THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

Soapy Noir: A KISS BEFORE DYING (United Artists 1956)

A KISS BEFORE DYING is part soap opera, part film noir, and 100% 50’s kitsch! Based on the best selling debut novel by Ira Levin (who went on to give us ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES), it’s also the debut of director Gerd Oswald (who went on to give us AGENT FOR HARM and BUNNY O’HARE !).  Lawrence Roman’s screenplay has some suspense, but his characters are all pretty dull and dumb, except for Robert Wagner’s turn as a charmingly sick sociopath.

Wagner is college student Bud Corliss, from the wrong side of the tracks, dating rich but naïve Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward) to get his hands on dad’s copper mine loot. And when I say naïve I’m not just whistling Dixie; this girl’s downright dense! Bud, after learning she’s pregnant, decides the best thing to do is not marry her, but bump her off. He whips up some poison in the chem lab, then gets her to write a suicide note under the pretense of translating some Spanish for him. And she does! When Dorie fails to take her “prescription vitamins”, Bud lures her to the top of the Municipal Building, sweet talks her… then shoves her to her death! Woodward, in only her second picture, hated the role of clinging, gullible Dorie, and who can blame her? Fortunately, Miss Woodward did a lot better with her next film, 1957’s THE THREE FACES OF EVE, for which she won the Oscar.

With Dumb Dorie out of the way, psycho Bud sets his sights on her sister Ellen, since no one in the family has ever seen him. Ellen’s played by Virginia Leith, best known for her role as a head in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE . This time, Virginia gets to emote with her full body (and what a body it is, as Groucho Marx would say!). Her cold-ass daddy is cold-ass George Macready , who had made a career out of these type roles by now. Ellen, however, doesn’t believe Dorie committed suicide, and with the help of amateur sleuth Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter, looking avuncular in Clark Kent-ish hornrims and smoking a pipe), tracks down a suspect, an old flame of Dorie’s (seems the girl got around!).

The old flame, one Dwight Powell (played by COUNT YORGA himself, Robert Quarry ), tells Ellen he wrote down the address of Dorie’s newest beau, and goes to his flat to dig it up. Bud is waiting for him, gun in hand, and forces Dwight to type up a suicide note before shooting him. Now here’s what I don’t get – the guy’s got a gun on you, sure, but instead of taking a chance and yelling for help from the neighbors, you just write the damn thing and take it? Come on, you’re gonna get shot either way, at least TRY and do something, instead of sniveling (insert squeaky voice here) “No, please, don’t”!

Anyway, Bud gets away, and the case of Dorie’s death is now closed. Or is it? At Bud and Ellen’s engagement party, Gordon crashes in and informs her Dwight was playing tennis in Mexico on the night of Dorie’s murder, so he couldn’t possibly have killed her. Back to square one. But wait… Gordon spies Bud coming down the stairs, and recognizes him from around the ol’ campus. Calling his uncle the police chief, he finds out Bud was indeed involved with Dorie, and he and father tell Ellen. She doesn’t believe them until she tricks him at the Kingship Copper Mines, where Bud learns just what a bitch karma is and gets his just desserts before the fade-out.

Did I mention Mary Astor returned to the screen after a seven year absence to portray Bud’s mom? No? That’s probably because the part’s so small, and the great Miss Astor is thoroughly wasted in it. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is awash in vibrant Deluxe color, and it’s certainly a good-looking film, anyway. Lionel Newman’s lush score includes the jazzy theme “A Kiss Before Dying”. The film was remade in 1991 with Matt Dillon and Sean Young, and was universally panned by critics and audiences alike. A KISS BEFORE DYING is just begging for a proper remake, preferably one of those Lifetime Movies my friend Lisa Marie Bowman  is always writing about. Whadda ya say, Lifetime…

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (20th Century Fox 1964)

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Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the last true Golden Age greats, Olivia de Havilland. Film fans across the globe are celebrating the life and career of this fine actress, who fought the Hollywood system and won. Olivia is the last surviving cast member of GONE WITH THE WIND (Melanie Wilkes), won two Academy Awards (TO EACH HIS OWN, THE HEIRESS), headlined classics like THE SNAKE PIT and THE DARK MIRROR, and costarred with dashing Errol Flynn in eight exciting films, including CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SANTA FE TRAIL, and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.

Olivia moved to Paris with her husband in the 1950’s and was semi-retired, acting in a handful of films. In 1962 director Robert Aldrich  scored a huge hit, a psychological horror thriller called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, starring screen veterans Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. A new genre was born, featuring older actresses in suspenseful psychodramas. Olivia starred in one of them, 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE, about a woman trapped in her home as deranged youths ransack her house. Aldrich sought to capitalize on his success with another film to star Davis and Crawford titled HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. But Crawford bowed out, citing illness (gossip of the day suggested she didn’t want to work with Davis again). Bette placed a call to her old Warner Brothers friend Olivia, who read the script and accepted the role of scheming cousin Marion. The two Grand Dames, along with director Aldrich, had another hit on their hands, a Southern Gothic tale set in a decaying Louisiana mansion.

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The film opens in 1927, as Charlotte’s father Big Sam Hollis confronts John Mayhew. Mayhew has been having a clandestine affair with the big man’s little girl behind the back of his wife Jewel. Big Sam forces John to break it off at that evening’s big dance, and Charlotte doesn’t take it well, screaming “I could kill you!” Later, we see someone offscreen grab a meat cleaver and, sneaking into the music room where John sits alone, chop off his hand and head, violently hacking him to death. Charlotte enters the ballroom in a blood-stained dress as the partygoers are shocked, and Big Sam sadly walks her to her room.

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Fast forward to 1964. The Hollis home is scheduled to be demolished to make room for a new highway, but Charlotte brandishes a shotgun to ward off the bulldozers. Charlotte’s fiercely loyal maid Velma tries to talk some sense into her, but the emotionally wounded Charlotte refuses to leave. Enter Charlotte’s “last kin”, cousin Marion, who arrives back home to take care of things. Sweet natured Marion and family doctor Drew (who once were lovers) also try to convince Charlotte to leave the estate, but she’s having none of it, angrily still holding a grudge against Marion for telling Jewel Mayhew about her and John. Meanwhile, an insurance investigator named Harry Wills has come to town, seeking answers to why Jewel has never cashed in on John’s policy.

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The movie then becomes a nightmare of terror for Charlotte, as she sees John’s disembodied head show up in the music room, hears harpsichord music playing, and strange voices calling her. Dr. Drew gives her sedatives to calm her down, and Velma begins to get suspicious of him and Marion. When she finds an hallucinatory drug in Charlotte’s room, she puts two and two together. Velma tries to help Charlotte escape, but is stopped by Marion, who smashes a chair over her head and sends her crashing down the staircase to her death.

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Marion and Drew have been plotting all along to drive Charlotte over the edge in order to take control of her money. They concoct an elaborate ruse that ends with Charlotte pumping Drew full of lead (actually blanks). Charlotte pleads for Marion to help her get rid of the body, telling her she can have all the money. They dump him in a pond, but Charlotte’s in for a shock when Drew pops up at the top of the staircase, a shambling mess, causing her fragile sanity to crumble. The two lovers celebrate outside, drinking champagne and congratulating themselves on their wicked scheme. Charlotte comes out ton the porch and overhears them and, realizing she’s been duped, pushes a heavy planter on top of them, killing them both.

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Olivia de Havilland was 48 when HUSH.. HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE was made, still a very attractive woman. She plays Marion perfectly, all sweetness and sympathy at first, then showing her true rotten nature. Miss de Havilland shows a mean streak here, a far cry from Maid Marion and Melanie Wilkes. I think it’s the film’s best performance, and that’s saying a lot considering the all-star cast.

Bette Davis goes full-throttle as Charlotte like only Bette Davis can. Agnes Moorehead was Oscar nominated for Velma (the film was also nominated in six other categories). Moorehead’s  CITIZEN KANE costar Joseph Cotten plays the co-conspirator Dr. Drew. Mary Astor makes her final screen appearance as the widowed Jewel Mayhew, showing much restraint among all the Grand Guignol theatrics. Cecil Kellaway has the small but pivotal part of Wills; his scenes with Davis and Astor are standouts. Others in the cast are Bette’s BABY JANE costar Victor Buono (as Big Sam), George Kennedy Bruce Dern (as John), William Campbell, Wesley Addy, and Ellen Corby.

HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a fine entry in the “older actresses doing horror” sweepstakes. Not quite as good as WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, it still manages to deliver plenty of chills, and it’s got a classic movie lover’s dream cast. Olivia de Havilland went on to make appearances in five more features (including THE SWARM ) and some television projects (winning an Emmy for ANASTASIA: THE MYSTERY OF ANNA) before retiring completely in 1986. Still alive and well and living in Paris, we salute you on your special occasion, Olivia. Here’s to a hundred more!

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