It's been called the greatest detective film of all-time. It ushered in the era of film noir in Hollywood. It's main character could be considered the first anti-hero in celluloid history. Of course we're talking about the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon. And later this month—Sunday, February 21 and Wednesday, February 24—Warner Bros., Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events celebrate the film's 75th Anniversary with theatrical screenings in more than 650 theaters across the country. Each day will feature two screenings at 2pm and 7pm (local time) in all participating theaters.
Birth of the Bird
Screenwriter John Huston, son of the legendary Walter Huston, made his directorial debut in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon (he also wrote the screenplay based on former real-life detective-turned-writer Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel) and ushered in the era of film noir to the mainstream audience.
Warner Bros. bought the rights to Hammett’s best-selling novel and ultimately made three films based on the book: first in 1931; then came a more comedic version featuring Bette Davis in 1936 called Satan Met a Lady. Neither was a hit. They say 'third time’s a charm' and it was in the case here when Warner Bros. finally hit box-office gold and cemented Falcon’s place in Hollywood history with the third effort. But it was an unlikely classic based on the fact that it featured an unproven star (Humphrey Bogart), a first-time director (Huston) and a largely unknown cast (veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet making his film debut, journeyman actor Peter Lorre, who would call Falcon his best performance and favorite film, and Mary Astor only a few years removed from a very public scandal).
Huston wanted his friend, Bogart, for the lead role of Sam Spade, but the studio wanted George Raft. Fortunately for history, Raft refused the role that was now given to Bogart—who up until this time was considered to be a steady, supporting second-string actor—and he made the most of his first real leading role. Ironically, Raft also turned down the roles that Bogart would take to stardom in Casablanca and High Sierra.
So impressive was the chemistry between Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre in the film that they’d be paired together in future Warner Bros. productions Passage to Marseille and Casablanca. And in a case of life-meets-fiction, Astor was perfectly cast as the femme fatale in the film after having her own personal life and extramarital affairs published in newspapers after her diary found its way to the media during a child custody battle with her ex-husband. Her career didn't suffer, winning the Oscar for her performance in The Great Lie, also released in 1941.
The Famous Final Scene
The last scene in The Maltese Falcon in which all the main characters are present, took up 35 pages of the script—or a full one-third of the entire film—while all filmed in a tiny room. But, as Eric Lax, author of Bogart, explained in the accompanied featurette on the Maltese Blu-ray edition explains, the riveting nature of this single scene is all due to the brilliance of Huston’s direction: “As you know when you see this film, there is this wonderfully, masterfully shot series of exchanges between the characters [in that scene].”
In fact, Huston’s direction brought the dark, gritty world of the street found in Hammett’s hard-boiled novel into the film with a noir-ish brilliance, opines Hammett’s granddaughter Julie Rivett in the same featurette, saying, “Huston managed to create a kind of synthesis where he brought together this wonderful book, but also the mood and the tension, and the lighting, of course, which is so critical to film noir. It was a matter of incorporating attitude into visuals and I think that’s how he did it and how he set the standard for film noir.”
Throughout this riveting tale of murder, greed, lust, truth and lies, the use of light-and-dark, the low camera angles, the rapid-fire dialogue, all burst open the door of film noir in American films, and The Maltese Falcon set a standard that other cinematic classics and future detective mysteries would adhere to in the years and decades that followed. So don't miss your chance to see this trendsetting film the way it was meant to be seen.
And for all you Bogart fans, you'll also be happy to know that two of his four films with Lauren Bacall—The Big Sleep and Key Largo—arrive for the first time on Blu-ray this February 23, and are available for pre-order now.