Every month, films from the Library of Congress’s collection are shown at the Mary Pickford Theater in the Library’s James Madison Building in Washington, DC. They range from titles newly preserved by the National Audio Visual Conservation Center film lab to classics from the National Film Registry to lesser known titles worthy of discovery.
Playing Thursday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m.
“So often, I have been asked ‘What was it like?’ to work in a picture that was so ahead of its time, such a departure in methods, point of view, etc. Of course you don’t know you’re making history while you’re in there making it.”
–Mary Astor, on the filming of the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon,” from “Mary Astor: A Life on Film” (New York: Delacourte, 1971)
If you’ve seen the movie she’s talking about, you probably don’t need much encouragement to go to a free screening of a new 35mm print made by the Library of Congress of this classic. If you haven’t though, please read on. Spoiler alert: there will be NO spoilers in this post!
The original story and its author were ahead of their own time when “The Maltese Falcon” was serialized in the pages of “Black Mask” magazine starting with their September 1929 issue. Dashiell Hammett was well established there as a writer of cutting-edge mystery stories built around a hard-bitten detective known as “The Continental Op,” an operative for the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency. In these stories, Hammett drew on his own experience as an operative for the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency in the 1910s and early 1920s.
This new breed of literary detective was a hard-bitten and cynical character who traversed society’s many levels, nooks and crannies, from the underworld to the upper class. It’s a familiar figure now, but until the early 20s, the detectives of fiction were mostly upper class, highly educated and not overly concerned about paying the rent on their office and other mundane expenses.
Hammett introduced Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” and he was like the Op, only more so. Spade did not have to answer to an agency. He had one partner in his business, fellow detective Miles Archer, whom he disliked, and one employee, secretary Effie Perine, who worshiped him from her reception desk. The quest for a lost, mysterious object like the Maltese Falcon statuette is an old, old trope, but Hammett cunningly fit it to the wildly speculative times of the late 1920s, when sham companies and stocks traded hands at prices beyond all reason. Halfway through “The Maltese Falcon”’s run in the pages of “Black Mask,” this era ended overnight. Nevertheless, a good story still had value, and when “The Maltese Falcon” was published in hardcover in early 1930, it went through seven printings before the end of the year.
In late 1933, Hammett published “The Thin Man,” and a film adaptation every bit as classic as the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon” premiered less than six months later. Why then did it take so long to get “The Maltese Falcon” right?
The first version was made in 1931, with silent film leading man Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. The film benefited from being made in Hollywood’s “Pre-Code Era,” when films were freer in their portrayals of people and situations, but the filmmakers could not leave the story and characters well enough alone, and made changes out of step with Hammett’s original version. Viewed today, it is also hampered by the technical limitations of early talkies. A 1936 attempt at a comedy version, “Satan Met a Lady,” starring Warren William and Bette Davis, took further liberties and was rejected by audiences of the time, and has been little seen since.
Enter John Huston—five years later. He was a top screenwriter for Warner Brothers and the studio was willing to give him a chance to direct. He promised a version of “The Maltese Falcon” that was true to Hammett’s original, and he kept his word.
It’s hard to imagine a different cast in the film, but Huston’s choices were not obvious at the time. The studio wanted George Raft, but Raft didn’t want to appear in a remake. Humphrey Bogart was known as a supporting player by this time, but thanks to his success as the lead in “High Sierra“ earlier that year, he was a credible choice to play Sam Spade as a three-dimensional character, not just a generic tough guy. Mary Astor had been a leading lady in the silent era who had moved into supporting melodramatic roles in the 1930s, but none were like the duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Peter Lorre was also well established, but mainly in B-pictures. Huston had followed him since his electrifying portrayal in “M” ten years earlier, and knew his true range when he called on him to play Joel Cairo. Sidney Greenstreet was a well-known stage actor from England making his film debut after some 40 years appearing in a wide range of material including Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan. Like his character, the worldly Kaspar Gutman, Greenstreet was well traveled, having performed internationally, even in Malta itself. Huston befriended him when he appeared in Los Angeles as part of the cast of Robert Sherwood’s “There Shall Be No Night.”
Huston had the cast read Hammett’s book, and rehearsed the cast thoroughly, and they delivered Hammett’s dialogue naturally and memorably, building to an extended climax in the extraordinary final scene with the principals. Except for a few brief exterior shots, the script was filmed in sequence, capturing the fast pace of the novel’s tight, three day narrative.
“The Maltese Falcon” was a hit, and a career game-changer for Huston and the cast, as well as the beginning of many beautiful friendships, as Rick Blaine, Bogart’s character in “Casablanca,” might say. Mary Astor, who outlived Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet and Huston, wrote movingly years later of her “dear ghosts,” with whom she was reunited every time she watched the film. It has endured, much as the motivation of its characters, driven by their inability to change their ways, bad and good, endures right to the story’s end.
“The Maltese Falcon” was one of the first films added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1989.
In 2005, to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” literary scholar and Hammett specialist Richard Layman presented an informal talk, “The Maltese Falcon at 75” at the Library of Congress, an event was organized by the LC’s Center for the Book and cosponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. See the video of this event here: https://www.loc.gov/item/2021687678/
For the Mary Pickford Theater: seating is on a first-come first-serve basis. Doors open at 6:00 pm.
For more information on our programs, please visit the Mary Pickford Theater website.
The Mary Pickford Theater is located on the 3rd floor of the Library of Congress James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20540.