2021 sees The Maltese Falcon, widely considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, celebrate its 80th anniversary. As part of the commemorations, the 1941 classic is returning to movie theaters for a limited two-day run.
“I think it surprised Warner Bros. that he wanted to make a film that had failed twice before,” explained actor Danny Huston, the son of the film’s legendary writer and director, John Huston. “When it came to the lead role, he didn’t want to cast George Raft, who was being pushed on him, and much to his delight, Raft didn’t want to work with a first time director. As a result, my father was able to cast who he wanted as Sam Spade, and that was Humphrey Bogart.”
“My father came in under budget, he seemed to play all the political studio games that were required, my grandfather, Walter Huston, played a cameo in the movie as a gesture of good luck. It was lightning in a bottle, my father did capture this perfect moment, and that launched his career.”
The Maltese Falcon cost $375,000 to make and grossed $1.8 million at the box office. It returns to theaters on Sunday, January 24, 2021, and Wednesday, January 27, 2021, as part of the ongoing TCM Big Screen Classics series.
“It was low budget, and it was a B movie, so it wouldn’t have been a terrible failure for anybody if it didn’t work, apart from my father,” Huston mused. “I think the studio, because of their relationship with my grandfather and thanks to people like the film’s producer Henry Blanke, just thought, ‘Let’s give this kid a try.’ So, they gave him a chance, and he certainly accomplished what he set out to do and gave us a classic movie.”
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“They didn’t know that they were making a classic at the time, but my father went on to a full, rich life, so he was able to enjoy the success of it. It was 1946 when Nino Frank coined the phrase ‘film noir,’ and The Maltese Falcon became the first one of the genre. That alone, in a sense, makes it stand the test of time. The dialogue is so fast and reckless, yet the framing is so controlled, you have these rich performances and characters like Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. They are so delightful, and it’s great entertainment.”
He added, “There must have been something in Dashiell Hammett’s writing that felt right to my father. He didn’t try to put his stamp on it. There was not a single line that was replaced by the actors changing the screenplay. It was a very tight shoot, very tightly written. It’s like the skin of a drum. I believe it must have been the dialogue that made him want to do it.”
The Maltese Falcon received three Oscar nominations, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Sydney Greenstreet, and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay. How much weight did the writer and director put on awards?
“I remember him talking about Humphrey Bogart. He said that Bogey always found that awards had a sort of vulgarity and a self-congratulatory aspect,” Huston’s son, Danny, recalled with a chuckle. However, when Bogart won his Academy Award for his performance in The African Queen, he seemed inordinately proud. I think when you get honored and get swept away by it, it’s a great thing.”
John Huston also directed The African Queen.
Despite being made over two decades before Danny Huston was born, The Maltese Falcon still played a significant role in family life.
“It was hugely important to us in many ways,” he enthused. “My first dog, an Airedale Terrier, was called Sam after Bogart’s Sam Spade in the movie. I remember as a toddler growing up in Ireland, there would always be a big sort of palaver where the projector would come out, and the film would rip and slip, but finally, it would be laced up, and a scratchy copy of the movie would come up on the wall. There was always a lot of excitement when we were screening The Maltese Falcon.”
“It’s great to see these restored copies because you do feel like you’re stepping back into another time. It feels pristine. But those old copies of the film my father had, the ones that came out of these rusty tins, were great. Lines such as “the stuff that dreams are made of” were always bouncing around our household.”
He concluded, “Films, in a way, are like ghosts. They live on through time, and they can revisit us. It’s a great thing. He’d be just absolutely delighted by it. He was a very modern thinker and very forward-thinking, but he’d be looking back at this work and happy that we’re viewing it. He would never diminish his work, but he had no self-importance. He was so interested in living forward, and his appetite for the new was so immense, but I definitely think he’d be thrilled that we’re honoring his work and that The Maltese Falcon is still appreciated and loved.”
The Maltese Falcon returns to select theaters on Sunday, January 24, 2021, and Wednesday, January 27, 2021.