In film history John Huston is what’s known as a giant, enduring as one of the more recognizable names to have flourished behind the camera during Hollywood’s studio era. He was also one of the few classical directors to undergo a second creative wind throughout the wild New Hollywood ‘70s and even survived that period’s collapse to guide a few diverse productions into the age of the Spielbergian blockbuster.
The length and range of Huston’s career makes it especially worthwhile for exploration on a film-by-film basis, even as (and partly because) he shoulders a reputation as one of the more inconsistent figures to have spanned decades in a profession not known for fostering longevity. Qualitatively all over the place, Huston’s films, whether great, good, average, subpar, bad or even confounding, are never without interest, and tackling them chronologically offers a bounty of rewards.
Huston came to his first directing job with experience as a Hollywood scriptwriter under his belt, scoring the opportunity to helm The Maltese Falcon in a deal struck with Warner Brothers directly related to the success of his screenplays. Part of the agreement was Huston’s right to choose his first project, and his decision was in favor of a now iconic but then fairly non-prestigious (if very popular) detective novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Today, Huston’s 1941 debut is reliably ranked as one of the greatest achievements in Hollywood’s heyday, but it’s necessary to point out that his The Maltese Falcon was the third time the novel had been adapted for the screen. The first was an equally close adaptation under the same name in 1931 and the second was a much looser comedic approach from five years later that starred Betty Davis and adjusted the title to Satan Met a Lady.
The meager budget and relative studio indifference over Huston’s desire to direct have surely helped to magnify the legend of its immediate success and to a degree that the original often garners kneejerk dismissals. This is unfortunate, for the Roy Del Ruth-directed version is nearly the equal of (and is in one aspect superior to) the third; as a Pre-Code film (meaning it was made in the brief period after the advancement of sound and prior to the Motion Picture Production Code content crackdown) the ‘31 possesses a sleazy veneer missing in Huston’s treatment.
Coming off his breakthrough role in Raoul Walsh’s Huston-written High Sierra, Humphrey Bogart embodies Sam Spade as individualist antihero; in the Del Ruth, Ricardo Cortez plays him as borderline lecherous. Bogart’s unconventional and now archetypal Spade ultimately follows a personal code, but the moral compass of Cortez’s performance seems to be constantly pointing towards his zipper, at least until the plot sufficiently thickens.
Sexual content of all kinds courses through the ’31’s veins, though Huston’s faithfulness to Hammett retains Spade’s affair with the wife of his partner Miles Archer. But even as both versions hem so close to Hammett’s novel that the dialogue is occasionally identical, Del Ruth gets the job done in 80 minutes, 21 shorter than Huston.
There are also major differences, and the extra time complicates narrative matters, but unlike other classics of the detective genre the ‘41 isn’t convoluted (given its stature as an early talkie, the original is quite straightforward). The added length also plays to the latter film’s greatest strength, specifically the acting, which stretches out and deepens in Huston’s lively yet cautious visual scheme.
Even if made on the cheap, the ’41 surely has production value on its side, though it’s not automatically a better directed film than its predecessor, and if fairly rated as a masterpiece Huston’s debut isn’t perfect; in fact, directly after the opening credits a block of introductory text emerges, its function later rendered largely redundant by a simple exchange of dialogue.
As said, Huston manages some fine performances, amongst them the avaricious girth of Sydney Greenstreet’s “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman (played in the Del Ruth by the non-obese but excellently named Dudley Digges), the menacing eyes of Elijah Cook’s “gunsel” Wilmer Cook (first embodied by Dwight Frye, best known as Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula) and even the carefully shaded flamboyance of Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo (also supplied with homosexual undertones in the ’31 by Otto Matieson). He also directed his father Walter Huston in an uncredited though key part.
In the midst of all this is the largely underwhelming part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Mary Astor’s character frankly pales next to the conniving sexiness Bebe Daniels brings to the ’31, her verve in that version dancing a tango with Cortez’s womanizing ways and nicely filling out the Pre-Code atmosphere (like in Huston’s follow-up, Wilmer and Gutman are in a nuanced gay relationship), but Astor’s role is effectively sizzle-less.
Instead she resonates as a rather bland woman who’s in deep trouble and lies a lot, and it’s always been kinda tough for this writer to comprehend Bogie’s deep feelings for her; she doesn’t damage the film as much as just lessen it a bit and by extension weakens its status as the first major film noir. Huston certainly imbues his The Maltese Falcon with elements of darkness, but it’s better classified as a detective story of the hard-boiled variety, which is not necessarily the same as noir. Obviously others will disagree over Astor and the noir appellation.
The Maltese Falcon did present a hard act to follow for its director, which leads us nicely to Part 2…