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Copyright 2014-2015 by Dr. Mike Rickard






The film The Maltese Falcon is a close adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel.   This should come as no surprise given the film's production.   According to the DVD supplementary material "The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird", John Huston wrote the screenplay directly from the book.   The result was a film that captured much of the book's plot and dialogue. 

The only exceptions of note were those called for by the Hays Code.   While the Hays Code prohibited director John Huston from covering some of the novel's racier aspects such as Spade sleeping with Bridget and the fact that Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer are homosexual, Huston and his cast did their best to imply what the Hays Code prevented them from showing explicitly. 

While The Maltese Falcon captured the dialogue and plot of the novel, what about the actors and actresses?  Did they do a good job of portraying the characters?   As we shall see, the cast did a remarkable job of portraying the characters as they appeared in the novel.

        First, there is Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid O' Shaughnessy.   The character of Brigid is more complex than she appears.   One might initially believe that she is a clever, manipulative woman who hides behind the façade of an innocent.  A closer analysis of her character reveals that she is a clever, manipulative woman who acknowledges her duplicitous nature in order to gain sympathy and who suggests that she will change her ways.   However, this confession and apparent repentance is a charade to entrap her victims even further.

Astor captures this dual layer of deception with her body movements and facial expressions.  When Brigid meets with Spade after Archer's death, Brigid looks down, pauses dramatically, and says "I have a confession to make"   Later in this scene, she clasps her hands and tells Spade that she has to trust him.   Astor's facial expression conveys the idea that Brigid is begging Spade to believe her. 

Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid hints at her duplicitous nature.  When Spade talks his way out of a bad situation by telling detectives Dundy and Polhaus that Brigid is one of his operatives, Astor's facial expression shows that the wheels are spinning in her head.   She seems to take a professional delight in seeing a person as crafty as her.  

 Astor does a great job of showing Brigid's dangerous charm.   Brigid is a notorious liar.  Spade recognizes this and yet he is still fascinated by her.   Astor's depiction of Brigid makes the audience believe that even the streetwise Spade finds it hard to resist her.   Even when Spade turns Brigid over to the police, Astor plays the part of the victim, consistent with the character in the novel.  

Mary Astor uses body positioning to act vulnerable.  Astor conveys this by lying back on a couch, as if she is a patient in a psychiatrist's office baring her soul.  She says "I'm so tired…tired of lying and making up lies"  Later on, She takes this one step further when she lies on her back, seemingly exposing her soul but also exposing her body for Spade to take her if he so desires.  

There are a couple of moments when Brigid reveals that there is more to her than appears.  At one point she tells Sam that she has done "bad things".   As mentioned earlier, Astor plays this almost as if Brigid is trying to get Sam's sympathy by making him think she has changed, deflecting any thoughts on his part that she might be dangerous.  

A second instance is when Brigid attacks Joel Cairo.  Astor raises her voice, a rarity in the film and her face glares with anger.   Writer William Mooney examines Brigid's plain attire marking it as part of her disguise.  He observes, "…Brigid's clothes are modest, all part of her act to play the innocent.  There is only one loosening of this protective cover, when she physically attacks Joel Cairo, revealing momentarily the animal beneath the demure façade" (61).

The one thing that I did not like about Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid was that she looked too matronly for the part.   The novel describes her as 22 while Astor was about 35 when the film was released.  Regardless, Astor does a terrific job of capturing O'Shaughnessy's manipulative nature.   She can play the naïve part along with a subtext that she is cunning.   The true femme fatale relies more on her personality and charm than just physical beauty.   I have no doubt that this ability to portray Brigid so well overrode director Huston's concern that she might not resemble the character physically.

Peter Lorre does an excellent job of portraying Joel Cairo.   In Chapter Four of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett describes Cairo as "…a small-boned dark man of medium height.   His hair was black and smooth and very glossy." (425). While Lorre's hair is not black, he fits the rest of the description.  Towards the end of the novel, Hammett describes Cairo: "Joel Cairo's dark face was open-mouthed, open-eyed, yellowish, and amazed.   He breathed through his mouth, his round effeminate chest rising and falling" (543)
In addition to appearance, Lorre's portrayal of Cairo is dead on.   He is effeminate but crafty.   Cairo may not appear to be a threat but he is not someone to be underestimated.   Lorre does a good job of showing Cairo's fondness for clothes and his fastidiousness.  When Cairo first meets Spade, Lorre has Cairo delicately take off his hat and glove.  Later on, we see more of Cairo's effeminate side.  When Spade slaps Cairo rather than punch him when Cairo goes after Brigid, it's almost as if Spade doesn't consider him a man.   Lastly, Cairo's response to being accosted shows more of his effeminate nature.   When Spade disarms him in front of Brigid, Cairo hisses.  When we see Brigid has cut Cairo's face, Cairo whines.  
Cairo's homosexuality was a character trait from the novel that was not easily adapted into the film.  The Hays Code prevented any mention of homosexuality in the film (as discussed in the DVD supplementary material "The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird").   In addition to his effeminate nature (a gay stereotype) Lorre suggests Cairo's homosexuality by the way he caresses his cane (although it should be noted that Cairo does not have a cane in this chapter of Hammett's novel).  One might even argue that Cairo's fondling of the cane serves as foreplay of sorts in his attempt to seduce Spade into helping him.  
Perhaps the best character adaptation from the book is Sydney Greenstreet in the role of Kasper Gutman.   Gutman, a parallel character to Brigid, is dual-natured.   On one side, he is a charming, refined gentleman.   On the other, he is a ruthless (but still charming) criminal mastermind.   Unlike Brigid, he has no difficulty in concealing his true nature.

Watching Greenstreet is like watching Gutman walk off of the pages of the novel.     Hammett describes Gutman, "The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips, and chins and neck" (480) Greenstreet looks the part but more importantly, he plays the part well.
What is particularly admirable about Greenstreet's portrayal of Gutman is that he captures the "jolly fat man" façade that Gutman uses to charm people equally well with that of the efficient arch-criminal who stops at nothing to get what he wants.  Part of Gutman's charm is in how he speaks.   In the novel, Hammett describes Gutman's manner of speaking, "His whisper became lower and more purring" (498).   Gutman's speaking style is described further, "The fat man smacked his lips and lowered his voice to a purring murmur" (503). This is seen when Gutman assesses Spade before he tells him about the Falcon.   Greenstreet enunciates his words and they flow like honey.

Facial expressions and body proximity are another way Greenstreet captures Gutman's charm.  When Gutman explains the Falcon's history to Spade, he looks to his side as if he's looking for an eavesdropper, so important is the secret he is about to reveal.   Then he leans in to Spade, heightening the intimacy between them.   Finally, Gutman raises his eyebrows and his eyes widen, conveying to Spade that the Falcon is one of a kind.

Greenstreet captures the charming side of Gutman.   He also captures the somewhat seductive nature of Gutman, which corresponds with the character's possible homosexuality.   Gutman's homosexuality is hinted at in the film when Spade calls Gutman's agent Wilmer a gunsel.   The word gunsel has two meanings- a gunman or a boy or a youth who is in a sexual relationship with an older man ("Gunsel").  Greenstreet suggests this when he places his hand on Spade's thigh not once but twice.   Perhaps this is Gutman being friendly but there is also the hint that Gutman would like to possess Spade as well as the Falcon.

Then there is the other side of Gutman, that of an ultra-efficient criminal mastermind.  After Spade succumbs to the drugged drink, Gutman sheds his smoking jacket and puts on his suit coat, transforming from gentleman into gentleman thief.   Gutman now walks briskly (compared with the slow leisurely pace he used earlier) and with one motion of his hat, instructs Cairo and Wilmer to follow after him.   This transformation is seen again later in the film's climax when Spade refuses to hand the $10,000 over to Gutman.   Gutman puts on his hat and with the other hand draws his pistol.   Once again, he effortlessly makes the transformation from gentleman to gentleman thief.

Elisha Cook Jr. does a great job of capturing the man-child that is Wilmer Cook (Director Huston gets things off to a good start by having Cook wear clothes that are one size too big for him).   Wilmer is a small man who relies on his guns to compensate.  Wilmer is a boy in a man's world.

Elisha's portrayal of Wilmer mirrors Hammett's description of him in the novel.  Chapter Four (where we first meet Wilmer) is titled "The Undersized Shadow".  Hammett shows us that Wilmer is small in stature but has a giant chip on his shoulder.   "The indelible youngness of his face gave an indescribably vicious-and inhuman-turn to the white-hot hatred and the cold white malevolence in his face" (550).
While Wilmer tries to appear tough and menacing, he cannot do so around the experienced Spade.   Wilmer is easily disarmed by Spade (both physically and verbally).   Elisha Cook Jr. does a great job of capturing Wilmer's attempts to be tough and his failure to do so by means of his facial expressions.   Cook projects a cold stare when he tells Spade and the hotel detective "I won't forget you guys" but he looks scared at the same time.

        Then there is the memorable scene where Spade taunts Wilmer to the point where Wilmer challenges Spade to a gunfight.   After Gutman tells Wilmer to back off, Wilmer's eyes tear up.   Here, Cook's portrayal further demonstrates Wilmer's inability to handle something without violence.   Since Wilmer validates his masculinity with violence, his tears indicate his frustration and regression to being a boy.

        Another way that Elisha captures Wilmer's inability to "sit at the grown-ups' table"is the way that he talks.   Wilmer talks in a hushed tone.   In some cases, this might be seen as threatening but with Wilmer, it seems as if he's timid and just can't find a way to assert himself in the presence of alpha male Spade.

Finally, there is Lee Patrick as Sam's secretary Effie Perine.   Although the character does not have much screen time, Effie appears in key scenes in both the book and film.    She tells Spade that he has a "knockout" (Brigid) waiting for him.   She stays late when Sam asks her to watch the office and makes her home available when Sam asks her to hide Brigid.   Later on, she helps Sam when he asks her to retrieve the Falcon he has secreted away.  While Effie is described as "lanky" and "boyish" in the novel (Hammett 391), Lee appears as a little stocky and definitely feminine.   Like Astor, Huston overlooked Lee's appearance due to her ability to capture Effie's sprightliness, efficiency, exuberance, and vulnerability (such as when she screams at the sight of the dying Captain Jacobi).  

        The cast of The Maltese Falcon do a wonderful job of bringing the novel's characters to life on-screen.   While actresses Mary Astor and Lee Patrick do not closely resemble their literary counterparts physically, they capture the core of each character with strong dramatic performances (much as Humphrey Bogart does in portraying Sam Spade despite his not looking like the "blond Satan" as described in the novel).   This is one of the reasons that The Maltese Falcon is such an acclaimed film.


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The Maltese Falcon: How Does the Film Compare to the Novel?
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