Danny Huston Talks Growing Up with 'The Maltese Falcon'

As John Huston's directorial debut turns 80 years old, his son speaks to its lasting legacy in film history.

The Maltese Falcon
Warner Bros.

Few show business families fit the bill of Hollywood royalty like the Hustons. Siblings Anjelica Huston and Danny Huston are not shy about recognizing the talent that has been a part of their family since the dawn of Hollywood with their grandfather Walter Huston and subsequently their father John Huston.

Walter was a legendary Hollywood actor, starring in such films as Dodsworth, And Then There Were None, and The Outlaw. John followed his father’s lead in Hollywood but began behind the camera. He wrote screenplays with some of the best filmmakers of the studio era and eventually took on directing his own films, many of which we consider classics to this day.

One of those classics, The Maltese Falcon, spearheaded the film noir genre in popular film and cemented Humphrey Bogart’s movie stardom as the no-nonsense tough guy. As it turns eighty years old this year and enters theaters again for a limited time, we talked again to Danny Huston about his father’s work on the film and where it stands in film history today.

It’s remarkable that this was John Huston’s first directing project, being that it is such a classic now. How did he feel about this movie in the context of the films he made after?

Because it was his first film, it was quite controlled. It was very storyboarded and he left no room for any accidents. It was very premeditated. I think he said that about three-quarters of the shots were all sketched out beforehand. But he left a certain amount of space for the actors, of course, to move. Then he was excitedly surprised at what they had to offer. That was the main difference. I don’t think a single word was changed [from the script].

Did that controlled pre-production planning continue into the rest of his career?

Especially with this movie because this was his first film. I mean he came in under budget. He had written some screenplays, but this was his first directing opportunity. My grandfather, Walter Huston, did a little cameo performance in this as a gesture of luck to please Jack Warner. So, it was a very controlled environment. I think it was later in his career that he was much freer and possibly more experimental.

How do you think your father’s screenwriting work with other great directors like Howard Hawks and William Wyler prepared him to direct?

I think Wyler, Hawks, and Henry Blanke all gave him advice and a few words of wisdom. I think one of them was to treat every scene like it is the most important one that you’re shooting. I think they very much influenced him and guided him.

How do you think this movie and your father’s other collaborations with Humphrey Bogart affected Bogart’s persona and how we remember him today?

I think the studio wanted to make the film with George Raft. He didn’t want to work with my father because he was a first-time director and he didn’t want to take the risk, much to my father’s chagrin. But he loved Bogart and then he was able to make this film with Bogart. That cemented a working relationship that lasted a long time. His next big film with Bogart was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Walter and my father both won Oscars. But yes, they ended up having a great friendship between them.

This version of The Maltese Falcon is the darkest in comparison to the two adaptations that came before it. Bleak stories seem to be what your father did very well. Why do you think he was drawn to stories like that?

Whether or not my father would agree with me on this or not, I don’t know, but I think one of his themes is greed. There’s the wonderful line [in this movie], “the stuff that dreams are made of,” that represents the human condition faced with greed. Whether that is unobtainable or is a dream of something that is unsubstantial, it gives you bad luck, like the Falcon or in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the way the gold returns back to whence it came. The man’s, I guess you could say, metal is tested in a way in the face of greed.

There’s a marvelous moment in The Maltese Falcon where Bogart is looking at the Falcon and they’re all scratching at it, chipping away at it with the penknife. I think it’s Sidney Greenstreet. You can see in Bogart’s face that maybe he would not have done the right thing if the Falcon had been real.

Later, then, my father went on to make war documentaries before returning to Hollywood. Maybe that’s a theme that occurs in my father’s work. It certainly does in The Man Who Would Be King, which was not noir. Or what was later called noir.

Do you remember the first time you watched The Maltese Falcon?

Well, my first dog was called Sam after Sam Spade, so before I knew it, elements of The Maltese Falcon were entering into my life. I remember in Ireland we would screen The Maltese Falcon. It was always a big deal to getting the film right in the projector and it would rip. We’d watch these scratched copies of my father’s films. The Maltese Falcon was always a favorite.

I remember watching my grandfather, whom I never met, walk in as the Captain and drop the Falcon in his cameo performance. People would say to me, “That’s your grandfather!” So it was something that was very much a part of my growing up. Then of course in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, my grandfather’s performance was much more visible and I thought he was a gold prospector.

What has The Maltese Flacon meant to you after your father passed?

I guess there’s this Huston quality that’s present in me, my sister Anjelica, my nephew Jack, and my brother Tony that there’s this sort of fun with the storytelling aspect as far as finding triumph in disaster and how man does when faced with certain situations. The way he gets back up. Those kinds of stories have always been a part of our family.

I remember hearing about my grandfather playing Othello on stage. He always wanted to play Othello, but it was not a success. It was a disaster. My father came early in the morning to show him the reviews and he heard laughter in my grandfather’s room. Then he answered the door and he was laughing, but he was also crying. They ended up using that laughter for the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. We have this sort of fascination with morality in a way.

This movie, and much of your father’s work, dispels the misconceptions people have about older Hollywood movies. Sometimes younger people can think that they’re boring or they’re sexless, but this movie is anything but that. Why else would you tell someone to watch this movie for the first time eighty years later?

As you say, yeah this movie is anything but that. The action is very much in the dialogue, though. It works at a tremendous pace. The angles of the camera, low angles to high angles, is kind of reckless but also very tight pace. The human morality and temptations are there for us now and [will] forever be there for us. It has the classic moments that, especially now when we feel kind of stopped, we look back on and it feels like we are finding a piece of treasure. In a way it has the appeal of metal, or gold, or a falcon. There are films that I think that are always relevant.

There’s this Sidney Greenstreet line when they’re about to throw Wilmer in as the fall guy and he says, “I couldn’t be fonder of you, as if you were my own son. But if you lose a son, you can always get another. There is only one Maltese Falcon.” That kind of delight in the greed of it all is so pure and so rich.

What do you think private detectives and hard-boiled characters mean to audiences today?

You asked earlier what it was like to revisit The Maltese Falcon today, and it would be very interesting to see what my father would be making today. The femme fatal aspect of this, thanks to Mary Astor in this, is so delicious. Her hesitant voice, her pleading eyes, and her candor are sententious.

This is just as much about one’s own weaknesses that are represented in the Falcon. It is about doing the right thing! When Bogart’s character is going to turn in Astor’s character for murdering his partner, it is something that kind of lurks within us. It is certainly something that needs to be looked at in the face of law and justice. We are faced with it in regard to where we are in society.

The Maltese Falcon returns to theaters on January 27th and 28th thanks to TCM and Fathom Events. You can find a theater near you showing the film here.

Future cool librarian. Current film history lover.