THE MALTESE FALCON (1941, Dir. John Huston)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) is the best known (and probably the best) of the various film adaptations of the novels of Dashiell Hammett. It is the third, and almost certainly the best, adaptation of the similarly-titled 1930 novel on which it is directly based. Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, stays scrupulously close to the original novel, filming it virtually scene by scene (with only a couple of sexually suggestive scenes from the book deleted, probably to help get the book past the Code censors). The dark subject matter of the book is enhanced in the film by a dark look, complete with exaggerated atmospheric shadows. The film is thus often considered one of the first works of the film noir—and it was indeed among the films discussed by the French critics who first gave film noir its name, though of course Huston was not consciously making a noir film at the time. The film was Huston’s directorial debut; it also helped to establish Humphrey Bogart, via his portrayal of Hammett’s rough-but-vulnerable detective, Sam Spade, as a major Hollywood star.

The Maltese Falcon begins with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, thus immediately establishing the San Francisco setting. It then moves into the first scene, as a “Miss Wonderly” (played by Mary Astor) comes to Spade’s office (though the window of which the bridge can be seen), ostensibly to hire him to help her find her missing sister, who has supposedly run off with a man by the name of Floyd Thursby. It’s an iconic scene that would be repeatedly in innumerable detective films. The office is modest, slightly seedy—both because Spade’s business is not that lucrative and because he is not one to be overly concerned with luxurious comforts. Meanwhile, Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine (Lee Patrick), announces Miss Wonderly by flirtatiously assuring Spade that he will definitely want to see the potential client, because she is “a knockout.” It’s 1941, of course, and such modes of assessing women were still common—this moment, in fact, was lifted virtually verbatim from the beginning of the novel, so the attitude goes back at least to 1930. Still, this scene tells us that Spade himself is accustomed to judging women according to their sexual attractiveness and that he is by no means oblivious to such things. We will learn, however, that he is no easy mark for a would-be seductress like “Miss Wonderly.”

Astor, incidentally, was a thirty-five-year-old actress with excellent screen credentials (she would win an Oscar for her performance in The Great Lie earlier in 1941), though she seems almost matronly compared with her character in Hammett’s novel, who is only twenty-two and described as a striking red-haired beauty. Spade’s caddish partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), meanwhile, seems an easier mark for her beauty than does Spade. As in the novel, agrees to handle the case personally in the film, after wolfishly ogling Miss Wonderly in a manner that makes the nature of his personal interest quite clear. That night, however, Archer is shot and killed while shadowing Thursby. Events move quickly in this film, and Thursby (who is never seen on screen) is shot and killed soon afterward. As Spade begins to investigate the killings (partly because the police seem to suspect him), it soon becomes clear that Miss Wonderly’s original story was a ruse—and, as the film proceeds, it will become clear that she is one of film noir’s first femme fatale figures.

Eventually, “Miss Wonderly” reveals that her real name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy and that she is in danger; however, she remains reluctant to explain the nature and source of this danger. Then Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) comes to Spade’s office, and, after a complex encounter in which Cairo is at one point knocked unconscious by Spade, offers Spade $5,000 to help recover a lost statuette of a black bird (the Maltese Falcon of the title).

Lorre is himself an interesting figure in film history. A Hungarian-born Jew who had starred in Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist crime drama M (1931), a key forerunner of film noir, Lorre fled to America when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, then continued his acting career in Hollywood—after a stop-off in Great Britain to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. By the time of The Maltese Falcon, he was already a recognizable figure to American audiences, having appeared in such films as Mad Love (1935), a highly interesting early horror film. However, he was best known to American audiences for having played a detective himself, appearing as Japanese detective Kentaro Moto in a series of no less than eight films from 1937 to 1939. Clearly designed to cash in on the popularity of the popular Charlie Chan film series, which had introduced its Chinese detective to American audiences in 1931, the films about Moto were also quite popular, though increasing concerns about Japan’s expansionist foreign policy made a Japanese hero problematic for American audiences by 1939. The December, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor ensured that the series was at an end.

The casting of a Hungarian Jewish actor to play a Japanese detective in “yellowface” was typical of Hollywood in the 1930s, when one foreign nationality seemed as good as another. Chan, for example, had been portrayed on film by the Swedish-born actor Warner Oland (who often played Chinese characters)—and in a rather racist manner that emphasized stereotypes about Asian subservience and obsessive concern with tradition, even though he was meant to serve as an alternative to more menacing “yellow peril” versions of Asian characters at the time. Moto was a relatively positive figure, though his exotic Asianness is always front-and-center in his films.

From this point of view, it is interesting that Lorre would be cast as Joel Cairo, bringing with him an association of the exotic in the minds of American audiences. Cairo, indeed, is himself represented with an air of the exotic—his very name suggestive of the Middle Eastern and North African cultures that Edward Said has seen as so central to Western “Orientalist” depictions of nonEuropeans. In his seminal 1978 book Orientalism, Said extensively documents the ways in which Western (especially French and British) scholars, writers, and artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to describe the Middle East through a consistent series of stereotypes designed to demonstrate the superiority of the West to the East and to define the West through opposition to an inferior East. Easterners, according to the discourse of Orientalism, were lazy, illogical, and given to fits of passion; Westerners, on the other hand, were hard-working, rational, and responsible. The East (viewed as a homogenous realm that included essentially everything but Western Europe and its direct cultural spinoffs, such as North America and Australia) was mired in ancient beliefs, resistant to change, yet also in a state of decay, having reached its peak centuries ago but now having slid into decadence and moral and political weakness. The West, in contrast, was represented as vibrant, democratic, open to progress. For Said, such stereotypes formed an important part of the background to colonialism, helping to create attitudes that made the European colonization of most of the nonEuropean world seem right and natural.

 For Said, one of the most common Orientalist stereotypes involves an air of mysterious and exotic sexuality, and it is probably no accident that Cairo seems vaguely homosexual—though of course the Production Code made it impossible to make this characterization explicit—as it is in the novel. In any case, Cairo is clearly depicted as sneaky, conniving, and untrustworthy—all of which are standard stereotypes applied to Arabs in Orientalist discourse. (In the novel, Cairo is also identified as having “Levantine” features, further identifying him with the Arab Middle East.[1]) Meanwhile, Cairo’s depiction is only one of a number of aspects of The Maltese Falcon that seem to carry Orientalist resonances. For example, O’Shaughnessy reveals to Spade that she originally met Thursby “in the Orient” and that they had recently come to San Francisco from Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the portly art dealer who is the leading figure among a group of shady characters seeking the statuette, stays at the Alexandria Hotel while in San Francisco (and departs for Istanbul at the end of the film). The statuette itself is a rather exotic artifact with rather Orientalist intonations. A sort of MacGuffin[2] in the film, the bird was originally made, according to on-screen text that appears at the beginning of the film, by the Knights Templar (the tect actually says “Knight Templars”) in 1539. Unfortunately, this attribution is clearly incorrect. The Knights Templar were a Catholic military order officially active from 1119 to 1312 AD. and closely associated with the Crusades through which Europe attempted to seize control of the Holy Lands from Islam, an experience that was crucial to setting the terms for the development of Orientalist discourse. However, the Knights Templar were officially banned in 1312 by Pope Clement V for fear that they were gaining excessive power, though they subsequently became the stuff of legend and were widely rumored to still be operating in secret.

Spade soon concludes that Brigid is the only one who knows the location of this mysterious bird, though he himself seems more fascinated by Brigid herself than by the falcon or by the cash that the falcon might bring. However, his attempt to negotiate a deal between her and Cairo is soon complicated by the arrival on the scene of Gutman, accompanied by his noxious henchman, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Gutman tells Spade that the bird was made by the “Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Rhodes and other things.” He goes on to explain (revising the opening on-screen text) that, in 1539, these Knights, also crusaders, persuaded Emperor Charles V to lease them the island of Malta, with the stipulation that they would subsequently pay a symbolic yearly tribute of one falcon to acknowledge that Malta was still officially ruled by Spain. To show their gratitude (and to display their wealth), they decided to pay a tribute for the first year, not of an actual live bird, but of a magnificent jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon, which is the object indicated in the film’s title. Then the statuette was stolen by pirates in route to the emperor, subsequently disappearing and then periodically resurfacing in various places ever since, meanwhile picking up a coat of black enamel to disguise its true value. As Gutman explains of the Knights in the film, indicating the probable value of the statuette, “For years they had taken from the East nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivory, sir. We all know the Holy Wars to them were largely a matter of loot.” This story is reasonably believable in a historical sense. In 1530, Charles V (who was both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain) granted control of Malta to the Knights Hospitaller (aka the Order of St. John and the Knights of Malta), and they did indeed agree to pay an annual tribute of one live Maltese falcon to show their loyalty—though the motif of a fabulous bejeweled bird seems to have been invented entirely by Hammett and to have no basis in history. The Knights then ruled Malta until it was captured by Napoleon in 1798, having successfully fended off an invasion from the Ottoman Empire in 1565.

Why the opening on-screen text misidentifies the bird as having been made by the “Knight Templars” is a matter for conjecture, though my own guess is that it was simply a mistake, possibly triggered by the fact that, in the novel, Gutman notes that “We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot.” Here, though, Gutman is clearly distinguishing the Knights of Malta from the Knights Templar and is simply suggesting that both had similar venal purposes in the Crusades, while the adaptation of the line to the film omits that comparison. Whatever the reason, though, the error in the opening on-screen text is actually highly appropriate and fits in perfectly with all the misinformation that circulates throughout the film, in which no one seems to believe anything they hear from anyone else and everyone keeps jockeying for position in the information sweepstakes.

After a series of complex and suspenseful turns in which each character (except Spade) tries to out-betray all the others, the statuette finally emerges, but turns out to be a fake, apparently substituted for the real bird by the Russian general from whom it was stolen (just before the events of the film) by Thursby, O’Shaughnessy, and Cairo, acting as Gutman’s agents. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that Cook killed Thursby, as well as Jacoby (Walter Huston, the Oscar-winning father of the director, in a brief, uncredited appearance), the captain of the ship that brought the statuette in from Hong Kong. Indeed, it is important to note the international background of the falcon statuette: it has moved about Europe and Asia for centuries and has only just arrived in America from the Far East, giving it an air of the exotic. Similarly, with the exception of Cook, Spade’s antagonists in the film—to Gutman and Cairo one could add O’Shaughnessy—are all cosmopolitan figures who have just arrived in America. As Michael Walker notes, this film is made more politically conservative by the fact that the corruption of its noir world comes from abroad, just as 1930s horror movies typically depicted their supernatural terrors occurring outside of America (33). Spade, of course, is staunchly American, and to an extent the oppositions of the film can be seen as American virtue vs. foreign corruption.

Spade, though toned down in the film relative to the novel, is anything but an idealized, saintly figure—but that of course only makes him seem all the more American. A staunch individualist, he is unswerving in his support of good vs. evil, but he conceives that opposition in his own terms and refuses to have it defined for him by others, including official institutions. Thus, Spade is portrayed in the film as having a very uneasy (one might even say antagonistic) relationship with the police, which helps to further his characterization as an independent thinker who plays by his own rules rather than submitting to the expectations of polite society. From this point of view, it is important to note that hard-boiled detectives such as Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe tend to be self-employed: too independent and individualistic to bow to the requirements of an employer, they are instead self-employed small businessmen, making them even more emblematic of the American dream. Spade, as this film begins, does have a partner, but it is worth noting how quickly he removes Archer’s name from the signs painted on his door and window once the latter is killed.

Eventually, though, Spade does cooperate with authority to an extent, as he puts the cops onto Gutman, Cook, and Cairo, who then arrest the lot of them. Spade then has a final confrontation with O’Shaughnessy, with whom he has developed a romantic relationship in the course of the investigation—though one that is as uneasy as his relations with the police. The film adds much more of an element of romance than is present in the novel, among other things stipulating at several points that Spade is virtually irresistible to women: O’Shaughnessy and Archer’s widow practically throw themselves at him, while Effie clearly has an ongoing crush on him. Spade likes women, too, but not to the point that he would ever relinquish his cherished independence in order to be with one. He seems vaguely fond of Effie in a condescending way (addressing her with labels such as “precious” that would no doubt be frowned upon today in an employer-employee relationship). And there is an element of outright hostility toward women in general that lies at the heart of his interactions with O’Shaughnessy and Mrs. Archer—something that was apparently, at the time, taken as an emblem of masculine strength. Among other things, his take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward women affords him the space to avoid being taken in by O’Shaughnessy’s charms. He deduces that it was O’Shaughnessy who killed Archer, hoping Thursby would be blamed and thus eliminated from the picture. She, in turn, pleads her love for Spade and asks him not to tell the police that she killed Archer. He admits that he might possibly be in love with her as well (leaving out some important qualifiers that accompany—and somewhat undermine—this declaration in the novel) but explains that, despite his lack of affection for Archer, it is his duty as a detective not to let the killing of his partner go unpunished: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” It’s a sort of 1940s version of “bros before hoes,” with the added element that his loyalty here is not so much to Archer as a person as it is to his own profession and to his belief in a certain code of conduct to which persons in that profession should adhere. In addition, he explains that, in the detective business, it is simply bad business to let someone in your organization get killed and then do nothing about it. Finally, Spade points out that he, as an individualist who always looks out for number one, is not willing to endanger himself to protect her, whatever his feelings for her may be. He thus turns a deaf ear to her pleas and ultimately turns her over to the police as well, foregoing her considerable charms and once again demonstrating that his strength and rectitude cannot be compromised by a mere woman.

Of course, it helps here that O’Shaughnessy is a rather unscrupulous sort, but it is also the case that Spade’s treatment of her is part of a pattern of antagonism toward almost everyone else in the film, to whom he seems to feel superior because they do not live up to his ethical standards. In fact, Spade is a bit of a bully. Not only does he run roughshod over the women he encounters in the course of the film, but he rather seems to take pleasure in roughing up the small, effeminate Cairo and the small, ineffectual Cook. In one key scene, taken almost directly from the novel, O’Shaughnessy and Spade meet with Cairo in Spade’s apartment. The meeting quickly becomes violent, as O’Shaughnessy slaps Cairo—though, in the novel, O’Shaughnessy and Cairo both slap each other.[3] In both versions, Spade quickly steps in. When Cairo then complains about his continual rough treatment at the hands of Spade, the detective exerts his masculine dominance by declaring, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” Then he slaps the smaller man a few more times. Minutes later, somewhat complicating the gender politics of the film, Cairo also gets knocked around by O’Shaughnessy (in both the film and the novel), furthering his humiliation—which is then completed when he whines to the police about his mistreatment at the hands of both Spade and O’Shaughnessy. Spade then quickly talks himself out of trouble, but not before one of the police slaps him. In the novel, this blow is an actual punch to the chin, and one can speculate that it is downgraded to a slap to help placate the Code censors. In any case, the effect of all this slapping (more often than not figured as a feminine form of violence in American culture) is to complicate both the gender politics of the film and the characterization of Spade, who is humanized and made to seem less brutal once he himself becomes the recipient of a slap. He is not, however, made to appear weak: indeed, another cop has to intercede to prevent him from clocking the one who slapped him.

Cable pick of the day (03/12/14): The Maltese Falcon, on TCM
Tough guy Sam Spade threatens the effeminate Joel Cairo.
Sam Spade rejects Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s pleas not to turn her over to the police.

Later, when Cook confronts Spade and attempts to march him up to see Gutman, Spade easily disarms him and instead marches him up to see the boss, making a joke of the whole thing in order to humiliate Cook as much as possible. Meanwhile, comic musical cues accompany this whole sequence, emphasizing how ludicrous it had been for Cook to believe he could strongarm a man like Spade. For his part, Spade hands Cook’s guns over to Gutman and sardonically claimed that a “crippled newsie” took them away from Cook, but Spade made the newsie give them back. Gutman seems amused at Cook’s plight and impressed by Spade’s bravado. “You’re a chap worth knowing,” he declares. “An amazing character!”

Cook, then, is clearly feminized in this scene, and it might be worth noting that Spade repeatedly refers to the small man as a “gunsel,” a term that is used only once in the novel. A “gunsel” is, traditionally, a younger man kept as a subservient homosexual lover by an older, dominant male. Hammett reportedly used the term because he assumed his editors would allow it to pass, assuming that it referred to the fact that Cook was carrying a gun. That strategy carried over into the film, where the Code censors clearly missed its homosexual implications, allowing Spade to declare both Cook and Gutman to be gay and still get past the Code. Such strategies were common in Code era films—the use of gay imagery in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) by the gay director James Whale being perhaps the most notorious example.[4]

Unlike Bride of Frankenstein, however, there is no indication that The Maltese Falcon is particularly interested in challenging typical depictions of gender in Hollywood at the time, even though O’Shaughnessy clearly prefigures later femme fatale figures. Then again, this film is clearly designed primarily for entertainment and does not seem particularly interested in delivering any sort of weighty message. For example, the exaggerated lighting effects work well with the equally exaggerated tough-guy dialogue to give the film a rather campy feel that never interferes with the suspense but merely adds to the fun. Spade’s own behavior is highly theatrical, and he is often self-consciously playing role. In one scene, for example, he displays a violent (and seemingly excessive) outburst of temper in the midst of a conversation with Gutman. He bursts angrily out of Gutman’s suite and then is seen wearing a self-congratulatory grin as he walks down the hall—he had clearly staged his anger for Gutman’s benefit. An expert at contrived dialogue, Spade refuses to fall for it in others. When the diminutive Cook colorfully threatens him at one point, Spade simply smirks and says, “the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

Nevertheless, The Maltese Falcon has considerable depth and numerous possible political implications. For one thing, the film’s entire cast of characters is engaged in a furious and ruthless dog-eat-dog pursuit of wealth, as when Gutman at one point agrees to sacrifice Cook, who is “like a son” to him, to the police so the others can go free and share the bounty. Placed within the context of this suggestion that selfish concerns supersede personal relationships, Spade’s rejection of O’Shaughnessy appears less laudable. In any case, the entire quest motif of the film has potential implications as an allegory of capitalist greed. On the other hand, though the characterization of Spade, who winds up alone and friendless by the end of the film, might be taken as a criticism of the ideology of individualism, it is also the case that the film seems to encourage an admiration for his strength in not letting his feelings (especially for a woman) cloud his judgment. Nor is Spade one who would ever be taken in by the lust for wealth that drives the others to the extreme of murder in their quest for the bird.

Spade’s incorruptibility and his cynicism make for a somewhat odd combination, though, creating a discordant effect that is one of the most interesting aspects of The Maltese Falcon. The tension between Spade’s belief that virtually everyone is corrupt and his own refusal to be corrupted might be taken as an enactment of the basic mismatch between the dark vision of Hammett’s hard-boiled fiction and the usual idealized products of Hollywood. This same tension, of course, is common in film noir as a whole, the cynicism of which conducts an ongoing subversive critique of the more saccharine products of the Hollywood dream factory. The Maltese Falcon, because it comes so early in the noir cycle, can be seen as a groundbreaking film in this respect. Thus, R. Barton Palmer argues that the film’s refusal to smooth over the basic conflict between Hollywood and hard-boiled fiction is what makes The Maltese Falcon a landmark of American cinema. Noting that Huston’s film was actually the third film adaptation of Hammett’s novel, Palmer argues that the Huston film differs from the earlier adaptations in that it involves a “full accommodation of Hammett’s pessimism and social critique. Said another way, the earlier versions manifest a more complete reconciliation of Hammett’s vision of greed, betrayal, and anomie to the mainstream optimism of Hollywood film” (37).

Again, however, we should not overestimate the seriousness of the film’s project. James Naremore, for example, emphasizes the theatricality of the film, noting that The Maltese Falcon is “strikingly witty, especially at the level of performance” (61). The film is, in fact, highly stylized: Bogart memorably plays Spade not as a realistic private detective but as a literary private detective. All of the other characters are similarly stylized, an effect that is greatly aided by the superb, somewhat larger-than-life cast, who, as a group, somehow manage to produce performances that are over the top and understated at the same time. The look of the film is very stylish as well, almost a bit too stylish for the consistent mood of cynicism that inhabits the entire film. But this very stylishness is itself cynical, providing a constant reminder of the artificiality of the film, which, like the counterfeit nature of the Maltese Falcon itself, potentially makes a statement about the mendacity and inauthenticity of American popular culture and American society as a whole.

WORKS CITED

Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Walker, Michael. “Film Noir: Introduction.” The Book of Film Noir. Ed. Ian Cameron. New York: Continuum, 1993. 8–38.

NOTES


[1] The “Levant” is the area of the Middle East comprising Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, often expanded to include Turkey, Iraq, or even Egypt.

[2] Especially associated with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is an object that the protagonist and other characters pursue, thus driving the plot.

[3] In the novel, much more than the film, there are hints that this violence arising from a long-term antagonism between O’Shaughnessy and Cairo, including a suggestion that they might have been rivals for the romantic attentions of a certain “boy” back in Istanbul.

[4] Subsequently, the term “gunsel” has been widely used to indicate a criminal who carries a gun, so this ruse has exerted considerable influence on the English language.