Sunday, October 03, 2021

Brigid Loves Birdie

Let’s cut to the chase: Today marks 80 years since the premiere showing, in New York City, of Humphrey Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon, the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s marvelous 1930 novel introducing San Francisco private eye Sam Spade. (It had previously been shot in 1931, also under the book’s title, and in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady.) It’s a film I first watched—rapt by its noirish atmosphere and punchy parlays—in a Portland, Oregon, theater that specialized in classic pictures, but have seen more than a dozen times since. I may even screen it again this evening, to commemorate its birthday.

The story has just about everything going for it: a case filled with misdirection; a loner gumshoe, tough-talking but surprisingly sensitive at times, who won’t be anyone’s chump; a femme fatale of outstanding dimensions; a calculating, smooth-talking chief villain; and of course, a long-lost, mysterious McGuffin. At this late date, it hardly seems necessary to spell out the plot, but here it is anyway, borrowed from an essay about the 1941, John Huston-directed movie published earlier this year on—of all things—the World Socialist Web Site:
The Huston film is conspicuously faithful to the Hammett book. Virtually every line of dialogue is borrowed from the original source. In San Francisco, private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) becomes involved with a group of devious and scheming adventurers in pursuit of a solid gold, jewel-encrusted statuette allegedly worth a king’s ransom.

The series of events, which ultimately leads to the killing of three men (four in the novel), begins with a visit by a Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) to the offices of Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She claims to be looking for her wayward younger sister, who is keeping company with a roughneck, Floyd Thursby. Spade and Archer (who personally volunteers to follow Wonderly that evening) agree to take the case.

The same night, Archer turns up dead, shot at close-range. Only a half-hour later, Thursby is also murdered. The police come knocking at Spade’s door, hinting that he might have killed Thursby in revenge for his partner’s being knocked off. Spade angrily rejects the imputation, and also protects the identity of his client.

In any event, everything that “Miss Wonderly” told Spade and Archer was untrue, starting with her name, which is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy. However, when Spade tracks her down, she still refuses to explain what she is up to. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) soon arrives at Spade’s office and offers the private eye $5,000 if he can help locate a mysterious “black figure of a bird.” Later, Spade encounters Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), and his hired thug, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.). Cairo, O’Shaughnessy and Gutman, the latter of whom fills in the details about the object of their collective desire, have been pursuing the figurine, which supposedly dates from the 16th century, all across the globe.

In the end, no one ends up with the supposedly priceless gold bird, several people are dead and others on their way to prison.
Hammett never penned another Spade novel, though he did later produce three short stories featuring the character. Still, that P.I. went on to become a radio-drama star in the 1940s and early ’50s, portrayed most memorably by Howard Duff. In 1946, The Maltese Falcon was adapted into comic-book form, with artwork by Rodlow Willard. George Segal starred as “Sammy” Spade Jr. in a comedy sequel of sorts, 1975’s The Black Bird. And kind of making up for Hammett’s failure to deliver another Sam Spade book, in 2009 veteran crime-fictionist Joe Gores published a prequel to Falcon, titled Spade & Archer.

I’ve written many times on this page about The Maltese Falcon, occasionally including video clips from the flick. But with today being its 80th anniversary and all, I’ve decided enough is never enough. So below you’ll find two treasures: the original Warner Bros. trailer, and the scene in which Brigid O’Shaughnessy—anxious to escape police pursuit and solicit Spade’s assistance in securing the infamous black bird for herself—pleads for the shamus’ sympathy, knowing from the outset, no doubt, that she hasn’t a hope in hell of winning it.

READ MORE:The Maltese Falcon 80 Years On,” by John Harvey (Some Days You Do …); “Why Writers Are Always in Pursuit of the Maltese Falcon,” by Gordon McAlpine (CrimeReads); “Regarding the Real-Life Mystery of the Maltese Falcon, a Famous Movie Prop Lost for Decades” (SFist); “The Maltese Falcon: The Best Covers, Ranked” (CrimeReads).

1 comment:

Craig said...

I love everything about this movie except Mary Astor, who seems badly miscast. She looks and acts more like a hysterical schoolmarm than a femme fatale.