The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Beat the Devil (1954)

Toronto Film Society presented The Maltese Falcon (1941) on Monday, November 23, 1981 in a double bill with Beat the Devil (1954) as part of the Season 34 Monday Evening  Film Buffs Series “B”, Programme 4.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Distributor: Warner Brothers.  Production Company: Warner Brothers.  Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis.  Director: John Huston.  Screenplay: John Huston (and Allen Rivkin), based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett.  Cinematography: Arthur Edeson.  Art Director: Robert Haas.  Music: Adolph Deutsch.  Music Director: Leo F. Frobstein.  Orchestrations: Arthur Lange.  Editor: Thomas Richards.  Associate Producer: Henry Blanke.  Assistant Dir.: Claude Archer and Jack Sullivan.  Dialogue Director: Robert Foulk.  Sound: Oliver S. Garretson.  Make-up: Perc Westmore.  Gowns: Orry-Kelly.

Cast:  Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Barton MacLane (Lt. Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perrine), Sydney Greenstreet (Kaspar Gutman), Ward Bond (Det. Tom Polhaus), Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook), James Burke (Luke, Hotel Detective), Murray Alper (Frank Richman), John Hamilton (D.A. Bryan), Emory Parnell (Mate of the La Paloma), Robert E. Homans (Policeman), Creighton Hale (Stenographer), Charles Drake, William Hopper, Hank Mann (Reporters), Jack Mower (Announcer), and (uncredited) Walter Huston (Captain Jacobi).

Film debut of Sydney Greenstreet, age 61.

I N T E R M I S S I O N   – –   1 5   M I N U T E S

Beat the Devil (1954)

Distributor: United Artists.  Production Company: Santana-Romulus.  Producer: John Huston (in association with Humphrey Bogart).  Director: John Huston.  Associate Producer: Jack Clayton.  Screenplay: John Huston and Truman Capote, based on the novel of the same name by James Helvick.  Art Director: Wilfred Shingleton.  Cinematography: Oswald Morris and Freddie Francis.  Editor: Ralph Kemplen.  Music: Franco Mannino.  Filmed in Italy.

Cast:  Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Gwendolen Chelm), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Robert Morley (Petersen), Peter Lorre (O’Hara), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Ivor Barnard (Major Ross), Bernard Lee (C.I.D. Inspector), Marco Tulli (Ravello), Marrio Perroni (Purser), Alex Pochet (Hotel Manager), Aldo Silvani (Charles).

In 1941, John Huston made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon (shown previously by TFS on 6 Oct. 69) and initiated a new film genre related to the detective story.  Thirteen years later, he made Beat the Devil (1954), a film containing many of the components, and indeed even some of the cast of The Maltese Falcon but in which the comic elements inherent in the genre are exploited to satiric effect.

In the most simplistic view, a detective story is literally the story of a detective solving a crime; however, the careful consideration of a reasonable sample of detective stories in both literature and film can lead one to a somewhat more elaborate and certainly a more revealing statement of the criterial attributes of the genre.  The detective story is structured around a localized intrusion of evil which constitutes a problem, that is, something about which something must be done.  This first criterial attribute indicates that the world of the detective story is essentially an ordered and largely benign milieu in which the occurrence of crime is considered more the exception than the rule.  Because the world of the detective story provides institutionalized responses through an established police force to disruptions introduced by readily known malefactors, the occurrence of a crime can figure in the detective story only when it entails hidden guilt.  The illumination and resolution of this hidden guilt through the relentless application of observation and logic by the detective is the second criterial attribute of the detective story.  Thus the detective is not so much a representation of the forces of good as an exemplar of the powers of logic.  It is the application of logic which impels the narrative toward what is seen as an inevitable resolution of the initially hidden guilt by establishing the identity, motivation and means of the culprit.

Two major variations on the classic detective story have been developed by changing the world view presupposed in the detective story.  The police procedural story remains relatively close to the detective story but changes the narrative perspective to that of the police who continue to deal with readily attributed crimes and a host of bureaucratic concerns even when dealing with the exceptional localized intrusion of evil that calls upon them to function more in the rationalistic, deductive fashion of the detective.  Along with this refocusing of the milieu, the narrative thrust of the police procedural story is impelled less by logic than by unrelenting routine.  Often the small and ordinary events that make up the lives of the detectives in police procedural stories tend to take on greater importance than the socially and personally disruptive consequences of the hidden guilt that tends to remain in the centre of the story.  Thus the criterial attributes of the police procedural story can be reduced to two, namely, (1) the story is structured around a localized intrusion of evil which stands out as figure against a background of lesser apparently routine instances of evil, and (2) the narrative thrust of the story is sustained by routine supplemented by the almost mundane application of logic while being decorated with the everyday details of the personality and private lives of the detectives.

The second major variation on the detective story entails a much more radical reconceptualization of both the world view and the motivational thrust of the story.  In literature this variation has frequently been referred to as the hard boiled detective story, while in film it has sometimes been referred to as film noir or the noir detective story.  Because a number of writers have used the term “film Noir” for a melange of films which share little beyond a photographic style, possible confusion might be reduced by referring to this variation as the noir detective story.  Again its criterial attributes can be reduced to two, namely, (1) the milieu is characterized by a profound ambiance of pervasive, apparently conventionalized, evil and (2) its characterization of the detective as a paladin who pursues his own private morality.  Thus, the essentially benign milieu of the detective story has been replaced by a morally vacuous arena and although the detective continues to pursue a rational solution the narrative thrust of the noir detective story tends to be sustained by an elaborate complex of coincidence.  As a result, the noir detective story tends to be both bleak and complex.  While the classical detective seems to be an embodiment of the power of rationalism and the police procedural detective appears as a representation of the ordinary person’s potential within the organizational pursuit of institutionally defined good, the noir detective appears as a representation of the hope for individual good in the absence of institutional support.

The Maltese Falcon was written by Dashiell Hammett and had been previously filmed both under the title The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936) before it was scripted and directed by John Huston in 1941.  Hammett’s novel is a hard boiled detective story but the first two film treatments failed to achieve any particular distinction.  By returning more directly to the novel and at the same time making the hero more of a paladin figure, Huston created a new film genre, i.e., the noir detective.

Other films which might be considered to be noir detectives were made during the following decade, e.g., Murder, My Sweet (1944), (shown by TFS on 28 and 29 July 75), The Big Sleep (1946) (shown by TFS on 19 Aug. 68), The Blue Dahlia (1946) and The Lady in the Lake (1947).  Critical examinations of such films published during the sixties focused so singularly on their use of black and white photography that some writers all too glibly expressed their opinion that it was no longer possible to make such films.  Indeed during the fifties noir detective films did not find much of an audience.  That appears to be because the ethos of the time didn’t support the world view that must be entertained if one is to like noir detectives.  It was only later in the seventies when the assumption of a pervasive evil became sufficiently tenable again after Vietnam and Richard Nixon, that noir detectives such as Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975) (shown by TFS on 14 Apr. 80), The Late Show (1977), and more recently The Formula (1980), and The First Deadly Sin (1980) were made.

Beat the Devil (1954)

Although James Helvick was obviously no Dashiell Hammett, his book Beat the Devil contained a large number of similarities to The Maltese Falcon.  However, when both Humphrey Bogart and Huston were dissatisfied with the initial screenplay for Beat the Devil, and the decision to hire Truman Capote was made, it was a conscious opting for a comic treatment of the material.

When TFS screened The Maltese Falcon in 1969, it was described by A.P. Whitten as “a study of a group of people on a search, motivated obviously by greed, but perhaps also motivated, impelled, by the lure of the search itself”.  This is an equally accurate description of Beat the Devil.  The very fact that Beat the Devil has such strong linkages to The Maltese Falcon should make the criterial attributes of the noir detective appear all the more obvious.  Probably the major reason that The Maltese Falcon is distinctively a noir detective story while Beat the Devil clearly is not resides in the fact that the role played by Humphrey Bogart does emerge as a paladin in The Maltese Falcon but as little more than an amused observer in Beat the Devil.

References:  The Great American Movie Book, Paul Michael (Editor-in-Chief), 1980;
John Huston: Maker of Magic by Stuart Kaminsky, 1978;
American Film Genres by Stuart Kaminsky, 1974;
A Cinema of Loneliness by Robert Phillip Kolker, 1980.

Research by Helen Arthurs.  Notes by Marcia Gillespie and Lloyd Gordon Ward

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