Following on from our last episode on the films of John Huston, we thought we’d change things up with a look at two more John Huston films. This time it’s his first, and still one of his most iconic films, The Maltese Falcon, and a rather more obscure outing from over a decade later that’s considered a loose parody of that films form, Beat the Devil
Our other film today will give Scott further support for his “John Huston’s directorial career was largely a free holiday scheme” thesis (and, indeed, I’ll be very disappointed if he doesn’t mention it, we at Fuds on Film being fond of nothing so much as a running joke), but for his first film Huston didn’t yet have the pull for such exotic locations as Campania in southern Italy, so he had to make do with a gloomy San Francisco and Hollywood backlots.
It is in these environs that the tale of The Maltese Falcon takes place, based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, and a remake of the 1931 film of the same name, proving that there really is nothing new under the Hollywood sun. If you’ve not heard of The Maltese Falcon, it is of course the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs and, while it may not look like much, she’s got it where it counts.
Oh, I do appear to have mixed up my notes. In the most obvious and clichéd way, but it amused me so, you know, bite me. The actual falcon of the title really doesn’t look like much, though, but does, or should, have it where it counts, so it’s not a totally baseless joke.
Utterly unnecessary, as the film clearly explains it within, introductory text tells us that when Malta was gifted to the Knights Templar by the king of Spain, they sent him tribute in the form of a glorious golden falcon, encrusted with jewels. It never reached Spain, but has cropped up now and again throughout history, though currently it is disguised with black enamel to conceal its true value.
The many-year pursuit of this treasure by the “Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman (a spectacular Sydney Greenstreet), inadvertently comes to the door of Humphrey Bogart’s private detective, Sam Spade, in the form of Mary Astor’s femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who hires Spade and his partner to follow a man she claims is a rotter and doing her sister wrong.
Spade’s partner is shot, (a grief-stricken Spade waits at least three or four minutes after learning of this before having his name removed from the signage), and when the man his partner was following, and the prime suspect, is murdered shortly afterwards, Spade finds himself in trouble with the police with Brigid now nowhere to be found. Finding Spade, though, is Peter Lorre’s thief-cum-enforcer Joel Cairo, and also a whole heap of trouble, and soon Spade is deep in a world of cross and double-cross, untrustworthy women, understanding secretaries, moody shadows and charismatic villains and, rather pleasingly, very little shooting, our hero preferring to let his mouth do the talking.
1941 saw two particularly auspicious, and assured, directorial debuts, and while Huston’s wasn’t as impactful as that of one Mr O. Welles, it was the start of an incredible career, and helped, if not birth, then codify a whole genre: The Maltese Falcon was one of the films to which the Italian-French film critic Nino Frank was referring when, in 1946, he coined the term “film noir”, and, while some earlier films match the somewhat nebulous definitions, Panorama du Film Noir Américain, one of the defining early texts on the subject, referenced The Maltese Falcon as the first major film noir.
There’s still an immense amount of craft on show in The Maltese Falcon, though, both behind and in front of the camera, and some astonishing performances, like the aforementioned Greenstreet (this was his first film role, and it’s a hell of a debut) and, of course, Bogart, whose cold, hard-edged private eye still manages to hint at past wounds that shaped his character. Impressively, too, for an eighty-year-old film, it still has the power to surprise: I’d forgotten most of the details, and how refreshing to watch a film and be behind the writer (also Huston) and protagonist, instead of a good 15 minutes ahead of them as I often am, and without nonsensical deus ex machina explanations.
And the plot isn’t even the film’s strongest suit, nor its point. The falcon itself is a McGuffin: character is key here, not narrative (though it does satisfy on that score, unlike the entertaining but labyrinthinely-scripted The Big Sleep of five years later, in which Bogie also played a fedora-wearing hard-boiled PI), and it’s tremendously pleasing to discover that the protagonist’s motivations are not at all what you expected.
Simply, it’s excellent and well worth watching if you haven’t done so. Get to it.
With Humphrey Bogart in front of the camera, here as Billy Dannreuther, a formerly rich man now working well beneath his station, and John Huston behind it, and a script co-authored by Truman Capote, there’s surely no way that Beat the Devil could go wrong. Is there? Well, I suppose the fact that, be honest, you’ve never heard of it before now, and that apparently the studios did not think it worth renewing the copyright on, maybe something did go wrong.
At any rate Dannreuther is part of a loose confederation of other Huston regulars stuck in an Italian port waiting for the departure of the SS Nyanga, their ride to British East Africa where they hope to strike it rich buying land laden with uranium. Again, further support for the Huston “career as travel expenses” theory. His uneasy bedfellows are Robert Morley’s Peterson, Peter Lorre’s Julius O’Hara, Ivor Barnard’s Major Jack Ross and Marco Tulli’s Ravello, all fine character actors rather underserved with characters of their own, so must make do with carrying theirs over from previous films.
Also waiting are Dannreuther’s wife Maria, Gina Lollobrigida, and an English couple, Harry and Gwendolen Chelm, Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones, who rather give the impression of being part of the landed gentry, although as you might imagine in this sort of thing, no-one is quite what they seem. The four seem to get on quite well, indeed Billy soon starts an affair with Gwendolen at more or less the same time that Maria and Harry do.
After a strangely pointless diversion involving a car crash and the others mistakenly thinking Billy and Peterson are dead, the ship is finally ready for departure however in the constrained confines of the cabins tensions rise and tempers fray, particularly after Harry finds out and threatens to expose the scheme. I’m not sure how much of a scandal that would really be, seeing as it appears to be “to legally buy some land with money”, but at any rate its enough for Peterson to want Harry killed, although it appears the dilapidated boat wants them all dead, causing them to abandon ship, wash ashore and wind up in an Arab jail as things fall further apart.
Despite the undoubted bona fides of the writing team for this, let’s politely say that the story is not the strongest card in Beat the Devil‘s deck. Thankfully, given the nature of this beast, it just needs to be enough to hang a loose parody and some solid gags from. Although it hasn’t managed to do that last part, which is maybe the biggest problem it has.
There’s some positives in here to be sure, mainly a talented ensemble cast that, although wildly underserved by the script, have enough charisma to keep this engaging enough to forgive the rather broadly sketched characters and gags, and while watching it I didn’t find it boring or insulting. However when writing about it I’m not sure there’s all that much in here I’d want to praise, or indeed recommend. It’s by no means awful, but even if it’s freely available on archive.org, I’m not sure it’s really worth your time for all but the Huston or Bogart completionists.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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