“A painter paints, a musician plays, a writer writes – but a movie actor waits.”
Mary Astor‘s friend, John Huston and actor, Humphrey Bogart went to her house one day with a script in hand. The script, titled The Maltese Falcon, was written by Huston and was based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel of the same name. Astor was familiar with the novel and thought Huston’s script, which stayed (incredibly) true to its source, was a “humdinger.” Although she was taken by Huston and Bogart’s palpable excitement for the project, Astor would write in one of her memoirs that she didn’t need to be talked into accepting the role she was wooed for, “she’s attractive, charming, appealingly feminine and helpless and a complete liar and murderess. What more could anyone want to play?”
What Astor didn’t know during that fateful visit was that her portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon would be the one she’d best be remembered for, one of the greatest femme fatales in film history, the one that would set the standard.
It’s worth noting that despite the fact that both John Huston and Humphrey Bogart wanted Astor to play the duplicitous, scheming O’Shaughnessy, she was Warner Bros. executives’ second choice. The Warners intended the part for 27-year-old newcomer, Geraldine Fitzgerald who everyone at the studio believed had great star potential after proving herself in 1939 with memorable roles in William Wyler’s, Wuthering Heights and Edmund Goulding’s, Dark Victory. Warners tried everything to get Fitzgerald to take the part of O’Shaughnessy in Falcon, but the actress preferred to go on a previously scheduled East Coast trip, rather than take a chance with a first-time director and a low-budget whodunit. So, Warners went with its second choice, Mary Astor. And she made the part her own.
Now is the time for me to say, BEWARE! Spoilers lay ahead!
TITLE CARD: In 1539, the Knights Templar of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain by sending him a golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – – – – but pirates seized the galley carrying with priceless token and the fate of The Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day – – – –
Effie Perine (played by Lee Patrick), assistant to Sam Spade and Miles Archer, detectives and partners, walks in and announces to Spade (Bogart)…
Effie Perine: There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.
Sam Spade: A customer?
Effie Perine: I guess so. You’ll want to see her anyway. She’s a knockout.
In walks an innocent-looking, yet tense and nervy, Ruth Wonderly (Astor) who proceeds to tell the cynical Spade that she is in desperate need of help because her sister Corinne is missing. Wonderly claims to have arrived in San Francisco after receiving a letter from her sister saying she was there but gave no specifics as to her exact whereabouts. Wonderly nervously explains that Corinne had run away with a mysterious and dangerous man named Floyd Thursby. She goes on to say she’d met Thursby briefly and that he’d arranged for her to meet with her sister later that nigh, but that she had doubts as to whether he’d deliver as promised. As she’s finishing her story, Spade’s partner, Miles Archer walks into the office and is taken by Wonderly’s beauty. Spade fills him in on the details and says they’re taking the case – to find Corinne and get her away from Thursby. Eager to get to know the beautiful brunette, Archer volunteers to shadow Thursby that night and free the sister.
OK. So…none of that turns out to be true and nothing goes as planned that evening. Archer is shot dead by a hand in the dark while performing his detective duties. Sam Spade is immediately notified of his partner’s death, which sets off his investigation in earnest and leads the hard-nosed detective to cross paths with several unsavory characters who have been searching for the priceless Maltese Falcon for decades.
Be aware that there’s a hell of a lot missing in the (purposefully) thin synopsis of the film you just read. Telling the plot of The Maltese Falcon in a linear fashion is a near impossibility as the “mystery (in the film) is as thick as a wall and the facts are completely obscure” (Crowther). Suffice it to say that in the middle of the fray, at every twist and turn, is Ruth Wonderly who would take on a couple of different aliases as the story progresses toward a great resolution that comes slowly “as a monstrous but logical intrigue of international proportions is revealed” (Crowther). Brigid O’Shaughnessy turns out to be her “real” name. On paper anyway.
Spade: The hell of it, Miss – Is your name Wonderly or Leblanc? She blushed and murmured, “It’s really O’Shaughnessy – Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” (Hammett)
Her depiction of the cold and calculating O’Shaughnessy is my favorite of Mary Astor’s performances (although there are many I’ve yet to see). She’s fantastic in the film primarily because she plays the woman as on the edge, nervous, yet soft – in a romantic and wistful sort of way, if that makes sense. As a result, Spade falls for her and she keeps us guessing as to her true colors throughout the film, despite lie after lie after lie we are made privy to along the way.
I’ll go further and say that, as the character’s different names may imply, Astor plays O’Shaughnessy as different women, all of which we believe at the precise moment she wants us to. Even knowing of her proclivity toward scheming, we empathize with her as she’s caught in the lies and deceit, because she also manages an “I can’t help it,” damsel-in-distress thing while showing us she’d do anything to get what she wants.
Sam Spade: Haven’t you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?
Brigid O’Shaughnessy: What else is there I can buy you with?
It’s quite something to behold. Again, a wonderful performance – heartfelt tears deeply intertwined with a cold heart. The forever suspect, bloodless anatomy of the femme fatale, which, by the way, illustrates John Huston’s wonderful revelation of character in this story.
“I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
A scene that perfectly illustrates the O’Shaughnessy duality, what we (and Spade) fall for is the one everyone remembers that takes place at the end of the film. Spade tells Brigid that he’s sending her up the river for murdering his partner. She says she loves him. Asks if he loves her. She pleads with him to not turn her in and he replies, “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. . . . The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
COLD! The good guy and he’s cold as they come. So much so that again, we empathize with the lying, murdering dame, the one who has always had the power to sway everybody her way, to seduce people. In the end there’s shock for Brigid O’Shaughnessy for she realizes this time she bet on the wrong person.
“I won’t play the sap for you.” – A line I adore. One he says over and over. His mantra. “I won’t play the sap for you.”
The Maltese Falcon is replete with superb dialogue throughout uttered by all the actors in the inspired cast and features a fantastic score of original music by Adolph Deutsch. The look of the film is unforgettable as well, the deep shadows of noir used in many instances as symbols within the story – for instance, noted on IMDB is the fact that “in all scenes involving Mary Astor, there’s a suggestion of prison. In one scene, she wears striped pajamas, the furniture in the room is striped and the sliver of light coming through the Venetian blinds suggest jail cell bars.”
The most obvious example of this is the last shot of her in the film.
My favorite example of John Huston’s use of images in shadow to suggest and/or foretell a part of the story has nothing to do with Astor’s character in Falcon but I’m including it as a bonus. You can thank me later. It takes place at the beginning of the film, right before Huston cuts to the scene where Miles Archer is shot to death. As the previous scene ends he slowly pans down to the floor in the detectives’ office to show the shadow of the office sign as reflected on the floor with the “look” of a tombstone. Archer dies immediately after.
I could go on forever – Falcon is an exquisitely shot picture in all manner of ways.
Aside from being highly entertaining for the labyrinthal (my new word) story of mayhem and murder that it is, which incidentally gets better with each viewing, The Maltese Falcon also proved to be an important film. This was noted by The Library of Congress as it was among the first films admitted to its National Film Registry in its inaugural year, 1989. Prior to Huston’s film, Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice, but this 1941 version is definitive, considered by many the first official film noir.
The Maltese Falcon also has the distinction of cementing John Huston’s career as a director and elevating Humphrey Bogart from a former B-list character/lead actor to one of the top movie stars in Hollywood, an audience favorite with eventual cult status. Interestingly, Bogart appears in every single scene of Falcon with the exception of one, when we see his partner, Archer is shot by that hand in the dark. This film also marks the then 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet‘s film debut, although he had had a successful stage career for forty years. And, it was the first pairing of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre (who I love in this film) and so well did they work together that they made nine other movies together. Always memorable.
According to the commentary on the film available in the special edition bluray, author Eric Lax says Mary Astor recollected how close the entire cast of The Maltese Falcon became. They spent a lot of time together. While filming they had little option but to do so because it was a closed set. Astor would write, “we really didn’t want anyone looking over our shoulder and the cast really made sure that that happened.” In his review upon the release of the film in 1941, New York Times’, Bob Crowther wrote…
“The Warners have been strangely bashful about their new mystery film, The Maltese Falcon, and about the young man, John Huston, whose first directorial job it is. Maybe they thought it best to bring both along under wraps, seeing as how the picture is a remake of an old Dashiell Hammett yarn done ten years ago, and Mr. Huston is a fledgling who previous efforts have been devoted to writing scripts. And maybe – which is somehow more likely – they wanted to give everyone a nice surprise.”
When not filming, Astor commented, it was times of constant joking and bantering to escape a very difficult shoot of a film with a complicated plot that was shot out-of-order. “It was a necessary release from the emotional intensity of the individual relationships in the film, and the whip-cracking speed of the exchanges.”
Mary Astor’s recollections also indicated that the actors would get confused by Huston’s plan to shoot every scene in each set until that particular set was no longer needed. The director also liked to shoot scenes with heavy, quick dialogue in long takes, switching cameras from character to character as each line was spoken. The cast, as a group, would often spend hours on end defusing the stress, a means of escape from, as Astor stated, the explosive relationships they had in the picture.
On one particular day, Astor recalled, while at the buffet at the Lakeside Country Club where they all went for lunch every day she tried to join in on the quick banter, brisk conversation and the joking. She said “if you didn’t like it you were ignored afterwards so I tried to join in with some kind of naive wisecrack. The kidding was then turned onto me unmercifully and it was more than I could handle.” She then started to cry and whimpered, “I just can’t keep up with this.” Bogart laughed his head off along with everyone else then kindly got up and went around to her, wiped away the tears with his handkerchief and told her, “you’re OK, baby. Take it easy. So you’re not very smart (meaning quick-witted). What the hell’s wrong with that?”
I love that story. And by the way, Huston’s grueling pace and confusing methodology paid off in the end as he brought the picture in under budget and two days ahead of schedule. Not to mention how superbly his pace translates onscreen in that the film is brisk and supremely hardboiled (to use a noir term) from beginning to end.
The Maltese Falcon was enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike and would go on to receive three Academy Award nominations – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Greenstreet and Best Adapted Screenplay – but took home no statues – neither Maltese or Hollywood grown. It’s somewhat ironic, but not necessarily odd in Hollywood terms that neither Bogart or Astor would receive nominations for the roles that immortalized them. Although, Astor did go home with Oscar that year, winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in Edmund Goulding’s, The Great Lie.
A beauty since an early age, Mary Astor’s parents had dreams for her success and capitalized on her natural gifts by entering her in beauty contests at a very young age. These lead to her signing a film contract at the age of fourteen. It’s worthy of note she was one of a relative few who made a successful transition from silent pictures to talkies and ended with a career that spanned over five decades. Her life was a turbulent one both in private and in the pages of the gossip rags. She (reportedly) had several adulterous affairs with the likes of John Barrymore and John Huston (during the making of Falcon), multiple marriages, suffered from alcoholism and even attempted suicide. But no doubt she was also a survivor as she would eventually write two memoirs, several novels and make over 120 movies. The latter a rather astonishing number given she’d admit, “I was never totally involved in movies. I was just making my father’s dream come true.” Based on that quote it can be said her life truly was the stuff that dreams of made of. Except it wasn’t her dream.
In memory of Mary Astor.
The popular radio anthology series, Academy Award Theater broadcast a 30-minute adaptation of The Maltese Falcon on July 3, 1946 with Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet reprising their roles. I’ve posted that broadcast here, for your listening pleasure.
This post is my entry to the Mary Astor blogathon hosted by two of my favorite blogs, Silver Screenings and Tales of the Easily Distracted. I’m ecstatic to be a part of this event, which features an impressive line-up of entries. Please go to either host site to access fabulous post after fabulous post dedicated to Mary Astor in celebration of what would have been her 107th birthday.