I wrote earlier today, apropos of The Turn of the Screw,
that “all good adaptations” of pre-existing works of art are “fairly free.” Alas, John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon momentarily slipped my mind. It’s extremely faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s novel. In fact, it’s said that Huston’s secretary prepared the first draft of the script by simply going through the book and retyping it as dialogue. That can’t be right, but it’s not far wrong. I don’t know a more literally adapted film version of a well-known book, or a better one.
Needless to say, the main reason why The Maltese Falcon works so well on screen–though by no means the only one–is Humphrey Bogart. He made the film, just as it made him. It focused his tough-guy persona in a way none of his previous films (except for Raoul Walsh’s masterly High Sierra, co-written by Huston) had quite managed to do. Minus Bogart, the movie would still have been good; any movie with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Ward Bond couldn’t have been bad. Still, I doubt it’d be half as well remembered today.
Of course somebody added a line to Hammett’s original, the best line (and best line reading) in the movie. At the very end, Bond picks up the statuette and asks what it is, to which Bogart rasps in wry reply, “The, uh…stuff that dreams are made of.” I gather there’s some question about how that Shakespearean snippet got into the script. Did Bogart improvise it, or did Huston write it? Either way, it’s a clear improvement on Hammett–though Philip Marlowe would have been more likely to quote from The Tempest than Sam Spade. But I never think about that when I’m watching The Maltese Falcon. In the moment, coming out of Bogart’s mouth, it rings true.