Saturday, September 5, 2020

Roy Del Ruth | The Maltese Falcon || John Huston | The Maltese Falcon

my mother would be a falconress

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I’d turn my head.
                                                     Robert Duncan

Brown Holmes, Maude Fulton, and Lucien Hubbard (screenplay, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett), Roy Del Ruth (director) The Maltese Falcon / 1931
John Huston (screenplay, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett), John Huston (director) The Maltese Falcon  / 1941

I have to admit that I have never much liked the 1941 film classic, The Maltese Falcon. I’ll grant that with a cast of Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Walter Huston (uncredited as the ship captain Jacoby), it’s difficult to imagine better acting for this work. Yet, I find the story so creaky and totally unbelievable, care so little about the McGuffin of the work, the falcon, and find all the characters—perhaps with the exception of Bogart—so morally despicable that I truly can’t fathom why so many have loved the work for so long.
     With that in mind, I determined to see the earlier 1931 version with a respectable, if not notable, cast of its day—the handsome and dapper Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly, Una Merkel as Spade’s secretary, Thelma Todd as Iva Archer, Otto Matieson as Dr. Cairo, and Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman. Perhaps, with the pre-Hays Code freedoms this version, I hoped, would at least offer a soupçon of naughty goings-on.
      That it did, with Daniels bathing in the nude and later being strip-searched by her might-have-been lover Cortez. Cortez as Spade, presented as quite clearly having sex with a client in the very first scene, soon after is telephoned by his partner, Archer’s wife to tell him she misses his love, and later beds down with Daniels’ Wonderly, along with several squeezes and hugs of his secretary in between.
      Gutman, Cairo, and their protégé Wilmer Cook (Dwight Frye) are all presented as quite obviously homosexual—although I think that was pretty clearly intimated in the 1941 version as well—but I’ll come back to that.
      In the end, I felt very much of a similar mind of those film historians who remind us that not every pre-code film represented an openness of sexuality and other more open-minded patterns of behavior.
       If nothing else, the 1931 version, directed by the well-known Hollywood fixture Roy Del Ruth, only made it more apparent why I had never liked this story if the first place.
       For what I realized in the Del Ruth telling—not so completely different from John Huston’s version—was that it presented two different groupings of unpleasant figures each in their own way seeking precisely what the Maltese Falcon and the real bird itself represents: speed, determination, ambition and, most particularly, power, qualities which I least admire.
       In one corner we have what I might call “the lovers,” Spade and Wonderly, who use their normative sexual charms—both of which are clearly apparent in this 1931 edition—to get what they want.
     Wonderly is particularly transparent about what she desires: the money which the Falcon with its rumored jewels might provide. And she’ll use her mouth, eyes, and shapely limbs to get it. As Gutman comments to Spade: “Miss Wonderly’s admirers have been many, sir. And she has used them all to her great advantage.” By film’s end we know that at least three of these so-called admirers, Spade’s partner Archer, her partner Floyd Thursby (who we never meet), and Captain Jacoby, have died as a result of her flirtations.
     After engaging (monetarily rather than matrimonially) Spade she even shifts to outright sex. He may have told her that he will sleep in the other room when she stays overnight in his apartment, but when he returns in the morning we definitely note that the pillow next to her is indented with the impression of a head. Even the crafty detective is on to her manipulation of her considerable charms:

Ruth Wonderly: I know I haven't any right to ask you to help me blindly. But I do ask it. Oh, be generous, Mr. Spade.
Sam Spade: You won't need much of anybody's help. You're pretty good. As a matter of fact, you're very good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and the throb you get in your voice when you say, "Oh, be generous, Mr. Spade."

     The fact that—despite his natural wariness, his hard-boiled attitude toward love, and his final decision to call the police to lock her away for life in prison—he still falls for her, ending the film (unlike the original work and the 1941 adaptation) by going to visit her in prison and asking the section Sergeant to give her “anything she wants,” meaning better food and candies charged to the District Attorney’s office.
     Even this supposedly cynical man, when his love for her is challenged, responds:

Ruth Wonderly: You don't love me.
Sam Spade: Oh, I think I do.

     For Spade, however, that hardly matters. He also is involved with the Falcon simply as a business deal, and money greatly matters to him throughout the film, even to the degree of supposedly taking Wonderly’s last $100 bill (although she, we quickly discover, is clearly holding out a wad of money hidden on those sexy thighs). And he negotiates back and forth throughout with Gutman for his piece of the take, even if he never quite succeeds in seeing much money.
      More importantly, Spade is the very definition of a womanizer. It is no accident that the door of his office announces, “Spade and Archer / Private Operatives.” They are not truly interested in detection, but in their private operations with any woman who might pass through their door. If he is fascinated with women it is only because they represent male gratification through sex. The reason he will no longer see Archer’s wife is not so much because it might put him jeopardy with the police, who think he killed Archer to get him out the way because of his affair with her, nor even because he’s busy with his new woman, but because Spade has no interest in long-term relationships. The cliché “Love ‘em and leave ‘em” might almost be his philosophical position in life. As Wonderly observes: “You seem to have a lot of trouble with your women, don't you, Sam?”
      Women are not beings to be respected from this misogynist’s perspective, and the sweet names one attaches to women might just as well be applied to male thugs who he wants nothing to do with. Knocking at his door, the police are greeted with the following interchange:

Sam Spade: Come on in, precious.
Police Lt. Dundy: [walking in] Who were you expecting, darling?
Sam Spade: You, sweetheart.

While some desperate gay boys have seen this as a possible “queer” reference, I’d argue that instead it is utterly homophobic, an application of heterosexual nicknames to men you detest. Turning the tables on her boss, his secretary does the same thing to Spade, announcing Cairo’s appearance in his office, by commenting:

Effie Perrine: Sam, it's a gorgeous new customer.
Sam Spade: Gorgeous?
Effie Perrine: A knockout.
Sam Spade: Send her right in, honey.
Effie Perrine: [to the off-screen customer] Will you step in, please?
[Joel Cairo walks in.]

Twice in his office scuffles with Cairo the visitor, gun in hand, demands:You will please clasp your hands together at the back of your neck,” which might easily be misconstrued as an invitation to a blow job.

     If in one corner, accordingly, we have a dangerous femme fatale and a misogynist, in the other we have a highly homophobic trio of Gutman, Cairo, and Cook. While in the book Dashiell Hammett suggested that all three men were gay, in the movie it is clear that Cook is Gutman’s “boyfriend,” the word he even uses to describe him as he openly strokes his cheek. Even more troubling is the fact that Gutman twice says of the boy, “I loved him almost a son,” suggesting that the relationship may have begun quite a while earlier, making the “Fat Man” not only a pedophile but having partaken in a fantasy of an incestuous relationship with the gun-crazy boy.
     Interestingly, even in the 1941 version of the film, it is clear that Gutman is using the boy for his sexual pleasures. Bogart refers to Wilbur as Guman’s “gunsel” three times in that film, a word that Hammett changed, upon his agent’s insistence, from “catamite” in his original manuscript. The Yiddish word (literally “a little goose”) had come through popular use to mean the same thing: “a boy kept for homosexual practices.” Hammett’s agent evidently as “a gun carrying criminal,” an older lexicon entry.
     Spade’s hostility to this entire group of queers is apparent when he  immediately demands that one of them—preferably Cairo or Cook, since Gutman represents the deep pockets of this affair—become a “fall guy.” As the least likeable of the group and the actual murderer of Thursby, Cook is selected, but when they finally open the suitcase delivered to Spade that contains yet another false Falcon, the boy escapes through a kitchen window. As Gutman leaves Spade, ready to join Cairo on a new return to the “orient” in search of the missing bird, he sardonically sums up his feelings toward the “private operative”: “Good day, sir. I deeply regret that you are left without a fall guy.”—which could be read, obviously, as another sexual pun.
     In the Del Ruth version, Gutman and Cairo are killed by the kid, and the police have captured him. In the novel, only Gutman died. Apparently none of these figures were worth saving in the San Francisco of 1931.
     Any LGBTQ observer of either of these two Maltese Falcon films will find little to admire in this woman-hating and sexually-abusing homophobes, nor in the truly perverted homosexual clique all searching for the wrong things in life.
      If, as The Louise Brooks Society blog wonders, why Spade keeps a copy of the actresses’ photo upon his wall—and it does look a lot like Brooks—it cannot be because of any admiration for the actor, but for her portrayal in Pandora’s Box, released two years before Del Ruth’s film, in which she plays the bisexual woman who,  by opening up her box or jar—much like Gutman and tribe opening the suitcase in Del Ruth’s film—let free all the evils of the world, leaving behind only “hope.” It might be useful to remember that in G. W. Pabst’s film she was eventually murdered by Jack the Ripper.
Los Angeles, September 5, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020).

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