19 d’agost de 2016

Cult Movies: This Falcon still flies

[The Irish News, 19 august 2016]

Ralph McLean

The Maltese Falcon
WHEN director John Huston delivered The Maltese Falcon to Warners in 1941, Dashiell Hammett's novel had already been adapted twice for the big screen.
That history barely remembers those earlier versions, the first under the same title in 1931 and a re-named stab called Satan Met A Lady in 1936, is proof that Huston's directorial debut is something truly special.
A stark, stylish and utterly iconic tale that that is now considered by many to be a cornerstone of the so called film noir movement of the 1940's it's got everything a good black and white crime caper should have.
It's got a twisty plot peopled with plenty of hard-nosed villains, lots of wise guy dialogue and a deliciously downbeat vibe throughout. To top it all, it's also got the untouchable Humphrey Bogart as the ultimate anti-hero Sam Spade.
The stars clearly aligned in Tinseltown for this one.
Much of what makes the film so magical though comes directly from the original story.
Hammett's 1929 book, which originally appeared as a five part adaptation in the detective pulp magazine Black Mask, is a pretty much word perfect example of how good a simple private detective novel can be when it's pared back to its bare bones.
Simple, unflashy and frugal in its plotting and characterisation it embodies the classic 'hard boiled' ethos of great crime fiction.
Storywise it's an irresistible mix of murder mystery and melodrama that follows PI Sam Spade as he's called in to handle a case by the shady lady who may not be what she first seems.
Before long he's embroiled in a plot of endless double dealing and murderous obsession as a whole range of wild and wonderful characters battle it out for the possession of the infamous bejewelled Maltese Falcon.
Working just about within the confines of the law Spade unravels all the threads to solve the series of crimes in his own individualistic way.
Huston was so enamoured of its qualities that when it came to writing the script for his film he lifted whole sections of Hammett's dialogue directly from the page.
His trust in the source material was not misplaced.
Hammett's world buzzes with beautifully sketched criminals and streetwise characters.
There's Sydney Greenstreet's 'Fat man' and the always wondrous Peter Lorre as a shifty little low life to enjoy.
There are duplicitous women like Mary Astor's character – with her three aliases – and enough double-crossing and cynical dialogue on offer to amuse and entertain even the most jaded of crime fans.
Through it all, Bogart cruises imperiously as the ice cool San Francisco private eye Sam Spade.
Fresh from another Warners flick, High Sierra, and still shackled with the 'King of the B Movie actors' label, he carves himself a place in crime movie history here as the detective with his own moral code to live by.
Odd to think how different it all might have been if George Raft, the original choice for Spade, had taken the role instead.
As a former screenwriter of great standing, Huston appreciated the power of the words his characters spouted – and, as a result, the dialogue here sparks and crackles throughout.
Thirty-four years on from Huston's masterpiece, the story got a mid-70s sequel with The Black Bird (1975).
In a satirical twist George Segal turned up as son of Sam Spade. Funny how few remember that one as well, isn't it?



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