A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

"By gad, sir, you are a character," says Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), with what Greenstreet's co-star Mary Astor once described as "that evil, hiccupy laugh." He is speaking to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), who is certainly a character, if decidedly not a man of character. There aren't many other films so full of characters, but so lacking any with what one might call a moral center. Spade, for one, proves that you can be both misogynistic and homophobic -- as if proof of that were needed. Does he do the right thing at the end when he sends Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Astor) up the river? Perhaps, but he does it with such relish that it's hard to ascribe any probity to the act. The Maltese Falcon is one of the greatest examples of hoodwinking the censors of the Production Code, which among other things forbade depictions of homosexuality on screen. But does anyone miss the fact that Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is meant to be gay -- from his fussy little perm to his teasing fondling of the handle of his umbrella to the scent of gardenia that Spade finds so amusing? And probably only the ignorance of Yiddish on the part of the Catholics in the Breen office allows Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) to be called a "gunsel" -- a word that originally meant a young man kept  by an older man for sex. Actually, it was Dashiell Hammett who slipped that one by the watchdogs in the original novel -- John Huston kept it, doubtless smiling the sly smile of someone who knows what he's getting away with. Even today, most people probably think like the Breen office and Hammett's editors, that it means a gunman. But Huston also got away with the clear indication that Spade had been having an affair with Iva Archer (Gladys George), the wife of his partner, Miles (Jerome Cowan). And is there anyone who doesn't realize that Spade has slept with Brigid? This was Huston's first feature as a director, and the result of all this Code-dodging, as well as his unwillingness to sentimentalize his characters, made him a formidable directorial force in the years to come, one of the few Hollywood directors who knew how to make movies for adults.