John Huston and the Making of 'The Maltese Falcon'

John Huston was one of the most impressive and enduring filmmakers in Hollywood history, with many of his films still considered classics today. In his new book, John Huston: Courage and Art, author Jeffrey Meyers examines not only Huston's life and relationships, but his films and rise as one of the top directors in Hollywood. Huston was known especially for his adaptations of books into films, including well-known novels such as The Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick. In fact, thirty-four out of thirty-seven of his films were based on stories, novels, or plays. Here, Meyers discusses the making of one of Huston's most celebrated literary adaptations, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay -- "The Maltese Falcon" (1941).

From Chapter 5 of John Huston: Courage and Art, by Jeffrey Meyers

Huston not only had a commanding knowledge of serious literature but, even rarer in Hollywood, a respect, reverence for it. He didn't consider movies a high art, like painting and writing, and respected the author, not the director, as the auteur. Thirty-four out of thirty-seven of his feature films were adaptations of novels, stories, or plays. He worked with many major writers: James Agee, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams, and Christopher Isherwood. And he transformed into cinematic images the books of many important authors: Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Stephen Crane, Herman Melville, Carson McCullers, Rudyard Kipling, Flannery O'Connor, Malcolm Lowry, and James Joyce. Huston became successful and powerful enough to make films of his favorite books. "I choose material that appeals to me," he said. "I don't try to guess what 100,000,000 people will like. It's hard enough to know what I like. Then when I thoroughly like something, I try to put on the screen the qualities that I think are important." But this sounds like an auteur to me His wild, freewheeling films had more hauteur than auteur, and his great theme was the tremendous struggle to achieve the impossible and the loss of the goal at the moment of triumph.

In "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) all of Huston's talents as writer, actor, and director were finally disciplined and came brilliantly together. He wrote the script, chose the actors, and guided them through the picture. The cast included his lover Mary Astor, his best friend, Humphrey Bogart, and the great character actor Sidney Greenstreet, all of whom would reappear the following year in "Across the Pacific." Bogart would also make four more good films with Huston; Peter Lorre, after debilitating drug addiction, would turn up again in "Beat the Devil." Huston used his expert knowledge of art and film when composing and framing the scenes, and staged deft boxing maneuvers when Bogart (Sam Spade) disarms Lorre (Joel Cairo) and Elisha Cook, Jr. (Wilmer). Robert Warshow, in an influential essay on "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" (1948), defined the gangster in words that apply equally to the daring and versatile Sam Spade. He is "the man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands." Spade's idiosyncratic code of honor places the detective uneasily between the criminals and the police. Hammett called his hero "a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander, or client." Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), opens like a Sherlock Holmes story. An attractive and apparently helpless woman client comes to Spade's office with her sad story and he's immediately prepared to take on her case. Each chapter, as if ready for adaptation, has one or two separate, fast-paced scenes and lively, colloquial dialogue, strongly influenced by the terse style of Hemingway's The Killers (1927). Spade resists entanglements, but not sex, with Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) and with Iva Archer, his partner's wife. But he's most at ease with his non-sexual secretary and devoted pal, Effie Perine.

The names of the characters are suggestive. Spade and Archer connote hard-boiled action; Wonderly (one of Brigid's pseudonyms) is amazing; Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who makes a dramatic entrance about halfway through both novel and film, is enormously fat; Cairo hints at Levantine decadence. All the parts are perfectly cast. The events, which take place during four days in early December 1928, raise two questions: Will the criminals get the falcon, and will Spade or the police get Brigid?

Censorship forced Huston to eliminate two scenes from the film that were in the novel. In the book Spade makes Brigid strip naked to see if she's stolen and hidden the missing thousand-dollar bill. Hammett also makes clear that Cairo and Wilmer are lovers. Brigid refers to Cairo's trouble with a young boy in Istanbul, and Spade refers to Wilmer as a "gunsel," which sounds like gunslinger, or hitman. This obscure but crucial word, which very few people would know, actually derives from the German Gänsel or gosling and means a catamite or sodomite. Huston had to cut the scene in which Cairo seductively puts his arm around Wilmer's shoulder and is hit by the outraged young man.

The best dialogue in the movie comes straight from the book:

Gutman to Spade: "I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."
Wilmer to Spade: "Keep on riding me and you're going to be picking iron out of your navel."
Gutman [whose elaborate diction contrasts with Spade's rough slang]: "Have you any conception of the extreme, the immeasurable, wealth of the Order [of St. John] at that time?"
Spade: "If I remember, they were pretty well fixed."
Gutman: "I shouldn't think it would be necessary to remind you, Mr. Spade, that though you may have the falcon yet we certainly have you."

Huston rather cryptically mentioned, "There was something in the Falcon that attracted me, that hadn't been done in the [two previous] versions," but didn't explain what he meant. Spade's juggling three women who are in love with him is like Huston deftly managing his various wives and lovers. More significantly, in the novel Gutman travels with a daughter who has the unusual name of Rhea, and the elimination of the daughter in the movie strengthens the bachelor's emotional ties to Cairo and Wilmer. Spade gets hold of the fierce-looking falcon from Captain Jacoby (played by Walter) of La Paloma, whose ironic name means "the dove." Recalling his dramatic entrance, Walter said: "I wanted to make it good, so instead of falling dead with a dull and indecisive thump, I reeled around and broke a lamp on the way down." When Gutman cold-bloodedly says, "If you lose a son it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese falcon" and agrees to hand Wilmer over to the police, the camera prolongs the dramatic moment by moving slowly across the astonished and relieved faces of the four other characters. The psychological dynamics of The Maltese Falcon symbolically destroys an entire family. Huston gets rid of his mother (Rhea), kills his father (Walter was shot and dies after delivering the black bird), and has the paternal Gutman sacrifice his substitute son.

In contrast to the director Otto Preminger who insisted, "I have no obligation, nor do I try, to be 'faithful' to the book," and to the screenwriter of an earlier version of the film, "Satan Met a Lady" (1936), in which the falcon becomes, for no good reason, the horn Roland blew at Roncevalles, Huston adopted a new and radical method: He remained extraordinarily faithful to the original. As Hemingway, disgusted by the distorted script of For Whom the Bell Tolls, observed, "When you have something wonderful, why do you have to change it for something silly just because you are paid to put the book into film?" The style, action, and atmosphere, as well as the dialogue, came right out of Hammett's novel. As Huston told the novelist Jim Harrison, "You simply take apart two copies of the book, paste the pages, and cross out what you don't like." He explained that the script "was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the book, of making a film out of a book ... I tried to transpose Dashiell Hammett's highly individual prose style into camera terms -- i.e., sharp photography, geographically exact camera movements, striking, if not shocking, setups."

Huston conceded that Jack Warner had given him a "sporting indulgence" by allowing him to direct. The script was entirely his own and, in contrast to some later disasters, he did not have to accept any changes made by a relay of writers or team of heavy-handed producers. Howard Koch was impressed by Huston's meticulous planning as both writer and director: "When John Huston was preparing to direct 'The Maltese Falcon,' he showed me his shooting script. Practically every element of the action down to the smallest detail, was anticipated in that screenplay. Without diminishing his directorial talents, it seemed self-evident that Huston, the writer, had accomplished the basic creative work before Huston, the director, took over."

"The Maltese Falcon" was a critical and financial success that enhanced Huston's prestige and power at Warner Bros. His planning paid off, and the film cost only $327,000 to make -- $54 under budget. The picture was shot in thirty-four days (including a full day's rehearsal for the long scene in Gutman's apartment, when all the characters gather to get the falcon) from June 9 to July 18, 1941. After shooting the blaze aboard La Paloma, the studio kept two firemen on the boat in case sparks flared up in the night. To create the statue of the fabulous bird, the art department made a sketch, the plaster shop cast a mold and turned out six hollow reproductions, and the paint shop sprayed them with black enamel to disguise the gold -- at a cost of $114. In December 1994, at Christie's in New York, one of the original six falcon statues was sold for $398,500 -- $71,500 more than it cost to make the entire film in 1941.

About the author: Jeffrey Meyers grew up in New York City, graduated from the University of Michigan and received his doctorate from Berkeley. He is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the author of forty-three books, among them biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Meyers lives with his wife in Berkeley, California.