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The Maltese Falcon (1941):  “The stuff that dreams are made of”

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon (1941)

So what do you think happened next? 

After his fifth-billed role in The Petrified Forest, did Humphrey Bogart end his second marriage, shoot to stardom, and finally meet the love of his life?

Not so fast.

His second marriage did end.  Though his affair with actress Mayo Methot was the final straw, ultimately his second marriage ended for the same reason as his first—Bogart was a traditional man at heart, and he wanted to be the family breadwinner, and to have a family.  Mrs. Bogarts 1 and 2 were actresses—more successful than him at the time—who were not about to set aside their careers for love, marriage, and babies.

Bogart grew up in a cold and possibly abusive home.  His artist mother showed affection for nothing but her work, and his physician father slowly ruined his health by injecting himself with morphine meant for patients. 

But his parent’s marriage was a Norman Rockwell painting in comparison to his union with Mayo Methot, whom Bogart reluctantly married in 1938.  Their alcohol-fueled arguments were constant and often physical—they got into a shouting match so heated at their reception that they didn’t spend their wedding night together.  It didn’t take long for friends to start calling them the “Battling Bogarts.”

His career wasn’t going any better.  Everyone knew Bogart was a good actor, but he was at the bottom of a Warner Brothers leading man pecking order that included Paul Muni, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft.  And so Bogart spent the six years after Forest playing gangsters, crooks, and thieves who came to a bad end, often in ‘B’ pictures. 

By 1941, he’d passed the age of forty without a leading role.  He was balding and didn’t have traditional leading man good looks.  He seemed fated for life as a character actor.

Then came John Huston (last seen here coming to blows with Errol Flynn over Olivia de Havilland) and The Maltese Falcon.

For his directorial debut, Huston wanted to adapt the Dashiell Hammett detective novel The Maltese Falcon.

And he wanted Bogart as his hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.

Huston surrounded Bogart with a winning cast starting with Mary Astor as the beautiful schemer who drags Sam into the whole mess.  Lee Patrick plays Sam’s faithful secretary, Peter Lorre a villain after the falcon, and veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet made his film debut at sixty-one years old as “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman.

Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet

The film begins when Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) hires Sam to follow a man she fears will kill her sister.  Sam’s partner Miles Arches takes the job and is shot dead on what should have been a routine tail.

Brigid’s story and her sister are a complete fabrication, and Sam is dragged into a web of thieves and murderers looking for the Maltese Falcon, a jeweled bird lost in the sixteenth century that would be worth untold riches if found.

Bogart’s Sam Spade is cynical, clever, and tough but not ruthless.  He’s got his own moral code—one that compels him to “do something” about his partner’s murder despite the fact that he never liked the guy and sometimes slept with his wife.

Peter Lorre, Bogart

The audience unravels the mystery along with Spade—we learn what he learns, as he learns it.  As with any good mystery, there are twists, turns, and double-crosses.

Spade falls in love—or at least lust—with Brigid, but that doesn’t prevent him from seeing her for the murderess she is.  In the film’s final act, the falcon is determined to be a fake—all the lying, cheating and killing was for naught.  Brigid—and the audience—assume that Spade will take her on as a lover for at least awhile, but Spade is hard-boiled and nobody’s fool.

Brigid murdered his partner, and the film closes on him as he turns her over to the police with obvious regret.

“What’s that?” a cop asks him, nodding to the fake Maltese Falcon that has caused all the trouble.

“The stuff that dreams are made of,” Spade tells him, slightly misquoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

And it was—for The Maltese Falcon is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, listed at number 31 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films.  It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Huston and Bogart that would have huge personal and professional dividends for both.

At 42, Humphrey Bogart had finally become a leading man.

And what of the love story with Lauren Bacall that I promised to tell you last week?

I am telling you.

For as the Bard also wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

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