January 12, 2012

Queer Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon
Director: John Huston
Writer: John Huston. Based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr., Jerome Cowan

Credited as being the prototype for film noir, The Maltese Falcon also features an early and particularly intrigueing queer subtext. Because of this, The Maltese Falcon contains one of the earliest and most obviously queer characters in cinema.

When private detectives Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are approached by the femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) they are suspicious of her story but since she's willing to pay, they agree to shadow the man she asks them to, Floyd Thursby. Soon, however, both Thursby and Archer are dead and Spade finds himself embroiled in a complicated affair involving the Maltese Falcon, a priceless artifact whose history involves the Knights Templar and was lost centuries ago. Several other parties, each with their own story of how and why they are after the Maltese Falcon, come forward. The effiminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who cliams that he was double crossed by O'Shaughnessy, tries to hold up Spade. Then there is Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) who claims to have been looking for the statue for 17 years and whose quiet politeness is merely a faƧade for an underlying dangerous nature.

The Queering
The Maltese Falcon is a hard movie for me to review. I can see, intellectually speaking, all of the elements that make it understandable why The Maltese Falcon is considered by so many critics to be a classic. The protagonist is a morally ambiguous private detective and the ending dark. Then there is the convoluted plot which forces the audience pay attention and figure things out for ourselves. On top of thatis the fact that The Maltese Falcon lay the groundwork for one of cinema's most popular and enduring genre's, the film noir.

However, all of that aside, I have to confess that The Maltese Falcon failed to move me on an emotional level. I understand that I am not espousing the most popular opinion here, but for all of it's strengths, The Maltese Falcon is not a perfect motion picture. There are more than a few scenes of overblown melodrama and poor acting and while I applaud the ending for being true to the characters and the story, I have to say it still left me feeling a bit empty.

Flaws aside though, there are some other strengths - besides the plot that was darker and more complex than other movies of the time. A scene where Gutman drugs Spade, in order to put him to sleep, is superbly shot and edited. I also enjoyed Lee Patrick's performance as Effie Perine, Archer and Spade's secretary, even though she only had a few scenes. Peter Lorre was more memorable playing a killer of children in M, but is otherwise effective as the obviously gay Joel Cairo.

While Joel Cairo was openly gay in the novel (from what I understand) but thanks the awful Hays Code, no mention of this is made. However, Cairo is not the only character in the film who can be queered. Spade calls Gutman's assistant Wilmer a "gunzel", which is a slang term for a submissive bottom to an older gay man. Combine this with Gutman himself being noticeably limp wristed and fey and so it becomes clear that the three antagonists are all apparently a bit queer. In other films, having three gay antagonists might be a problem, but since neither of our protagonists, Spade or his almost girlfriend O'Shaughnessy, is not set up as morally virtuous either, it's not a problem from my perspective.

It's not worth spending your life fortune and 17 years, as Kasper Gutman did, to track down this Maltese Falcon, but certainly worth seeking out, particularly for those with an interest in the history of queer characters in cinema.

The Rating


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