The Maltese Falcon (directed by John Huston in 1941) and The Wild Ones (directed by Laslo Benedek in 1954) offer an interesting cinematic and social comparison. Although made only thirteen years apart, the two films seem to be indicative of distinctive generations. The comparison comes down ultimately to the contrast between Humphrey Bogart, the charismatic star of the forties, and Marlon Brando, the corresponding figure of the fifties. Each one displays the characteristically brutal personality that won them such large followings.
The Maltese Falcon was a break for Humphrey Bogart. The role of Sam Spade, the detective, was first offered to George Raft, who declined it because he wouldn’t take a chance on rookie director John Huston. Huston, in his first feature, went on to fashion the Dashiell Hammett thriller into a film so good, it gave a new dimension to the film noir genre.
Hammett knew the score with detectives (he was once one, himself) – they were basically antisocial cops, but smarter, more mercenary and sinister. Huston did nothing to soften Sam Spade’s character, and the supporting cast (Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor) was near perfection. The only alteration from the original story was the omission of Hammett’s final scene, when Effie realizes what a bastard Spade is. Whether Huston is responsible for this cut or not, it actually improves the story by omitting petty moralizing as well as leaving Spade to the viewer’s ultimate judgement. Bogart’s portrayal is one of his best. His voice and demeanor are perfectly suited for the delivery of such lines as, “Sorry, angel, I have a pressing date with a fat man.”
The Wild One’s, starring Brando and Lee Marvin, was Laslo Benedek’s only decent film. Like many films of its day, it tried to understand the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency in terms of cheesy psychology. Hollywood’s explanation of the alienated antihero of the 30's is poverty. In turn, the antihero of the 40's was supposed to be that way as a result of corruption and war. The preposterous explanation of the 50's was that boys went bade because they weren’t loved enough. These concluding explanations, however, didn’t snow the youth of the time, who perfectly understood the characters of Brando and James Dean and then jeered at the cop-out answer to the problem. Brando’s performances were so good during this time that they carried the entire movies along with them.
I’m sure Benedek didn’t even understand what Brando was doing, but young people all over the country were almost fanatical in their appreciation and empathy. Brando’s inarticulate frustration was a rejection of the entire society – but an individual, not a socially oriented rejection. The war was over, and the plastic American dream was here. Brando’s nihilism was emblematic of the “no” that came from the guts, ignorant of the relatively well-developed and sophisticated youth culture that made antiestablishmentarianism so fashionable later on.
The Bogart and Brando characters are not essentially tied to their decades, however. Brando is raw – the total drop out. Bogart, on the other hand, has not gone so far – or maybe he’s come back part way. He’s out to use everyone and everything for his own cynical purposes. Richard Shickel, commenting on the Bogart character, said of him,
"His special knowledge was of the jungle of the city at night – which clubs the syndicate ran, which one-arm restaurants served good coffee, which hotels a whore could use, which streets were safe to walk upon after midnight.Richard Brooks, the gifted writer-director, had particularly revealing comments to make –
It was this detailed knowledge that set Bogart apart from the ordinary lonely male; it was the rightness of the setting, mood, and dialogue that established empathy with him.”
“Somehow you identify with this fellow. I think that’s what kids today see in him. He’s a man and not a raw kid, and willing to put his life on the line. He’s not, interestingly enough, like James Dean and other characters they identify with. He is not a lost soul in any of his films.★★★★
He knew what he stood for and is masculine and, of course, he could say so much in so few words. . . . For one thing, he was not a sentimentalist. That is important to people today. It’s not a sentimental world we’re living in as far as the youth is concerned today.”