A Year: Day to Day Men: 3rd of October


October 3, 1941 marks the premier of John Huston’s directorial debut of “The Maltese Falcon” in New York City.

“The Maltese Falcon” was based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel of private detective Sam Spade’s solution to a mystery case. Hammett, who had once worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency,  created the character of Sam Spade as a dream detective, the person most private detectives wanted to be. The plot follows Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, and his dealings with a client and three unscrupulous adventurers, all of whom are competing to obtain a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette.

Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice to play Sam Spade; producer Hal B. Wallis initially offered the role to George Raft, who turned it down not wanting to work with a newly starting director. Bogart, at the age of forty-two, was delighted to play a highly ambiguous honorable yet greedy character. Huston was grateful that Bogart accepted the role, the film consolidating their friendship and leading to future films such as “Key Largo” in 1948 and “The African Queen” released in 1951.

The character of the sinister “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman was based on the overweight British detective / entrepreneur A. Maundy Gregory. Producer Hal Wallis sugggested that Huston give a screen test to Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran stage character actor who had never appeared on film before. The sixty-one year old Greenstreet impressed Huston with his sheer size, his abrasive laugh, and his manner of speaking. Greenstreet later appeared with Bogart in “Casablanca” and starred in the 1946 “The Verdict”.

The character of Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, was based on a criminal arrested by Dashiell Hammett for forgery in 1920. In the novel, the character is clearly gay, but to avoid problems with the Hays Office censors, this was downplayed considerably in the movie. Because of the Hays Office strict regulations, homosexuality could only be shown through hints, not through any direct means. Thus, Cairo’s calling cards and handkerchiefs are scented; Cairo fusses about his clothes; and Cairo makes subtle fellating gestures with his cane during an interview with Sam Spade.

The uncredited appearance of the character actor Walter Huston, in a small cameo role as the freighter captain who delivers the Falcon, was done as a good luck gesture for his son, John Huston, on his directorial debut. The elder Huston had to promise Jack Warner, head of the studio, that he would not demand a dime for his little role before he was allowed to stagger into Spade’s office.

“The Maltese Falcon” received three nominations for the 14th Academy Awards; Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Sydney Greenstreet, and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Huston’s work. The film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1989 and was cited by Panorama du Film Noir Americain as the first major film noir.

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