There were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic. He made a florid, sybaritic monster. His Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (41, John Huston) was very close to Hammett’s conception, perpetually devious and vet tickled by such a complicated plot and by Spade’s professionalism. It was a happy chance that his first film put him in the company of Peter Lorre, for they were inspired, tormenting company held together by some unspoken perversity.
He took what came thereafter: They Died With Their Boots On (41, Raoul Walsh); Across the Pacific (42, Huston); Casablanca (43, Michael Curtiz); Danger (43, Walsh); Passage to Marseilles (44, Curtiz) and the Eric Ambler adaptation. The Mask of Dimitrios (44, Jean Negulesco), both with Lorre. IBs long stage career was now subsumed by Warners’ shadowy melodrama: tormenting Bogart in Conflict (45, Curtis Bernhardt); Christmas in Connecticut (45, Peter Godfrey); Pillow to Post (45, Vincent Sherman); with Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald as Three Strangers (46, Negulesco); as Thackeray in the Brontes’ biopic Devotion (46, Bernhardt); as a Victorian London police inspector in The Verdict (46, Don Siegel), his last film with Lorre; The Hucksters (47, Jack Conway) at MGM; Ruthless (48, Edgar G. Ulmer); as
Wilkie Collins’s Count Fosco in The Woman in White (48, Godfrey); with Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (49, Curtiz); and Malaya (49, Richard Thorpe). It is difficult not to believe that he is still in search of the falcon—“Ah yes, sir, the falcon!”
It has always been a convention of the film industry to “introduce” potent new players. But few introductions have been as dramatic as that of Greenstreet: monstrous, over sixty, hostile, and so clearly familiar with every wrinkle in the world’s corruption. Where could such hulk have been hiding? (In fact, he was a seasoned stage actor, a regular with the Lunts.) How would audiences feel less than cheated that he had been withheld for so long? To redress the balance, Warners worked him hard over the next eight years—twenty-four pictures—forgetting perhaps that he was an old man who needed to sit down for as much of a film as possible.