Watching The Maltese Falcon last night at BFI Southbank, and spurred on, I suppose, by the recent death of Lauren Bacall, I was thrown back into long-ago arguments with friends about the relative merits of that movie, John Huston’s first as director, as against Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, his 32nd, sitting nicely between To Have and Have Not and Red River – what a trio!
Both, of course, have their considerable merits – both are still highly enjoyable even after many viewings – but if I were forced to make a choice, it would be the Hawks film every time. And I think the key to that, for me, is in the playing as much as the direction, that of Bogart in particular. (To the extent they can be separated.) There’s a tightness, a brittleness to his performance as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, which, while it is in keeping with the character as portrayed in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, affects the more romantic of his scenes with Mary Astor (as opposed to the memorable moment towards the end when he waves her off to prison and the possibility of a hanging) and means that – coupled with Astor’s duplicitous coldness – we never get to believe he has any genuine feeling for her, so that when, just before handing her over to the police, he says maybe he’s in love with her, we don’t believe him for a minute and thus his dilemma is no dilemma at all. The closest, in fact, he comes to showing real affection for a member of the opposite sex is in his scenes with Lee Patrick, playing his secretary, Effie, and that’s because, in his eyes, she’s more like a regular guy, a pal.
Compare that performance to his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and you find an actor equally as capable of hardness and anger when the occasion demands, but otherwise far more relaxed and at ease with himself and the character he’s playing. This is never more evident than in those teasing scenes with Lauren Bacall, rightly famous for their sexiness and speed of witty repartee. [Small wonder, with William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman lining up to sharpen Chandler's original dialogue still further.]
Bogart and Bacall were an item by then, of course, in love, in lust, a relationship which had started during the making of To Have and Have Not two years previously, whereas Mary Astor was sleeping with the director of The Maltese Falcon rather than the star.
The other half of this argument was always that between the source novels: which was the better book? Spade or Marlowe, who was the most convincing detective? Who was the better writer, Hammett or Chandler?
When I read them first, around the age of 16 or 17, my vote – swayed by the elaborate metaphors and an occasional lushness of style – was for Chandler; but as I got older and learned a little more about Hammett – his experience as a Pinkerton detective, his leftish sympathies – I found myself leaning towards his harsher more hard-boiled sentences and what seemed to be an almost nihilistic view of life.
Now? Well, I’m not so sure. It’s a while since I read The Maltese Falcon, but The Glass Key, which I did re-read recently, struck me as terrific; and if I haven’t opened The Big Sleep in a while, I’ve certainly gone back to and admired what might be the best of Chandler, The Long Goodbye.
Where the novels are concerned, maybe we should settle for a draw?