The Maltese Falcon regularly attracts the accolade - rarely disputed - of the best thriller ever made. It is a prototype of the Forties film noir, a model of movie narrative; and in the short term it launched a whole series of pictures with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet as a kind of Laurel and Hardy of crime.
It was John Huston's first assignment as a director, the reward of ten years' outstanding work as a scenarist at Warner Brothers, during which time he had collaborated on a notable run of scripts including Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse, Jezebel (both 1938), Juarez (1939), Dr Elrich's Magic Bullet (1940) and High Sierra (1941), in which Humphrey Bogart had his first real starring role.
Huston - in his early years a soldier, bum, boxer, playboy, ham and writer by turns - could hardly fail to be sympathetic to the author of the original novel. Dashiell Hammett had left school at thirteen and had been a newsboy, freight-clerk, stevedore, advertising manager and Pinkerton Detective (he worked on the Fatty Arbuckle case) before turning to writing when struck by tuberculosis. As a novelist he revealed, through the improbable medium of pulp detective stories, a major literary talent.
The Maltese Falcon provided Huston with a theme that was often to recur in his subsequent films: a motley and dubious group of characters in passionate search of a treasure that, in hte outcome, proved illusory. (It had been a popular literary theme at least as far back as Chaucer's Pardonaer's Tale.)
Hammett's The Maltese Falcon had already been filmed twice before: in 1931 by Roy del Ruth, with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, and in 1936, as Satan Met a Lady, by William Dieterle, with Bette Davies and Warren Williams. Only Huston's version is now remembered.
George Raft had been offered the role of Sam Spade, but the actor was not prepared to risk his reputation with a new director; so Huston accepted Bogart instead. (In High Sierra, too, Bogart had succeeded to a role rejected by Raft.) Bogart had had a decade of gangster roles - in his first 34 pictures for Warners he was a jailbird in nine, electrocuted or hung in eight, and riddled by bullets in thirteen. The Maltese Falcon released him from this role and established his lasting image as the sardonic, romantic private detective, operating in a shadowy and seedy world of urban crime, thus launching the major period of his career.
One of Huston's later dicta was 'The trick is in the casting' and The Maltese Falcon proved this. Mary Astor, already 35, with twenty years of films behind her and near the end of her starring career, was cast as Brigid. She brought her great intelligence to the role:
'She was a congential liar ("I am a liar. I have always been a a liar") and slightly psychopathic. And that kind of liar wears the face of truth, although they send out all sorts of signals that they are lying... One of the tip-offs is that they can't help breathing rather rapidly. So I hyperventilated before going into most of the scenes. It gave me a heady feeling of cross purposes...'
The Hungarian-born Peter Lorre had been a favourite character actor in both America and Britain since his flight from Nazi Germany. Sydney Greenstreet had - after a brief period as a Ceylon tea planter in his youth - spent a lifetime as a stage actor. This was his first film, and at 62 he approached it nervously. The first scene he had to shoot was the demanding sequence in which Gutman spins out the history of the Maltese Falcon while anxiously watching Spade for the effects of the drugs he has given him.
Walter Huston, the director's father, made an uncredited appearance as the seaman who staggers into Spade's office with the Falcon and then drops down dead. The elder Huston complained that this short scene demanded not only a whole day's work but left him black and blue from twenty takes and twenty falls.
However so many takes were exceptional. Huston had precisely scripted and pre-planned the film, the work went quickly and effectively with no changes or improvisations on the set, and The Maltese Falcon was brought in well under budget. Mary Astor recalls that on one occasion the complicated shot scheduled for the day was finished in seven minutes and two takes and the company spent the rest of the day at the pool. The picture was largely filmed in sequence, which relieved the company's general confusion about the complex plot - in which all the loose ends are, nevertheless, very neatly caught up by the end of the film.
Already Huston's self-effacing style was clear. The camerawork has been appreciatively described by the critic (and later writer of The African Queen, 1951) James Agee:
'Much that is best in Huston's work comes of his sense of what is natural to the eye and his delicate, simple feeling for space relationships: his camera huddles close to those who huddle to talk, leans back a proportionate distance, relaxing, if they talk casually. He hates camera rhetoric and the shot-for-shot's sake; but because he takes each moment catch-as-catch-can and is so deeply absorbed in doing the best possible thing with it, he has made any number of unforgettable shots.'
It is perhaps that readiness in Huston to use methods not because they are orthodox, or modish, but because they are right, which gives his most memorable films the quality of always improving with time, rather than dating.