary fiction. Dashiell Hammett's famed detective cemented stardom for screen legend Humphrey Bogart and Hammett's famed story, The Maltese Falcon, offered a solid directorial debut for legendary filmmaker John Huston. Considered by some the first film noir, The Maltese Falcon was an early 1940's crime drama produced at Warner Brothers, master of this film genre, with an eclectic array of tough talking, fast moving oddball characters who come together with one common goal....possession of a priceless black falcon statue.
Moving at a lightning pace, the film is a masterpiece of mystery, crime, tough dialogue and suspense. Warners had made two less successful versions in the 1930's, one under the original title in 1931, then as Satan Met a Lady in 1936 with young Bette Davis (Davis counted this version among her worst films). The 1941 Huston version is a tight, sophisticated and complicated film, well received by critics and audiences alike and faithful to Hammett's book.
The story revolves around a small statue of a falcon, whose history dates back centuries and whose value certain parties place higher than human life. Bogart plays detective Sam Spade, who is drawn into the intrigue regarding the recovery of the sculpture by the beautiful and lethal Brigid O'Shaunessey (Mary Astor). Brigid's false tale of a missing sister gets private dick Slade on the trail of the valuable bird, only to meet others also in hot pursuit of the object, including notably iconic Hammett characters weaselly and effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); youthful killer Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.); and menacing "Fatman" Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).
Like many other screenwriters cum directors of the day, Huston, as screenwriter, tired of others directing ~ and rewriting~ his work, sought and was granted by the powers that be (aka Jack Warner), the task of bringing the third version of the famed crime thriller to the screen. Bogart, for the second time in less than a year lucked out thanks to the poor judgement of star George Raft. Months earlier Raft refused the role of Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in Warner's High Sierra. Bogart's casting in the Earle role was the impetus for his starring career and when Raft refused the role of Spade in Falcon, Bogart was again given his cast-off, made it his own and became a star. The role of femme fatale Brigid O'Shaunessey was originally set to be played by Warner contract player Geraldine Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald went east to take a job on the stage and Mary Astor was delighted to take the juicy part of deceptive O'Shaunessey. Along with her Oscar winning role later the same year in The Great Lie, her part in The Maltese Falcon would be her most famous (on screen anyway, as she had a very colorful offscreen life).
Everyone else in the cast is simply superb. Greenstreet, over sixty and roughly 300 lbs., made an unforgettable film debut as the baleful and bloated Kasper Gutman, code name "The Fat Man". In Falcon, he skillfully perfected the portly prototype of villain that he would portray throughout his film career. Cook truly looks like he's about to lose it, as gunsel Wilmer, with crazed look in his eyes and cold blooded murder in his heart. He and fellow Falcon co-star Lee Patrick (who plays Bogart's trusted secretary Effie) appeared in a 1970's spoof of the film called The Black Bird. Actor Walter Huston, father of the film's director, made an unbilled (and unpaid) cameo, as a victim of the statues lethal value.
The Maltese Falcon has been copied, spoofed and parodied, but the style and success of the Huston film cannot be duplicated. The parts of his masterpiece fit too perfectly together. Bogart became as synonymous with Sam Spade as he would with Casablanca's Rick a year later, and the professional and personal bond forged between he and director Huston would remain strong until Bogart's death in 1957.