The Maltese Falcon 1941

The Maltese Falcon (Il Mistero del Falco) – USA 1941

Directed by: John Huston.

Starring: Humphrey Bogart; Mary Astor; Peter Lorre; Sydney Greenstreet; Elisha Cook Jr.

B/W -101 minutes

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

A private detective, a false ingénue temptress, a couple of scoundrels, a mysterious man and a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels are the protagonists of The Maltese Falcon the film that marked in 1941 John Huston directorial début.

The Maltese Falcon (1941 film)

The Maltese Falcon -1941(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film, set in San Francisco, tells us about a complicated case in which Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), a private detective, is involved. All starts when a charming lady introducing herself as Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) comes to his office claiming she needs help to look for her missing sister, who’s having an affair with a man named Floyd Thursby. Only after his coleague Miles Archer is killed, just like Thursby the man he was shadowing, Spade discovers that the lady ain’t the little ingénue she pretends to be. She is involved, with a bunch of adventurers in a very dangerous treasure hunt. They all dream to put their hand on a precious statuette made of gold and gems (the stuff that dreams should be made of…), the Maltese Falcon, a tribute paid by the Knight Templars of Malta to Charles V of Spain but stolen by pirates in 1539 and whose destiny was still a mystery. Spade soon meets the other guys: the ambiguous Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who offers him a reward just a minute before threatening him with a gun and searching his office, the young and nervous Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who shadows him and his boss the mysterious Mr Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the “fat man” who’s been in search of the falcon for almost twenty years . Even Spade seems to be tempted by that treasure, but the the falcon ain’t an easy prey…

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the 1941 film ...

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This movie, all about greed and full of unexpected events, has been realesed in 1941 and it’s not the first attempt (nor the last one) to adapt for the silver screen the 1930 novel centred on private detective Sam Spade and written by Dashiell Hammett. A first quite successful film, also titled The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez (as Spade) and Babe Daniels (as the false ingénue temptress) was released soon after the publication of the novel, in 1931. Spade was an impenitent libertine, there were hints to homosexuality and some spicy scenes (things that today would be considered chaste), enough, after the reinforcement of the Production Code in 1934, to brand it as an indecent movie and to stop the attempt made by Warner Bros. to re-release it in 1936. That  lead directly to the 1936 remake, in which story and the names are changed like the title that becomes Satan meets a Lady: a disgraceful accident in film history in which was unfortunately involved poor Bette Davis.

When Warner Bros. gave John Huston, till then a proficient screenwriter, the opportunity to direct his first movie, he knew that a failure was out of question if he would have the chance to direct other films. To make the most out of the six-week shooting and the 300000 $ budget at his disposal he chose to adapt Hammett’s novel into a very faithful script (with the limits the censorship imposed, of course) and carefully planned his work sketching out every scene.

Frame from the 1941 public domain trailer for ...

A very dangerous Lady… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fortunately, the film turned out to be a success, appreciated by critics and audiences. The action maybe is a bit confused and the characters are obvious, but not the cast. If the 61-year-old absolute beginner (in cinema) Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, specialized in slimy guys, are great villains, but nothing new, Mary Astor is the less ordinary Dark Lady you can imagine. She ain’t the usual dashing blonde,  and that makes her a perfect ingenue turning out to be a real man-trap, elegant, falsely helpless and lethal. Then there’s obviously Humphrey Bogart, finally passed to leading roles at 42 (and with great success, thanks to this film and the previous High Sierra). Though he was not the first choice as Spade (at Warner Studios George Raft was considered the right guy for it, but thanks heaven he refused to play it), he was perfect in this role. He’s a tough guy, and for once he’s not a gangster but someone that could be tempted by the dark side, someone who has shadows in his past, but is able, in the end, to do the right thing. This is the character that will mark his cinematic persona as we know it, the tough guy who can suffer for love, the “Bogart” that will become in Play it again Sam, the 1972 Herbert Ross film, Woody Allen/Allan Felix’s love-adviser.

Today The Maltese Falcon, a bit claustrophobic (the action mostly happens in closed rooms and sometimes low camera angles, like in Welles’ Citizen Kane, show the ceiling), photographed in black and white and with a perfect and lethal Dark Lady is considered one of the early and one of the best movies in the Film Noir genre. It’s almost impossible that you’ve never heard of it or you’ve never watched at least one scene, but if it is so, aren’t you tired to be the only one who has never seen it?

A few related private eyes and Dark Ladies you could also like (click on the title to watch a clip or the trailer):

The Letter – USA 1940 Directed by: William Wyler. Starring: Bette Davis; Herbert Marshall; Gale Sondergaard; James Stephenson.

Double Indemnity – USA 1944 Directed by: Billy Wilder. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck; Fred MacMurray; Edward G. Robinson.

Leave Her to Heaven – USA 1945 Directed by: Joe M. Stahl. Starring: Gene Tierney; Cornel Wilde; Jeanne Crain; Vincent Price.

The Big Sleep – USA 1946 Directed by: Howard Hawks. Starring: Humphrey Bogart; Laurn Bacall; Martha Vickers;

The Strange Love of Martha Yvers – USA 1946 Direted by: Lewis Milestone. Starring: Brbara Stanwyck; Kirk Douglas; Van Heflin; Lizabeth Scott.

Vertigo – USA 1958 Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock. Starring: James Stewart; Kim Novak; Barbara Bel Geddes.

Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid – USA 1982 Directed by: Carl Reiner. Starring: Steve Martin; Rachel Ward and a bunch of Noir films stars from Hollywood archives.


É la materia di cui sono fatti i sogni.

Un detective privato, una falsa ingenua, una coppia di ladri di polli, un uomo misterioso e un falco d’oro tempestato dal becco agli artigli di rare gemme sono i protagonisti di Il Mistero del Falco (The Maltese Falcon, il titolo originale), il film che segnò nel 1941 il debutto alla regia di John Huston.

Gutman and Cario (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Il film, ambientato a San Francisco, racconta un complicato caso dell’investigatore privato Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Tutto ha inizio quando un’affascinante donna che si presenta come Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) arriva nel suo ufficio dicendo di aver bisogno di aiuto per ritrovare la sorella scappata di casa con un certo Floyd Thursby. Solo dopo che il suo collega Miles Archer viene ucciso, così come lo stesso Thursby, Spade scopre che la donna non è l’angioletto che finge di essere. È coinvolta, insieme a un gruppo di avventurieri, in una pericolosa caccia al tesoro. Tutti quanti sognano di poter metter le mani su una preziosa statuetta fatta d’oro e pietre preziose (la materia di cui dovrebbero esser fatti i sogni…), il Falcone Maltese, un tributo pagato dai Cavalieri di Malta a Carlo V di Spagna nel lontano 1539 sottratto dai pirati e mai più ritrovato. Spade fa presto conoscenza di tutta la combriccola: l’ambiguo Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), che prima gli offre una ricompensa e poi lo minaccia con la pistola e mette a soqquadro il suo ufficio in cerca del tesoro, il giovane e nervoso Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), che lo pedina, e il suo capo, il misterioso Mr Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) detto “il grassone”, un uomo in cerca del falcone da quasi vent’anni. Persino Spade sembra interessato al tesoro, ma il falco è una preda terribilmente difficile da catturare…

English: Frame from the 1941 public domain tra...

Wilmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Questo film uscito nell’ottobre del 1941, tutto incentrato sull’avidità dei suoi protagonisti e pieno di colpi di scena non è stato il primo tentativo (e nemeno l’ultimo) di adattamento del romanzo Il Falco Maltese (The Maltese Falcon) del 1930 centrato sulla figura del detective privato Sam Spade e scritto da Dashiell Hammett. Un primo film di discreto successo, intitolato anch’esso The Maltese Falcon, con protagonisti Ricardo Cortez e Babe Daniels, era uscito  nel 1931. Spade era un impenitente libertino, si alludeva a relazioni omosessuali e c’erano alcune scene che oggi sarebbero considerate all’acqua di rose ma che dopo l’inasprimento del Codice Hays nel 1934 erano abbastanza piccanti da farlo bollare come sconcio e da far fallire il tentativo della Warner Bros. di riportarlo in sala nel 1936. Questo provocò uno dei più disgraziati incidenti nella storia del cinema: il remake intitolato Il Diavolo e la Signora (Satan meets a Lady), nel quale erano stati cambiati i nomi dei protagonisti e alcuni particolari della trama e in cui era rimasta coinvolta l’incolpevole Bette Davis (che aveva provato in ogni modo a sfilarsi dal progetto).

A plaster Maltese Falcon prop used in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Quando la Warner Bros. diede a John Huston, fino ad allora sceneggiatore di successo, l’opportunità di dirigere il suo primo film, lui sapeva bene di  non poter fallire se voleva dirigerne altri. Per trarre il massimo profitto dalle sei settimane di lavorazione e dai 300000 $ messi a sua disposizione scelse di adattare fedelmente il romanzo di Hammett (nei limiti imposti dalla censura, ovviamente) e programmò con cura la lavorazione buttando giù una serie di schizzi preparatori per ogni scena.

Fortunatamente, il film si rivelò un successo, apprezzato da critica e pubblico. L’azione a volte è un po’ confusa e i caratteri dei personaggi non tagliati con l’accetta e un po’ scontati, ma gli interpreti non lo sono per niente. Se il sessantunenne debuttante (nel cinema) Sydney Greenstreet e Peter Lorre, lui si ormai specializzato in tipi loschi quanto viscidi, sono ottimi cattivi, ma niente di particolare, Mary Astor è la dark lady meno banale che possiate immaginare. Non è una scontata bellona bionda, e forse proprio per questo riesce a diventare la gattamorta per antonomasia, un’autentica trappola per uomini, tanto elegante e apparentemente indifesa quanto letale. E poi ovviamente c’è Humphrey Bogart, finalmente a 42 anni promosso protagonista (e con grande successo grazie a questo film e al precedente Una Pallottola per Roy). Lui non era stato la prima scelta per il ruolo di Sam Spade (la Warner gli avrebbe preferito George Raft che grazie al cielo ha rifiutato) ma è perfetto. É un duro, ma finalmente non è un gangster: è un uomo che può essere tentato dal lato oscuro della vita ma che alla fine sa fare la cosa giusta. Con questo film nasce il classico personaggio interpretato da Bogart, quel duro capace di soffrire per amore che in Provaci ancora Sam, il film del 1972 di Herbert Ross, sarà il consigliere in amore di Woody Allen/Allan Felix.

Oggi Il Mistero del Falco,  per le sue ambientazioni claustrofobiche (l’azione si svolge quasi sempre in interni e i personaggi, un po’ come in Quarto Potere di Welles, sono spesso inquadrati dal basso), la fotografia in bianco e nero e la sua letale Dark Lady, è considerato uno dei primi e più riusciti film del genere Noir. É quasi impossibile non averne mai sentito parlare o non averne mai visto almeno una scena, molto probabilmente l’avrete già visto, ma se così non fosse, non vorrete mica essere gli unici che se lo sono perso?

Alcuni detective ed alcune dark ladies collegati che potrebbero piacervi  (cliccate i titoli per vedere una scena o il trailer):

Ombre Malesi – USA 1940 Diretto da: William Wyler. Con: Bette Davis; Herbert Marshall; Gale Sondergaard; James Stephenson.

La Fiamma del Peccato – USA 1944 Diretto da: Billy Wilder. Con: Barbara Stanwyck; Fred MacMurray; Edward G. Robinson.

Femmina Folle – USA 1945 Diretto da: Joe M. Stahl. Con: Gene Tierney; Cornel Wilde; Jeanne Crain; Vincent Price.

Il Grande Sonno – USA 1946 Diretto da: Howard Hawks. Con: Humphrey Bogart; Laurn Bacall; Martha Vickers;

Lo Strano Amore di Marta Yvers – USA 1946 Diretto da: Lewis Milestone. Con: Brbara Stanwyck; Kirk Douglas; Van Heflin; Lizabeth Scott.

La Donna che Visse Due Volte – USA 1958 Diretto da: Alfred Hitchcock. Con: James Stewart; Kim Novak; Barbara Bel Geddes.

Il Mistero del Cadavere Scomparso – USA 1982 Diretto da: Carl Reiner. Con: Steve Martin; Rachel Ward e un bel po’ di stelle del Noir dagli archivi di Hollywood.

About Ella V

I love old movies, rock music, books, art... I'm intrested in politics. I adore cats. I knit...

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