Tag: The Maltese Falcon

Birds of a Feather

Lorre as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon

They say “write what you know”, and there’s no doubt that what Dashiell Hammett knew made for a great story.

In real life, Dashiell Hammett had been a one-time operative for Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. Brigid O’Shaughnessy was partly based on his secretary, Peggy O’Toole, and partly on a woman who once employed him to fire her housekeeper. Joel Cairo was based on a man Hammett picked up on a forgery charge in 1920, while Wilmer, the gunman, was drawn from a petty criminal who went by the nickname of “The Midget Bandit”.


The problem is, there’s a thin line, in creative work, between gold and garbage. As an example, Huston’s take on The Maltese Falcon was actually the third film iteration.

The tenor of the 1931 film is lighter, and the pacing is looser. There is also a rather extensive use of sexually suggestive situations in this pre-Code film, notably a scene featuring Bebe Daniels nude in a bathtub and another in which she is strip-searched. From the opening scene, in which a young woman is seen straightening her stockings as she leaves Spade’s office, there are numerous suggestions of Spade’s sexual involvement with other female characters. Furthermore, the film does not shy away from the theme of homosexuality: a young and handsome Wilmer is openly called Gutman’s “boyfriend”, implying a gay relationship, and Effie facetiously describes Cairo to Spade as “gorgeous”. Spade also plays with a cop he doesn’t like by constantly referring to him as “sweetheart”, “darling” and “precious.” There is also one instance of profanity, a character mutters “son of a bitch”.


How did the studio handle the heavy-handed censors? By remaking the film, in 1936, with Bette Davis.

How could they go wrong having one of the leading actresses of her era in a role almost built for her femme fatale styling? By turning it into a comedy and renaming it Satan Met a Lady, (which, frankly, sounds like a Jerry Lewis film.)

Poster for Satan Met a Lady

Of course, Mary Astor, the female lead of the ’41 version, and no stranger to a little writing herself…

A legal battle drew press attention on Astor in 1936. Dr. Franklyn Thorpe divorced Astor in 1935 and a custody battle resulted over their four year old daughter, Marylyn. Thorpe threatened to use Astor’s diary in the proceedings, which told of her affairs with many celebrities, including George S. Kaufman. The diary was never formally offered as evidence during the trial, but Thorpe and his lawyers constantly referred to it, and its notoriety grew.


…did an amazing job – though, arguably, the whiff of scandal only helped reinforce her role.

In all the scenes involving Mary Astor, there’s a suggestion of prison. In one scene, she wears striped pyjamas, the furniture in the room is striped and the slivers of light coming through the Venetian blinds suggest jailcell bars. When she steps into the elevator at the end of the film, the lighting also suggests bars.


Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon

The Bird

The Maltese Falcon
Jessica May ought to have the edited version of FlashCast 25 in my grubby little hands shortly, but, in the meantime, have you fully enjoyed our weekend releases?

Tonight we’re off to the bright lights and cold pavement of the city, so that we might take in The Maltese Falcon on the big screen. You’ll have to excuse me if I get a little wound up on the topic in today’s blogging: it probably ranks above Casablanca for my favourite Bogart film.

Warner hated to see actors smoking on the screen, fearing it would prompt smokers in the movie audience to step out into the lobby for a cigarette. During the filming of _Maltese Falcon, The (1941)_, Warner told director John Huston that smoking in the film should be kept to a minimum. Bogart and Lorre thought it would be fun to annoy Warner by smoking as often as possible, and got their co-stars, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet to go along with the joke. During the initial filming of the climactic confrontation, all four actors smoked heavily. After seeing the rushes, Warner furiously called Huston to his office and threatened to fire him from the picture if he didn’t tell Bogart and Lorre to knock it off. Realizing their prank had backfired, Bogart and Lorre agreed to stop smoking on camera. However, when the next series of rushes came back, it was obvious that the *lack* of smoking by the actors was taking away from the sinister mood of the scene. Huston went back to Jack Warner, and convinced him that the smoking added the right amount of atmospheric tension to the story, arguing that the characters *would* smoke cigarettes while waiting nervously for the Maltese Falcon to arrive.


Bogart & Lorre, still from The Maltese Falcon

The topic also reminds me of this fantastic Adam Savage talk from TED. It’s a bit of a geek-out-on-pixie-sticks, but the ride is definitely worth the price of admission.

[youtube_sc url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29SopXQfc_s]

Sam Spade refers to Wilmer as a “gunsel”, a term the censors assumed was a slang reference to a gunman. […] It is more usually an “underground” term which refers to a person who is either a “fall guy” or a “stool pigeon”, in which case Spade is making both a direct and an indirect reference to Wilmer’s character.


Wilmer the Gunsel - still from The Maltese Falcon