By Glen Sparks
The stuff that dreams are made of is the statuette of a bejeweled bird.
Those that covet the prize will lie, steal and even kill to get it. The figurine, they insist, is worth a fortune.
Author and one-time Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett told the story of The Maltese Falcon in 1929. Hollywood put the novel to screen in 1931 and in 1936, the second time as a comedy titled Satan Met a Lady. Writer-director John Huston created the definitive adaption of the Sam Spade thriller in 1941.
Starring Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco detective Spade, The Maltese Falcon weaves through a tale of deception, double-crossing, strange characters and gunshots in the night, all in the name of a mysterious sculpture, gifted hundreds of years ago by the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain.
Mary Astor plays the femme fatale in this Warner Bros. production. She introduces herself as “Miss Wonderly”, later switches to “Miss LeBlanc” and finally settles on “Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” By any name, she hires Spade and sets the movie mayhem in motion, first with the murder of Spade’s partner, Miles Archer.
Cops knock on Spade’s apartment door soon enough. The effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) arrives a few scenes later, followed by Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) and, finally, Casper Gutman (British stage actor Sydney Greenstreet in his movie debut).
Wisely, Huston didn’t mess too much with Hammett’s tale. He wrote the script and plugged much of the great dialogue from the book into the movie.
Gutman: I do like a man who tells you right out he’s lookin’ out for himself.
Spade: Don’t we all?
Gutman: I don’t trust a man who says he’s not.
Huston also used sharp camera angles and shot many scenes low to the ground, making the obese Gutman look even larger and more menacing.
Bogart plays Spade with a terrific sense of private eye cool. The role turned the New York actor into a Hollywood superstar. Before The Maltese Falcon, Bogart usually played gangster parts and supporting roles. The Maltese Falcon made him the iconic Bogey. Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep followed.
Huston, directing his first movie, shot The Maltese Falcon in 34 days, according to a biography of the filmmaker, John Huston: Courage and Art, by Jeffrey Meyer. The film cost $327,000 to make, just under budget. Huston later made such great movies as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, both with Bogart. He played a memorably slimy supporting role in Roman Polanski’s noir classic Chinatown.
Characters in The Maltese Falcon grow colder as the movie draws closer to a conclusion and after the falcon is finally delivered to Spade’s office by a bullet-riddled Capt. Jacoby (played by Walter Huston, John’s actor dad).
Gutman, for instance, gives up Wlmer (“We need a fall guy,” Spade explains.), one of his partners in crime, even after he concedes, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.”
Oh, well. He famously shrugs. “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese falcon.”
Spade also must turn in Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police (played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane). She killed Archer, after all. (Spade: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something.”)
Maybe, Spade says, she’ll be out of Tehachapi (a women’s prison in California) in 20 years or so. “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Spade looks for justice despite any personal feelings he may carry for his client. The detectives escort her to jail. Elevator bars close in front of her. The bird, by the way, was a fake.
Bond picks up the replica. What is it, he asks. Bogart relates his memorable closing line that the bird is the stuff of dreams. That line is not in the book. Bogart ad-libbed it, according to the Meyer.
Artists at Warner Bros. made the bird for $114. The figure sold at auction in 2010 for nearly $400,000.
This is the first in my new monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. The Thing (from Another World) takes place near the North Pole and features future Gunsmoke star James Arness as a large, homely alien.
By Glen Sparks
The newly formed U.S. Air Force opened Project Sign in January 1948. The mission? Research a rash of UFO sightings by supposed eyewitnesses from across the country.
Air Force officials closed the project one year later. Investigators found not one alien and not one flying saucer. Howard Hawks (Red River, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep) and Christian Nyby made The Thing (from Another World) in 1951, anyway.
Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella, Who Goes There?, the movie version was produced by Hawks’ production company, Winchester Pictures Corp., and released by RKO Pictures. It was a big hit. Bosley Crowther, a critic for The New York Times, wrote that “Mr. Hawks has developed a movie that is generous with thrills and chills.”
In this classic sci-fi thriller, a spaceship hurtles to Earth and crashes into a bed of ice near the North Pole. A team of service men, scientists and even a newsman go to investigate. Unfortunately, they blast the ship to bits by mistake.
“The greatest discovery in history (goes) up in flames,” says wise-cracking reporter “Scotty” (played by Douglas Spencer).
The team does manage to haul one freeze-dried survivor back to the base. Is he (it?) friend or foe? Hint: Remember, this is ‘50s black & white sci-fi. Space aliens and humans do not play well together.
Trouble begins as soon as the Thing’s icy tomb melts, and it gets moving again. The lumbering brute (a young, nearly unrecognizable James Arness) grunts and growls; it muscles man and sled dog aside. To make matters even worse, the Thing brushes off 45-caliber bullets.
Oh, and the Thing really isn’t a type of animal. Internally, it resembles a plant, the scientists conclude after studying tissue samples taken from the creature’s hacked-off hand. The Thing quickly regenerates dead tissue, similar to a garden vegetable.
“It sounds like you’re trying to describe some sort of super carrot,” Scotty suggests.
Yes, that’s exactly right, replies Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). The Thing shows no pleasure and is devoid of emotion. Killing a human being is simply something that it must do to survive. (The Thing lives off blood.)
Our heroes need a plan. Do they destroy the Thing? How? The generals (who sit behind desks located far from the base and don’t comprehend the danger) issue orders to keep the creature safe. Dr. Carrington agrees that this is the smart plan. Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), a pilot and leader of the military team, sees no way out of this predicament except to kill the dangerous guest.
Science gets shoved aside in The Thing (in a few cases, quite literally). Men in leather jackets and military insignia do the heavy lifting in this film.
Dr. Carrington at one point insists that the world must learn about this great alien discovery. Hendry isn’t buying it, even as the Air Force orders the crew not to harm “your prisoner.”
Carrington: “You can’t ignore orders.”
Hendry: “Testify to that at my court-martial.”
Following several failed attempts, the service men figure out a way to bring the movie to a shocking finale.
Scotty concludes by finally getting his news report out to the world, via radio. “Watch the skies everywhere,” he pleads in conclusion. “Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
The Thing moves along at a brisk pace and offers plenty of suspense and action, like a typical Hawks picture. It includes lots of snappy dialogue, like a typical Hawks picture. This has led to a big debate: Who really directed The Thing?
That depends on the source. Nyby is listed as director in the credits, while Hawks is listed as producer. Tobey insisted in Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today’s News by Melvin Matthews that Hawks directed the movie. “Hawks directed it, all except one scene,” he said. Cornthwaite disagreed. “Chris always deferred to Hawks, as well he should,” the actor said in an LA Times article. “Maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it. … When people ask me, I say, ‘Chris was the director, Hawks was the producer.’”
Nyby had edited several movies for Hawks, including Red River. The Thing was his first directorial effort. By most accounts, Hawks was on the set every day. (Part of the movie was filmed at Glacier National Park in Montana; much of it was filmed inside a large ice-storage plant in Los Angeles.) Nyby, who went on to direct several more movies and TV shows (The Twilight Zone, Kojak, The Rockford Files, etc.), insists he was in charge.
“Did Hawks direct it?” Nyby said in Cinefantastique magazine. “That’s one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I’ve ever heard, and people keep asking.”
Yes, Nyby said, he did make the movie in Hawks’ style. “This is a man I studied and wanted to be like,” he said. “You would certainly emulate and copy the master you’re sitting under, which I did.”