I am not really on a Hammett kick, it’s just as I was finishing The Big Knockover a package of books arrived from my father. One of them was The Maltese Falcon, but not simply the book, it is a history of the famous film version that was directed by John Houston in his first directorial effort, and what a directorial debut! The book, which was published under the Rutgers Film in Print label and is subtitled John Huston: Director. It is a trove of information, some of which I had heard about in the past but much I did not.
I did know that there had been two earlier versions as well as a host of television adaptations, but the only detail that I knew was that Bette Davis was in one. The first was from 1931 and I only recognize one actresses in the entire cast and that is my sum knowledge of that version. The second is more of an adaption, and does not retain the title or the names of the characters. Called Satan Met a Lady and starred Davis it was made in 1936, five years prior to the third version. It is interesting to read the three write ups on IMDM. Both of the earlier versions were at least partially slapstick comedies.
Back to the book. It is broken down into four distinct sections, starting with an intro about the story, the genre, birth of Film Noir and some on the director. Hammett wrote the story originally as a five part serial for a magazine called Black Mask before becoming a best seller. While in many ways the film might not be considered a Film Noir, it is one of the foundations for that style.
It has the full script for the movie, and if you have seen the movie you know that it is almost word for word the book. I found the instructions for the cameramen and actors to be interesting. Apparently Houston simply had his secretary type the book out as a script, changing almost nothing and the studio bosses loved it. One thing that leaped out at me is how short the script was for a 100 minute movie, less than 100 pages. A scene was omitted, the loss of which is really not important, as were a pair of minor characters, also not altering the story in any way. Several scenes needed to be altered slightly to meet with the demands of the Motion Picture Production Code, such as implying that Sam Spade slept with Brigit O’Shaughnessy. The movie was also almost renamed The Man from San Francisco.
It is hard to believe but all of the actors were for the most part considered minor players in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart had achieved some stardom from his role as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest but was then typecast for some time and Peter Lorre was famous in his native Austro-Hungary. It is well worth your while, and possible nightmares, to look up his very creepy performance in M. Mary Astor was possibly the most established of the cast, having started in silent movies at age 14. Also appearing in the film was Ward Bond, the great character actor and one director John Ford’s good friends and his good luck charm.
One of the actors in the movie, Sydney Greenstreet, has always fascinated me. He left home in England to become a tea planter in Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka. He had a brief acting career, from 1941 to 1949 and his role as Kasper Gutman in the Maltese Falcon was his first role. He appeared with a who’s who of stars during his short career and Tennessee Williams wrote a one act play The Last of My Solid Gold Watches for him, and dedicated it to Greenstreet. An amazing career for someone who did not get his first role until he was 62. Greenstreet suffered from a kidney ailment call Bright’s disease as well as diabetes and died five years after he retired.
The book ends with a section called Comments, Reviews and Commentaries. It features reviews, both contemporary and modern reviews of the film as well as a discussion on the older versions of the film, profiles of the director and a discussion on the movies place in film history.
There are so man fascinating tidbits of information in the book, providing an interesting look at all of the players, how films are developed, directed and promoted. I really loved the book and will be looking for more in the series from Rutgers.