Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

The characters of The Maltese Falcon are sharply delineated, their true natures and relationships revealed gradually, with delicate scriptoral and directorial control. Especially strong are the supporting performances of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr., three men desperately in search of the Falcon. All are portrayed as homosexual—the fag antique collector cliché gone mad—and are set in sharp contrast to Bogart’s Sam Spade. Spade, first seen as a generous, solicitous, conscientious investigator, is progressively revealed to be hard-hearted, mercenary, impulsively violent and frequently sadistic. By the film’s finale the real human being inside his shell has emerged as a near-psychotic. Spade is isolated sexually. He dominates women (Lee Patrick as his secretary, Effie), or he resists them (Gladys George as Iva Archer, his dead partner’s wife), or he methodically destroys them (Mary Astor as Brigid). He delights in beating weaker men and flaunting his superiority over them (Lorre’s Joel Cairo, Cook’s Wilmer the gunsel), and in systematically baiting and humiliating stronger but slower men (Barton MacLane and Ward Bond as the police detectives). For his equals, he feels virtually nothing—if indeed he believes he has any equals. “Have Archer’s desk moved out of here and take his name off the window,” he tells Effie the day after his partner (Jerome Cowan) is murdered.

Indeed, Spade’s only match is Caspar Gutman, the “Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet). Greenstreet portrays him with such style and confidence that by the film’s end Spade comes off a poor second, despite his Pyrrhic victory. Though we hear Spade betray Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer to the cops, and Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) remarks, “We got ’em,” we don’t for a moment believe it. Brigid is taken away before our eyes, and she has deserved it; but to our minds Gutman and Cairo remain free. The Fat Man and his catty little friend must continue their search for the Falcon, for the characters and their quest are made to seem to us eternal. This is accomplished principally through Greenstreet’s enchanting delivery of the story of his search for the Falcon, and the expressed intention of Gutman and Cairo to join forces again in renewing the quest after the bogus bird is unveiled.

The film creates an eerie, almost evil atmosphere, and not because of the evil doings of its plot. There is something more at work, something insidiously, desperately discomforting under the surface. It is partly this that makes us hesitant to believe that a mere “Got ’em” from Ward Bond can put an end to such a carefully woven spell. The film is like the Falcon, building tension to an unbearable degree until it finally reveals itself (in both the statuette and the character of Spade) to be a fake. There is shattering disappointment at first, and anger that our hopes and expectations have been betrayed. But then we recognize that any finale would have been anticlimactic. Just as the anticipation of seeing the Falcon has bound Gutman and Cairo together as friends and lovers, so has it bound the viewer to the screen. To have found the real Falcon at last would be a disruptive letdown. But this finale is upbeat, an exhilarating realization that now the search can continue, and we are swept away again in thrilled pursuit of the secrets of wealth and evil. Viewing the film today, one can chalk up Ward Bond’s “We got ’em” as mere lip service to the Hays Code’s interdict on the portrayal of unpunished crime. We prefer to believe that Gutman and Cairo go free to pursue the Falcon once more. A perverse truth about human nature is revealed, even as it eludes us: it is the searching, the plotting, the intrigue and the killing that fascinate us, not the goal, not the actual getting. The means are everything, the end is nothing. This Sierra Madre philosophy has remained true of Huston’s films right up through The Kremlin Letter. In The Maltese Falcon the end justifies the most evil and hideous of means, but it is the means themselves, and never the end, that provide the real fascination, both for the film’s characters and for us, the voyeurs.

Copyright © 1973 Robert C. Cumbow

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
Direction: John Huston. Screenplay: Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Music: Adolph Deutsch. Production: Hal B. Wallis for Warner Bros.–First National.
The Players: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, Lee Patrick, Gladys George, Jerome Cowan, Walter Huston (bit).


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