The early history of Warner Bros could have so easily turned into a Humphrey Bogart tribute with so many significant and important films from that era, like High Siera, The Petrified Forestand The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Fortunately we cannot in good conscience simply turn this series into a Bogie ‘lovefest’. No wait a minute, who am I kidding, of course we can! Well at least a handful of Bogie films that have truly made a lasting impression on film history.
That said, the first Bogie film that we will featured here in this Warner Bros. series is the film noir classic The Maltese Falcon (1941), a story about a private detective who must untangle the truth about the death of a friend and a mysterious black bird at the centre of it all. Short of writing something new for this series I have instead decided to share with you a lengthy extract from my article Humphrey Bogart: The man, the legend and the falcon that focuses on some of the important aspects of the making of The Maltese Falcon. Enjoy!
“….High Sierra (1941) more than The Petrified Forest (1936) was supposed to be Bogart’s vehicle to stardom. Other studio’s cued up to pay for his services trying to get Warner Brothers to loan him out as their leading man. It was something that Bogart had always wished for, but Warner refused and subsequently misfired their next outing for Bogart by casting him as an owner of a grubby travelling carnival in The Wagons Roll At Night (1941). Bogart rightly so was absolutely disappointed as it failed dismally. He, then uncharacteristically lost his composure, when he was overlooked for two new projects. He famously disappeared upon his yacht, against the wishes of the studio, sailing out into the Pacific for five days where he couldn’t be reached. The Warner Studio was furious and suspended Bogart without pay indefinitely.
When cool heads eventually prevailed and with a little bit of luck and grandstanding by others who liked Bogart, he was invited back into the fold and his suspension overturned. It was truly a very important moment for both the Warner Studio and Bogart. If Bogart was not taken off suspension the chances of the Maltese Falcon being made into the classic we have come to know and love would have been remote. But as fate or luck would have it, Bogart was given the role of Sam Spade, but not before George Raft passed on it. (The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before in 1931 and 1936 without success.) Bogart, it seemed, had an uncanny manner of picking up projects that other actors loathed. This new Falcon would be different under the directorial debut of John Huston. So much so that Huston years later would comment, “So I fell heir to Bogie, for which I was duly thankful.” The feeling was mutual, as Bogart relished at the thought of working with his friend and long time drinking partner too.
The genius of the Maltese Falcon ultimately rested in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, but the vision to bring it to the big screen (again) is credited to John Huston. He searched through Warner Brothers impressive catalogue of properties and selected the Falcon, because he thought it made for a great story steeped in social realism and mystery. Huston, like in his High Sierra script, decided to strip Hammett’s novel essentially down to its dialogue only. From here Huston could build upon Hammett’s dialogue by adding his own flare and vision, but in essence it always remained faithful to the novel. He next pitched to Warner studios that he had to have the most perfect cast that could help him pull off his vision for The Maltese Falcon. (It not only included his friend and leading man Humphrey Bogart, but also Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr.) Interestingly enough, Huston shot the Falcon almost entirely in sequence, something that almost never happens in films. His reason was that he thought it would help the actors in building to the movies climax. He also shot every scene as if it was the most important scene in the film.
Film historians argue about whether or not the Maltese Falcon was a break or make picture for Bogart. It some ways it was. To think that Bogart had gone down a path of theatre and film work that amounted to nothing would be tragic. He certainly had a depth of experience, some twenty years in the making to succeed. As it was it would be one of the longest apprenticeships in entertainment history before theFalcon truly made him a star and he deserved it. Bogart would graduate from playing two-dimensional gangsters to complex tough romantic leading men. Bogart would use this transition from a two-bit crook to the wounded, often cynical and romantic lead we appreciate today to catapult him to stardom. His portrayal of Sam Spade was nothing short of brilliant, and yet vulnerable too, in the pursuit of the truth and justice….”
Warning the You Tube clip below contains a major spoiler!
Photo credit: Th header image is a promotional still showing O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) and Cairo (Peter Lorre) clashing in front of the police from the film The Maltese Falcon. On the far left sits the films protagonist Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart. This image is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip embedded here.