Entry #3: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and The Dead
by Nathan Rabin
First and Last is an ongoing column exploring remarkable filmmakers at the beginning and ends of their careers.
Everything about John Huston was larger than life. Physically, he was a towering mountain of a man with a rumbling, Old Testament voice and fierce magnetism that made him seem even bigger. He was the patriarch of one of the great acting dynasties in American history. He won Academy Awards for writing and directing for 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and directed his dad, Walter Huston, to his own Academy Award for best Supporting Actor for good measure. Decades later, Huston would similarly direct his own daughter, Anjelica Huston to an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor.
Huston lived an epic Hollywood life, marrying five times, siring a brood of talented actors like Anjelica and Danny and making important movies throughout the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Huston was so distinctive and ubiquitous as a character actor, often playing outsized exemplars of wealthy evil, most notably Noah Cross in Chinatown, that it’s hard to believe he did not start acting in films regularly until the 1960s. To call Huston a late bloomer as an actor seems an understatement: he was nominated for Academy Award for his first major onscreen role in 1963’s The Cardinal.
Huston was a consummate survivor. 1961’s The Misfits was the final film for Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift alike, but Huston, who lived large and hard and had more than his share of vices and marriages, kept on rolling for another quarter century during which he made such fascinating, essential movies as The Night Of The Iguana, Fat City, The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano and Prizzi’s Honor and finally The Dead, which was released, appropriately, if morbidly, enough, following Huston’s own death at 81.
By Huston standards, The Dead is an almost perversely small movie, a lovely and elegant adaptation of a James Joyce short story that barely passes the 80 minute mark and takes place primarily in one house on one evening. Yet this deceptively modest film attains an astonishing emotional power in its final scenes. It is a small movie with a huge impact.
But decades before a sickly yet determined Huston could end his glorious if uneven directorial career in Ireland, he began it on an even more auspicious note in a Hollywood approximation of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled San Francisco with his classic 1942 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.
Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the shabby, unadorned rooms where much of the action takes place, or the film’s low-budget, The Maltese Falcon was a big deal. The film captures Humphrey Bogart at peak Bogie: he’s all sneering attitude and sarcasm, a tough guy who has been threatened so often and so fruitlessly that his default response to having a gun pulled on him is to laugh.
Bogart plays Sam Spade as a confident bordering on cocky adult in a mixed-up world full of overgrown children playing at being nefarious international criminals and doing a fairly terrible job of it. These overmatched pretenders include Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) who shows up at Spade’s office peddling a fishy story about looking for a sister who had gotten mixed up with some sketchy characters.
Spade immediately pegs his client as a second-rate femme fatale passing herself off as a damsel in distress. He isn’t fooled by the act or her dramatics, though that somehow doesn’t keep her continuing to try to deceive him throughout the film and failing miserably. Then again, duplicity comes so natural to both O’Shaughnessy she more or less does it instinctively.
Spade’s partner is murdered and Spade soon finds himself dealing with a rogue’s gallery of low-lifes, scoundrels and ne’er do well all in a furious hurry to track down the titular MacGuffin, a statue festooned with precious jewels that is the object of much furious criminal exertion. Peter Lorre oozes sweat and naked desperation as Joel Cairo, an effeminate career criminal who Spade treats like a misbehaving little baby whose bottle just needs to be taken away until he learns some manners.
Spade is similarly amused by the tough-guy posturing of Wilmer Cook, an even less intimidating lowlife played by Elisha Cook Jr. whose gun seems to weigh roughly as much as he does. This memorable collection of villains is rounded out by Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who the film often films from below to emphasize his enormous girth. Gutman is such a sedentary character that when he gets up to threaten Spade it’s almost surprising that he can stand up of his own accord.
Huston was a hotshot screenwriter before he made the transition to the director’s chair and The Maltese Falcon is full of hilarious tough-guy banter that’s cynical to the point of nihilism. Bogart wields sarcasm like a weapon and the no-frills plainness of the sets puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the dialogue and performances.
The Maltese Falcon assembles some of the greatest collection of faces in film history, beginning with Bogart’s hangdog mug, which would seemingly doom him to a career playing character actor parts if his sour charisma didn’t angrily demand that he be cast in lead roles. As a writer and director, Huston works brilliantly around the Hays Code to create a film where much is inferred regarding the sexuality, morality and relationships between the film’s characters that couldn’t be stated explicitly without bringing down the wrath of censors.
Spade ultimately emerges as a Bogart speciality: a tough guy who’s nowhere near as cynical and apathetic as he is pretending to be. In The Maltese Falcon that means setting the bar so low for the protagonist’s morality that for him to care about anything represents a surprising level of idealism. And in the end, Spade really does believe in something, and that alone separates him from all the pretenders in his midst.
Debuts don’t come much more assured than The Maltese Falcon. Huston’s extraordinary powers as a storyteller were evident from the start, which perhaps should not be surprising considering how much success he’d had as a screenwriter. As a director, Huston made a movie whose individual elements are effortlessly iconic and have been parodied, ripped off and plagiarized extensively (there was even a comic quasi-sequel called The Black Bird in 1975, featuring Lee Patrick and Cook Jr. reprising their roles from The Maltese Falcon) yet the film is as sharp and fresh and clever today as it was when it launched Huston’s directorial career.
If The Maltese Falcon is a tough, masculine movie, 1987’s The Dead, which is adapted from a short story in James Joyce’s The Dubliners, is sensitive and gentle, a beautifully observed recreation of a time and a world lost forever, accessible only through memory and through art.
The film follows a number of Dubliners in 1904 who assemble at the home of two old sisters for a party marked by singing, dancing, recitations, confrontation, drinking and regret. Though not a proper musical like Annie, which Huston directed in the same decade, The Dead has a musicality that makes it feel as much like a song as a film. At best, The Dead has the hushed intensity and succinctness of a poem. It understands that music has a power unreachable through any other means. The Dead uses music and poetry to carry the delicate but intense emotions as much as the dialogue and the thin plot.
The Dead is lovely and meticulously observed. It’s not just a film that’s set in Dublin, it’s an exploration of what it means to be Irish as well as a reflection of the beautiful melancholy of the Irish soul. But when protagonist Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston, in the performance that probably would have won her an Oscar if Prizzi’s Honor hadn’t done the trick a few years earlier) leave the party and a deeply wistful Gretta reflects back on an early love who died when he was just seventeen this movie goes from good to great, from quietly affecting to sob-inducingly shattering.
As with previous First and Last entry Prairie Home Companion, some of the staggering power of The Dead’s final act is derived from the knowledge that the towering cultural icon in the director’s chair was in the process of dying himself when they made a movie very much about death and dying and seeking grace as the end approaches. When Huston’s brilliant actress daughter, a volcanic force in her own right, delivers words derived from Joyce but adapted by her own brother Tony while directed by her father in his astonishing last creative stand, the result is as powerful as cinema gets.
It’s an elegant ballet of sound and image, acting and directing, words and image, mood and memory. In this transcendent moment, time becomes elastic. The impossible gulf between the present and past disappears and this middle-aged woman, who long ago accepted the compromises and frustrations endemic in adulthood, is once again a teenager blessed and afflicted with a love so pure and powerful and profound and wild that the only thing that can tame it is death.
The past stops being something that can only be accessed from a safe distance and becomes the present, painful and beautiful and overwhelming. In that moment, Gabriel comes to the sad realization that the love he has shared with his wife could only ever be a hollow imitation of the more authentic and true bond she shared with a beautiful boy whose death she clearly never got over. This knowledge distances Gabriel from his wife but connects him with the sum of humanity, whose only real commonality, ultimately, is that we all die. Every last one of us. Even as ferocious a life force as John Huston.
Like the Black Bird at the core of The Maltese Falcon, the final act of The Dead is the stuff that dreams are made of. So was Huston’s astonishing life and career, and thanks to The Maltese Falcon, The Dead and everything in between, we are able to revisit those dreams any time we see fit.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.