Many years ago, pre-Pandemic, I was in New York City for the weekend. It is something I do rarely, but SHE WHO WILL NOT BE BLOGGED has a deep and abiding love for Broadway and that’s where we were headed. Pre-show, we had drinks at a roof-deck bar at one of the W hotels. On an otherwise sunny spring day, the space between the buildings was shaded; the hotel was projecting, with surprising clarity, The Maltese Falcon.
I would have stayed at that bar all night, straight through the play. The Maltese Falcon is one of those movies that, when it comes on, I have a very hard time turning it off. But I value my life, my marriage, and, besides, I have the film on DVD.
Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, private investigator, partnered with a guy named Miles Archer. They’re partners, but not convincingly so.
In walks the dame, presenting as a Miss Wonderly. She wants to hire Spade and Archer to find her sister, who she says is in the clutches of a a Mr. Floyd Thursby. She wants them to follow Thursby to find out where he’s keeping her sister and help her convince the girl to leave San Francisco. And they take the case, not because they believe her – they do not – but because she has the cash and Wonderly is, apparently, a looker.
Archer is murdered with Thursby’s gun, a Webley. Thursby, too, is murdered about 30 minutes later.
Spade isn’t broken up by Archer’s murder… except he knows how it’ll look to the cops. Spade was banging Archer’s wife. He knows how it looks to her: she assumes Spade set it up so the two of them could be together. So it goes.
Complicating matters is that Wonderly isn’t real. She’s actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy (played by Mary Astor) and Thursby was her business partner. Thursby was helping her get a black, enameled bird out of Hong Kong. The bird – The Maltese Falcon – is extremely valuable and she was trying to keep it safe, she said. But maybe she was just trying to keep it for herself? She is trying hard to keep it away from Kasper Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet), who bankrolled the theft of the bird from a man in Russia, and the rest of his gang.
Astor’s character O’Shaughnessy is a straight-up sociopath. Every word she utters is calculated, usually giving just enough “truth” to get her out of a jam and on to the next conversation.
Spade knows that she’s lying. It’s easy for him. He thinks everyone is a liar. He is.
What he knows about the Falcon and the vultures hovering around it he learns from other characters, other sources. Not the woman who almost immediately professes to love him.
The only two people in the entire film who don’t lie with regularity are the gunsel, Wilmer and Joel Cairo. Wilmer, because he barely utters two words the whole picture. Cairo, because he really want to tell anyone and everyone about the Falcon. He literally trembles with excitement.
Peter Lorre is Joel Cairo. Lorre is in a number of my favs, including M, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Casablanca, also with Bogart. He’s quick to take Spade into his confidence, after their first interaction, and introduces us to the ‘Fat Man’ namely Kasper Gutman. Wilmer is Gutman’s boy, a hired gun who wears a too-large coat and carries around a pair of 45s that weight heavy in his hands.
Wilmer seems a little too devoted to Gutman, a devotion that is ultimately not reciprocated.
But as you can see from the clips above, especially in Cairo’s introduction, these two men, and Gutman, are present as gay. Cairo’s characterization is telegraphed: from the knowing nod between Spade and his secretary, Effie; their reaction to the gardenia-scented card; the jaunty soundtrack. Wilbur, less so. Spade keeps calling him gunsel, which makes him sound like a Eastern European tough guy. But he’s not; Wilbur is just out of short pants. Gunsel is Yiddish means for goose or gosling. Or in the slang of the time, per some online anecdotes, a gunsel was a young man kept by a much older man. There’s even an intimation that Gutman had another boyfriend, that he, regrettably, let take the fall for an earlier caper.
Speaking of Effie (Lee Patrick)… she and Archer’s wife are the only two other women in the film. But she is in many ways the complete opposite of either O’Shaughnessy or Archer’s wife. She does lie or cheat. She’s on the lookout for Spade’s wellbeing, cares for him when he’s hurt. She points out O’Shaughnessy is a looker, and trusts her for no other reason than her intuition. She’s the girl who drinks, beer, plays video games, talks sports. There are only two kinds of women in Spade’s life: the Madonna or the whore. Effie is the former; O’Shaughnessy the latter, a woman who tries to get what she wants at any cost.
To be fair to 1941, we really haven’t progressed much past either of these characterizations.
As I watch these films, Noir and their like, I’m starting to realize what I really enjoy about many of the best is their lack of moralizing. That is, there are no White Hats or Black Hats; people are people. They do good things, they do bad things. The protagonists, like Spade, take them as they are.
Spade can live with crime and murder and gunsel of all stripe, but what he can’t live with uncertainty. He wants an order to his world that accepts these people for who the are and the role they play. After all, without them, he wouldn’t have a job. O’Shaughnessy, though, is pure chaos. Spade may be a tremendous asshole in a world of titanic assholes, but he couldn’t live with her. He’d surely end up as dead as Archer or Thursby, or in prison like the rest of them.
The film is based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett, with a screenplay written and directed by John Huston. Hammett should get credit for the screenplay. The dialogue is lifted nearly word for word from the novel. And although we don’t Spade’s interior monologue, his reasoning behind decisions, Bogart lets us know them clearly in his own face.
You’ve probably heard the quote “the stuff that dreams are made of” during the Academy Awards or any other time Hollywood gets together to pat itself on the back. The clips is typically included in a montage of “great” films, traditionally sponsored by Coke or Ford. It’s from The Maltese Falcon, and Spade’s speaking specifically about the bird. By the end film, of course, we know what the bird is made of: lead and horseshit; greed and dead bodies.
I’m not sure Hollywood has ever learned the definition of “irony.”
One of my favorite film quotes, full stop:
Wilmer Cook Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver. Sam Spade The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.
There’s a whole lot of them, other than the “dreams” one. Check out the screenplay.