Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sean Chercover and The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Notes

Just like last year, I'll be posting notes about the films from The Noir Series prior to their actual screenings. The series starts out with a bang this first week as we present THE MALTESE FALCON, and prototypical film noir and PI film from 1941. Joining us to discuss the film, his former profession, his writing and why Dashiell Hammett is so good will be Shamus-winning author Sean Chercover. His two Chicago-based novels feature private investigator Ray Dudgeon, himself a former reporter whose commitment to taking down the bad guys sometimes disrupts his ability to compromise. The whole shebang starts at 6:30pm on Thursday, January 6 with Sean's discussion. He'll sign copies of his novels Big City, Bad Blood and Trigger City prior to the film, which he will introduce.

Here's a brief history of the film history of THE MALTESE FALCON:

One of the first hard-boiled novels to grow out of the pulp magazine tradition, The Maltese Falcon was serialized in Black Mask from September, 1929 to January, 1930 and published in proper book form by Alfred A. Knopf on Valentine’s Day, 1930. It was an instant success and went through seven printings in its first year alone. It didn’t take long for Hollywood’s newly-minted “talking pictures” to come calling. Hammett sold the rights to Warner Bros. in June of that year for $8500, and the film was in production by January, with a release date on June, 1931.

Warners turned to first-time screenwriter Brown Holmes, who later went on to pen the classic I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. This first film adaptation was headlined by silent film stars Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly and Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Although it was generally well-received, the script truncated the book down to 75 minutes of quick-paced pre-code fun. Cortez was uneven as Spade, alternately laughing at his own lines and grimacing menacingly. The character of Wilmer Cook was severely limited and Wonderly’s alternate identities (including Brigid O’Shaugnessy) were eliminated completely. The script’s major addition was the final scene, with Wonderly behind bars, where Spade pulls his last card. Surprisingly, Dashiell Hammett’s main criticism of the film (at least according to Marguerite Tazelaar in the November 12, 1933 New York Times) was that the film hewed too closely to the book. “’You need to simplify a story as much as possible when you’re going to make a picture of it,’ he said. ‘If you don’t you’ll have too many lines and so lose your full effect.’”

In 1934, producer Hal B. Wallis sent a memo to part of his production team, recommending a remake: “We made a picture from this several years ago, which was very successful, but in the picture version we only touched on the story contained in the book. I think we can get another screen play out of it by actually making the book.” What emerged, instead, was the film version furthest removed from the original tome. The script was again written by Brown Holmes, but character names were widely changed (Sam Spade to Ted Shane, Effie Perrine to Miss Murgatroyd), and actions and even genders were altered (Caspar Gutman became Madame Barabbas). The film could not, in fact, have been titled The Maltese Falcon, because the prize worth pursuing was Roland’s Trumpet.

The tone of the film was much lighter than even that of the 1931 version, possibly hoping to capitalize on the success of 1934’s The Thin Man, also based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, which was a piece that was naturally light in tone. But this effort didn’t work as it was lambasted by critics. The New York Times called it “a cynical farce of elaborate and sustained cheapness,” while Variety pints out that the film “endeavors to replace mystery with comedy, but the comedy isn’t strong enough to fill the bill.”

John Huston was already the successful screenwriter of Jezebel, Juarez, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, High Sierra and Sergeant York when he convinced Warner Bros. to give him a shot at directing. Howard Hawks suggested Huston take on The Maltese Falcon, as the property was currently owned by Warners and had previously been made, making it low-risk. Huston read the book and agreed. Legend has it that Huston gave the novel to his secretary and asked her to type it into screenplay form, as a sort of first draft. Jack Warner, eager to find out what Huston was doing, found the script on Huston’s desk while he was away and approved it, with very few changes from the book.

This, of course, was a large part of the success of the 1941 version, as well as its darker tone and the inimitable eye of director John Huston. The film launched the directorial career of Huston and took Humphrey Bogart to new heights, and introduced them both as forces of film noir, as Bogart went on to star in at least five other films noir before his death in 1957, and Huston directed Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle, also films in the genre.

No comments: