By Scott Ross
Late in John Huston’s just about perfect adaptation of The Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tells his unreliable paramour Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) that they have to get their stories straight for the police who will arrive within minutes. In Spade’s memorable phrase, “We’re both of us sitting under the gallows!” Huston in his memoirs maintains that he saw no particular continuity of style in his work — an unconscious echo of Andrew Sarris’ typically rash condemnation of him — and while this may be true on a purely technical level, yet Huston had a theme peculiar to him and to which he returned again and again in the screenplays he adapted from the novels of others: What I think of as group excursions toward failure. In picture after picture Huston’s characters are sitting under the gallows… and, one way or another, they usually hang.
Sometimes the “group” is two people (Prizzi’s Honor) and occasionally the failure falls on a solitary figure only (Moulin Rouge, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, The Dead). But in nearly every movie John Huston directed, whether he wrote (or co-authored) the screenplay, and whether the tone is dramatic, comic, serio-comic or satirical, his protagonists do not succeed. It is a motif as obvious, and as pervasive, as those of disguise and deception in Billy Wilder’s movies, or loneliness and loss of innocence in Orson Welles’. Only when the movie is a romantic adventure (The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a “biopic” (Freud), an adaptation of a play (Key Largo, The Night of the Iguana) or a fantasy of one sort or another (Victory, Annie) do the central characters succeed… and even then, their triumph is usually muted and may even seem like punishment. Does Richard Burton’s Reverend Shannon look overjoyed at the end of Iguana when he says he may have some trouble “getting back up the hill” and Ava Gardner’s Maxine ripostes, “I’ll get you back up, baby. I’ll always get you back up”? Huston famously argued with Tennessee Williams over Maxine during the shooting of the picture; the playwright saw her as a spider, and she is. Shannon is her fly, and he knows it. But then, the director regarded Williams’ attitude as a misogynist/homosexual response to an earthy, sensual heterosexual woman. That Williams was forever wedded to the many sympathetic portraits of women in his work (including, along with the neurotic, some notably erotic ones) and that Huston’s own misogyny is legend, puts paid to the argument between them.*
While one would have to be a trained psychologist perhaps to comprehend what in Huston’s weird mind drew him to his principal theme, or identified it as important — perhaps, as with his colleague and friend Orson Welles it was disappointment at finding himself a mediocre painter — one has only to think of the prospectors of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the criminals in The Asphalt Jungle (co-written with Ben Maddow); the adventurers and criminals in Beat the Devil (Huston with Truman Capote); the mariners of Moby-Dick (Huston with Ray Bradbury); The Misfits (Arthur Miller); the spies of The Kremlin Letter; and the hopeful imperialist duo in The Man Who Would Be King (both by Huston with his associate Gladys Hill), to see the pattern.
So it is entirely in character that John Huston should end the screenwriting phase of his career with High Sierra, whose doomed ex-con Roy “Mad Dog” Earle both enhanced Humphrey Bogart’s profile and set the downbeat standard for Huston’s more mature work as a writer-director (and, later, director of others’ scripts.) His major weakness, as Lawrence Grobel pointed out in his mutli-generational biography The Hustons,† was his predilection for second-rate literature — for W.R. Burnett and Rudyard Kipling as opposed to, say, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder (although he got to Wilder just before he died). Of course it can be argued, and indeed I have done so elsewhere, that the greatest prose resists transmigration to another medium, which can only reduce it to the bare outlines of dialogue and plot, whereas a canny adapter can make art out of the third- and even fourth-rate; ergo, while Huston foundered on Malcolm Lowry and Flannery O’Connor he soared with C.S. Forester and Noel Behn. Indeed, only twice, with the very fine but studio-mutilated The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and the sublime The Dead (James Joyce) did John Huston do full honor to a great work he admired. (As his final completed work, The Dead did honor to him as well.)
The Maltsese Falcon had already been filmed, twice at Warner Bros.’, first under its own title in 1931 (it was reissued later as Dangerous Female) and then in 1936 as a comedy-mystery starring Warren William and Bette Davis (Satan Met a Lady). Huston, and Henry Blanke, his producer, felt that the studio had not gotten the book’s values on the screen, and the directing tyro was on the right track when he asked his secretary to re-type the novel in standard script form: It’s a book of dialogue as much as of plot, and damn good dialogue at that. Except for Sam Spade’s paraphrase of Shakespeare at the end, nearly every line spoken in Huston’s movie comes directly from Hammett, or is a slight variation. His deviations are largely for the sake of telescoping, although rather less explicably he omits the sequence in which Spade tosses Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s flat. She assumes it was either Joel Cairo or the young gun-thug Wilmer, and without that scene we make the same assumption. It may be that Huston couldn’t find a way around Hammett’s frame (Spade slipping out while O’Shaughnessy sleeps in his bed) that would satisfy the censors. He had also, perforce, to delete the moment in which Spade forces Brigid, whom he suspects of palming a thousand-dollar bill, to submit to a strip-search. Perhaps such sops to conventional morality were a ruse, or acted as one, because what the screenwriter did get past the Production Code is jaw-dropping. Take, for instance, the moment in the novel in which Spade and Brigid first become intimate. Hammett’s Brigid wonders explicitly if she can buy the detective off with her body; Huston’s Brigid asks, anent Spade’s mention of money, “What else is there I can buy you with?” and his Spade instantly kisses her, roughly, stroking her cheekbones with his thumbs, not caressingly but as if he’d like to raise them just a bit and use them to gouge out her eyes.
Even more astounding, however, is that Huston served up a cinematic mystery in which the genteel culprits are comprised almost entirely of homosexual men, and one rather promiscuous dame who’s a pathological liar. And if Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo is less flagrantly gay than as described by Hammett — in the book he’s depicted as a mincing, thin-armed, heavy-bottomed fairy — he is nevertheless introduced by a gardenia-scented calling card (lavender in the novel) and, as he talks to Spade, sucks briefly at the tip of the decidedly phallic handle of his walking-stick. If that wasn’t eye-popping enough, Huston retains just enough of the dialogue in which Cairo and O’Shaughnessy snipe at each other over a boy in Istanbul she couldn’t make and he did that when she lunges at him, you know precisely why. Cairo’s sexuality is also on display later when, after he and The Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreet) have sold the gunsel Wilmer out and Spade has cold-cocked him, Lorre hovers over Elisha Cook, Jr. like a mother hen. The movie’s Kasper Gutman, like Hammett’s, is more ambiguous — the more so for Huston’s omitting Gutman’s duplicitous young daughter, who pretends being drugged to waylay Sam in his search for Brigid — but it’s hard to miss the implication that Wilmer is not merely the man’s bodyguard but his kept boy, particularly in Gutman’s, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.” And where Hammett invokes the term “gunsel” a single time only, Huston uses it repeatedly; the movie’s Spade rarely calls Wilmer anything else.
And here we pause for a lesson which seems increasingly necessary… and is seldom, if ever, heeded. I’ve tried myself, more than once, but here goes: Chiefly I think because of this movie, the word “gunsel” (Yiddish, literally “gosling”) has come to mean a cheap hood when it was used in Hammett’s time exclusively in reference to the passive young partner in homosexual union with an older man: A bottom. That’s the reason Bogart’s Spade uses the word so often in his needling of Wilmer, and why the boy gets so angry when he does. Huston’s very knowing employment of the epithet for a gun-toting kid has, unfortunately, given rise to know-nothings casually tossing it off to indicate a gunman of any kind. Thus we get such howlers as Dennis Lehane, in his otherwise excellent crime novel Live by Night, evoking the unintentionally hilarious image of “an army of gunsels.” Not exactly the Spartan 300. Well, Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon is both a gunsel and a cheap hood.
Huston may not have been able to let Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) refer to Cairo as “queer”; permit his Spade to sneer, when Wilmer reacts against Cairo’s physical solicitude, “Lovers’ quarrel”; or do more than indirectly imply the situations, but as in the book there is clearly something going on between Wilmer and Joel in the movie, and the imposed ambiguity is an asset. Huston also upped the ante when Spade twits the police lieutenant, Dundy, repeatedly referring to him as Detective Polhaus’ “boyfriend” or “playmate.” I like to think that it tickled Huston to throw so much “sex perversion” at the Breen Office in one movie, and for that largely Catholic censorship organization to miss it all.
Of greater impact in The Maltese Falcon than these matters is the visual style of the picture, one of the progenitors of what post-war French critics deemed film noir (literally, “dark film”) and which was and remains so misunderstood. The shadowed look was, usually, of necessity on below-B movie budgets. That the chiaroscuro effects aided the storytelling was something of a happy accident, but low-key lighting was most often used to camouflage cheap sets with modest light sources. Even Orson Welles and Gregg Toland resorted to these tricks on Citizen Kane, not a “B” picture but one made at a cost-conscious studio with every reason to be nervous, and Kane is now, like Falcon and Double Indemnity, considered by many as one of the de facto early noirs. (Although, again, Indemnity was an “A” project from the outset.) And while Kane had not begun its theatrical run when Falcon was shooting — it was delayed by the contretemps with Hearst — I suspect Huston had seen and admired it, as his movie debut as a director also, like Welles’ and unusually for the period, favors visible ceilings and close, low angles.
Huston’s San Francisco is a city not merely of fog but of night. Only two, brief, outdoor sequences occur during daylight hours, and even the short scene (the murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s business partner) imposed on the picture by nervous executives for the benefit of patrons who can’t piece something together even when it’s discussed in detail, while directed by someone other than Huston, takes place on a fog-bound, deserted street in the hours just after midnight. The Maltese Falcon is a movie of dark rooms with drawn shades (only Spade’s apartment has diaphanous curtains, and, perhaps significantly, his windows are almost always open.) Huston’s cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a master of light who also shot the Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty and three James Whale projects (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man). He also, coincidentally, lit Satan Met a Lady, and a year after Falcon he would produce the sumptuous photography for Bogart’s vehicle to immortality, Casablanca. This was a man who understood darkness, and how to exploit it.
Speaking of Bogart brings us to the fourth reason for the picture’s lasting appeal beyond Hammett’s story, Huston’s compact screenplay and his subsequent stripped-down direction: The movie’s superb cast. Although a far cry from the green-eyed “blond Satan” of Hammett’s description, Bogart is in every other way the ideal Sam Spade — indeed, the one who defined the role forever, as he did five years later with his Philip Marlowe, and after whom (pace Howard Duff) no others need apply. “Spade has no original,” Hammett once wrote. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” You can take Hammett’s words about Spade and apply them equally to Bogie. Nearly every man in the 1940s wanted to be him, or to at least possess his self-assurance.
And Sam Spade was the role Bogart had been waiting for. After years of supporting parts, thankless inanities and almost-leads he’d burnished his reputation considerably playing “Mad Dog” Earle for Raoul Walsh (and scenarist John Huston) and Spade was, for the actor, a definite step up: This time he wasn’t a criminal, and although emotionally wounded, he at least didn’t die in the end. Bogart won the role after George Raft, who was possibly Hollywood’s least precise chooser of roles, passed, largely because Huston was, as director, an unknown quantity. Raft made a habit of turning down parts that paved the way for others, especially Bogart: The gangster “Baby Face” Martin in Dead End, Roy Earle, Spade, “Gloves” Donahue in All Through the Night and, allegedly, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, the part that cemented Bogart’s stature as not only a bankable star but a desirable, even sexy, leading man.‡ Spade calls forth from Bogart a unique set of attitudes. He is, on the one hand, a detached observer and, on the other, and in his own fashion, passionate about justice. A pitiless cad (he’s carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, and, throughout the picture, treats her with barely disguised contempt) yet despite Brigid’s… I believe the polite phrase would be “unreliable veracity”… he’s genuinely shattered at the end by his own decision to surrender her to the police. He seems to be every bit as avaricious as the casually murderous gang he’s drawn into assisting — note the manic gleam in his eye when he unwraps the falcon, and the dark glee with which he exclaims to Lee Patrick as his secretary Effie, “We’ve got it, Angel! We’ve got it!” — but remaining on the level is ultimately of more interest to him than treasure-hunting. Nor does Bogart tip his hand; we’re unsure until the finish just how far he’ll go.
There’s also remarkable equanimity in Bogart’s performance; although he needles Wilmer mercilessly (and not without reason) he’s more amused by than contemptuous of Cairo when the perfumed dandy holds him up a second time, and his startled laughter at the little man’s audacity feels absolutely real. The same holds true when, exasperated by the Fat Man’s intransigence, he smashes his drinking glass and gives the old chiseler what for; the rage is incandescent, yet when he exits Gutman’s suite he’s grinning at his own performance, even unto the hand he suddenly notices is shaking in the aftermath of his outburst. And when at the climax he explains to Brigid why he’s sacrificing her, he looks absolutely poleaxed by the whole thing. That haunted gaze of his, staring at nothing as he tries to make Brigid understand what she cannot begin to comprehend, marks Spade’s emotional wounding as surely as the faraway look in his eyes when, after Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks him what the black bird is he replies, “The, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” It’s a dream he’s trying to shake, and we sense there will indeed be as he suggests to Brigid “some rotten nights,” and a lot more of them than he lets on.
That is, I think, one hell of a performance.
The casting of Mary Astor as Brigid is truly inspired. In the Hammett novel, she is, altogether improbably, a girl in her early 20s. With the more mature but no less alluring Astor in the role, the character’s lies and evasions take on both greater believability and a peculiar resonance: Brigid becomes a woman with a past, and a sense of desperation that goes beyond her fear of violent death.§ It’s a tribute to Astor’s fulsome performance that we are never quite certain, even after repeated viewings, where the lies end and the truth begins; when she breaks down at the climax, is her reaction wholly to the certainty of life behind bars, or even hanging, or does she perhaps actually love Sam Spade, at least a little? He can’t tell, and neither can we. The final shot of her, behind elevator door bars that creepily evoke the cell waiting for her at Tehachapi, is as devastating as Astor’s shell-shocked gaze.
As Cairo, Peter Lorre beautifully illustrates why in Berlin he was considered one of the finest young stage actors of his generation. The baby-fat he’d exhibited as the child-murderer in M was long gone by 1941 (although, at least in part due to morphine addiction, his heaviness would return) and the leanness of his face becomes Cairo as much as the curled hair that suggests the Levantine of Hammett’s novel. And despite the clear implications of a homosexual persona, there is nothing prissy or effeminate about Lorre’s performance, merely a weary sophistication alternating with an excitability that just verges at times on hysteria. Although Cairo is amoral, we somehow don’t dislike him, as it is nearly impossible to dislike Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, no matter how threatening he may seem. His avuncular jocularity somehow skirts being tiresome — an improvement over the novel, in which the character is both repetitious and, ultimately, exhausting — and the figure becomes at once unknowably malign and irresistible. He is not, incidentally, called “The Fat Man” in the novel. That moniker was one of Huston’s most apposite additions.
The supporting roles are no less impressively cast. Lee Patrick does wonder-work with Effie Perine, showing none of the masochistic hurt of the character in the novel that makes her seeming to push Brigid on Spade so perverse. Gladys George’s Iva Archer is nicely judged, as is Ward Bond’s ambivalent Detective Polhaus, and Barton MacLane gets the right measure of surliness in Lieutenant Dundy, soured by the prospect of Spade’s not being a killer. (Walter Huston also shows up, unbilled, as a walking corpse, a role he undertook to give his son some needed confidence on the first day of filming.)
Although Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer is not the pretty boy of the novel, the actor clearly read the book; when attempting to shadow Spade on the street he keeps his eyes shaded by his lashes just as Hammett describes the character. Cook also has an effective scene in Spade’s apartment when, knowing he’s being sold out, he threatens the private detective through barely controlled tears. He understand at that moment that he is indeed only a boy, not the hardened thug he pretends to be, and that the ease with which he’s murdered at least one man in imitation, one presumes, of the gangsters he’s seen at the movies has finally caught up with him.
The Maltese Falcon is one of those rare movies one can see again and again with complete happiness, ever succumbing to its mesmeric blandishments, always finding something new. I initially saw it, at a library screening, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 (it was my first Bogart picture), have watched it repeatedly in the years since — including twice recently in preparation for writing this — and know that I will revisit it many times in the future. It would be a masterpiece of its kind had it been written and directed by an old pro with a couple dozen such pictures under his belt. For a novice to have made it is almost beyond belief.
Huston’s people may be doomed, but when they’re this good, they are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of.
*Huston was comfortable enough with gay men as long as their public miens comforted his bigotry, as with Capote. It was only when confronted with a homosexual man (Montgomery Clift) whose persona eschewed the flamboyant that he couldn’t handle it.
†Along with illuminating the lives of Walter and John, Grobel takes in as well the youths and early careers of Angelica, Tony and Danny.
‡Raft also said no to Double Indemnity, to Billy Wilder’s relief. About the only good role he said yes to was that of Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot. Would The Maltese Falcon be half the picture it is with him? Would High Sierra? Double Indemnity? Care to see Raft in Bergman’s arms? His complacency was American cinema’s benison.
§In one of the essays that accompany the published screenplay (in the Rutgers Films in Print series) one Ilsa J. Bick refers to Astor, absurdly, as “matronly.” I wonder how old Bick was when she wrote that.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross