If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.
The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.
Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.
This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.
One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.
They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.