Huston's first film displays the hallmarks that were to distinguish his later work: the mocking attitude toward human greed; the cavalier insolence with which plot details are treated almost as asides; the delight in bizarre characterisations, here ranging from the amiably snarling Sam Spade ('When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it') who opened a whole new romantic career for Bogart, to Lorre's petulant, gardenia-scented Joel Cairo, Cook's waspishly effete gunsel, and Greenstreet's monstrously jocular Fat Man ('By gad, sir, you are a character'). What makes it a prototype film noir is the vein of unease missing from the two earlier versions of Hammett's novel. Filmed almost entirely in interiors, it presents a claustrophobic world animated by betrayal, perversion and pain, never - even at its most irresistibly funny, as when Cook listens in outraged disbelief while his fat sugar daddy proposes to sell him down the line - quite losing sight of this central abyss of darkness, ultimately embodied by Mary Astor's sadly duplicitous siren.
Cast and crew
Elisha Cook Jr