In honor of the December celebration of the year 1941 over at the Past Offenses blog, I checked out the film scene and discovered that two of my favorite mysteries of all time were made that year. I’m a huge fan of film noir, a very brief era that actually began after World War II for a number of social and economic reasons. But the elements of noir – the distinctive lighting and camera work, the dark tone of plot and character – all of the cool stuff that could be found first in the literature of American pulp magazines also began to appear on the screen early in the decade and actually reaches back as far as German Expressionism. Even a masterpiece like Citizen Kane – coincidentally made in 1941 – contained a wellspring of visual cues that would be adapted to noir, largely due to the deep focus lens and amazing camera work of cinematographer Gregg Toland. As a matter of fact, given that the plot is all about discovering the identity of Rosebud, I’d say that three great mysteries were released in ’41.
Kane was Orson Welles’ first film, the beginning of one of the most tumultuous directing careers in Hollywood history. Meanwhile, over at Warner Brothers, a young screenwriter named John Huston was given a chance to direct his first film. He chose to remake a movie that had already failed twice at the box office; in fact, the first version couldn’t even get by the censors! Why Jack Warner allowed this I do not know, but Huston ended up creating one of the greatest films of all time: The Maltese Falcon, a mystery par excellence and one of those movies that can be viewed over and over again with pleasure.
I don’t think I could offer any observations about Falcon that are fresh and new, so I will simply list the things that I think make it great:
- It adheres faithfully to its source. Dashiell Hammett’s novel crackles with wit and suspense, and the dialogue in particular propels you through the book at a mad pace. Whole snatches of the screenplay are lifted straight out of the book, all to its benefit. And what story better combines the elements of mystery with the dash of adventure of which the hunt for the black bird consists? The plot twists and turns without ever losing you, unlike the labyrinthian craziness of a Chandler story! And the finale contains a series of reversals that surprise and delight first-time and veteran viewers alike.
- Huston worked a lot like Hitchcock in that he planned every detail of every scene, working so well in advance that he never went over budget and could allow time for his cast to rehearse. And it shows in every frame, with not a wasted image. I think of the moment when Sam Spade is awakened to learn about the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. The scene is shot in darkness, and yet we feel the immediacy of Sam’s reaction to the news just from his voice in the shadows. Or the sound of violins making a catlike squeak as Spade sniffs the gardenia scent on Joel Cairo’s calling card, a musical cue that speaks volumes about the character before he even appears on screen. Or the amazing detail to Mary Astor’s costume, placement and lighting that foretells her fate at the end.
- That cast! Oh man! If you want to argue that Mary Astor wasn’t the right choice for Brigid O’Shaughnessey, well, I’ll give that one to you, although after watching this movie a hundred times, I cannot imagine another actress who could better portray her cool treachery. But Bogart! He has never been more playful, more sexual, more simultaneously honest and duplicitous. You feel here, as you do in the book, that Sam Spade would bend any rule to get what he wants, yet there is no more honorable man in San Francisco! And he has the perfect cohort in Lee Patrick’s Effie Perine, who almost puts Della Street to shame when it comes to loyalty to her boss.
- That magnificently played trio of villains! This was Sidney Greenstreet’s first film, and his Kaspar Gutman, with an amazing laugh and the way his enormous body navigates almost daintily through each scene, dominates the screen. Then there’s Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, who manages to be both the comic center of the movie and a beacon of danger, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer, Gutman’s gunsel (read lover) with his dead eyes and ineffectual bursts of violence.
- The chemistry between the players, the director, the script and the camera. All you have to do is watch the first Maltese Falcon from 1931, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. Good script, fine actors, but something’s missing. Out of this film, Huston and Bogart forged a friendship that would last through their lives and earn each of them his only Oscar. Bogie, Greenstreet and Lorre would reunite the following year for another little movie called Casablanca! I hear Ingrid Bergman watched Falcon over and over so that she could find that same chemistry with her co-star. Greenstreet and Lorre would make nine films together and, yes, the Fat Man always played a variation of Kaspar Gutman. Then, after his film career dried up, he had the time to play Nero Wolfe beautifully on the radio in the 1950 – 51 season.
As for Elisha Cook, Jr., he appeared in well over sixty films, including noir classics like Phantom Lady (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). He’s just about the only character actor in Rosemary’s Baby who is not a witch! And in 1941, when he appeared in five other films besides Falcon, one of those happened to be my other favorite mystery of 1941 . . . I Wake Up Screaming.
Mystery film lovers knew they were in good hands here, for the film’s director, H. Bruce Humberstone, had helmed four of the very best of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan films (Charlie Chan at the Race Track, . . . at the Opera, . . . at the Olympics and . . . in Honolulu), as well as a Philo Vance movie, The Dragon Murder Case (1934) before he created this, one of the best “pre-noir” noir films. Sadly, this was the last mystery he would direct, turning instead to musicals and Tarzan films to finish out his career.
Screaming begins in the best noir fashion, with Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, a talent promoter, being grilled under the harsh lights of a police interrogation room. All the cops are in shadows as they try to pin the murder of beautiful Vicky Lynn on Frankie. The evidence against him is damning. Can he find a way to prove his innocence and bring the real killer to justice?
The whodunit plays out both in present time and through a series of flashbacks as the different suspects tell their version of events. Frankie finds an unlikely ally in the murdered girl’s sister Jill, played by Betty Grable, and their romance softens the movie somewhat, especially whenever “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays in the background. Alan Mowbray, Allyn Joslyn, and Elisha Cook, Jr. make an excellent trio of suspects, and the film would have gone down in history as a nice little picture except for one secret weapon that boosted it into creepy greatness: Laird Cregar!
Cregar was a fine stage actor who had also excelled in various dramatic and comic roles in film. Screaming propelled him into the upper echelons of screen villains, a place he increasingly could not escape. His role as Detective Ed Cornell lifts the film into another sphere. Every moment that sends chills down your back involves Cregar, but the less said about that, the better. You simply have to experience it. Sadly, his career was cut short by his premature death three years later.
The influence of The Maltese Falcon and I Wake Up Screaming – and, yes, of Citizen Kane – on the genre of film noir that would spring up five years later cannot be underestimated. For that reason, and for the way these films stand on their own merit, I will always bestow an ovation on Hollywood in 1941