The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)
Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.
But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.
I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.
One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.
It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.
Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.
What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.
It could all be very seductive.
Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.
That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”
It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.
That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.
Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.
You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.
All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.
I hope he’s also still on our side.