Monday, April 27, 2015

The Maltese Falcon

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

There’s a great line from the TV show The X-Files.  Fox Mulder is talking to the “Deep Throat” character who supposedly is giving him inside information about the alien conspiracy. The FBI agent has become extremely cynical after being deceived so many times and says, “I’m trying to decide which lie to believe.”

That line could refer to John Huston’s classic 1941 detective film, The Maltese Falcon.  Based on Dashiell Hammett’s story, the movie centers on private eye Sam Spade, played in iconic anti-hero mode by Humphrey Bogart. Spade has been sleeping with the wife of his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). A Miss Wonderly (you start to “wonder” who she really is as the story unfolds) asks the detectives to check out a man named Floyd Thursby who supposedly ran off with her sister. Later, Sam finds out that Miles was shot to death. The police also find out that Thursby was killed. They think that Thursby killed Miles and Sam killed Thursby, although they have no evidence to back up the charge. 

Sam is contacted by “Wonderly” whose real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She seems like the helpless female. He learns from her that there was no sister, and Thursby was someone she knew who had double-crossed her. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) shows up at Sam’s office looking for a black statue of a bird. Cairo reveals that Brigid is after the bird for herself. She hits Cairo over the head, showing she is not as helpless as she seems. She fools Sam’s secretary, who says that Brigid is “alright.” When the police show up, Sam, in keeping with the deception theme of the film, makes up elaborate stories about himself, Cairo, and Bridgid, saying they were “play acting.” It is further revealed that Brigid and Cairo are both looking for the statue, and they mention that “the fat man” has arrived, and is also seeking the treasured bird. When Sam and Brigid are alone, she tells more lies, which Sam sees through. She admits that she is a liar. There have been so many deceptions that she no longer knows what is or isn’t a lie.  It is implied that Sam and Brigid have sex that night, since the next day he is calling her “my one true love” and is acting very sweet toward her.

Sam finds “the fat man,” who is appropriately named Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet). at Cairo’s hotel. Gutman talks like a civilized man, but he is really ruthless, employing the hitman, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Gutman says he likes “plain speaking” people, which is ironic given all the lies thrown about. He tells the story of the falcon, a gift from the crusades, whose black lacquered surface covers a gold and jewel-encrusted figure. He says “the story is history” and that what he has told are “facts.” Again, ironic, since the whole story is a fiction made up by the author, Hammett.  Gutman acts like he is willing to pay Sam for the bird, but then drugs him to get him out of the way so he can get it from Brigid, who he assumes has the object. When Sam awakes, he sees a notice about a ship arriving circled in the newspaper. At his office, the shot captain of the ship arrives and hands Sam a bundle before he dies. It is the Falcon. Sam stores the bird at a bus station and sends himself the collection tag. When he arrives at his office, Brigid, Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer are there. Sam says he wants the whole story if they want the bird.  Gutman tried to get Thursby to cooperate, but he wouldn’t betray Brigid. Wilmer killed Thursby, and also the captain, but he escaped and was able to deliver the Falcon to Sam.  When the black bird is delivered to the office, Gutman determines that it is a fake. He decides to continue searching for the “real” bird, (who knows if it really exists). Sam calls the cops to round up Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer.

But, he realizes that it is Brigid who killed his partner, Miles. She originally hoped Miles would scare Thursby off, so she could have the Falcon for herself. She then killed Miles so she could pin the murder on Thursby. She sought out Sam, using him as a protector. It is here that the complexity of Sam’s character is emphasized. He says that when your partner is killed, even though you slept with his wife, one is supposed to do something. If not, it’s bad business, since it can leave all detectives vulnerable. So, Brigid has to “take the fall.” Sam tells her that he won’t let her go because maybe he isn’t as crooked as he appears, since pretending to be somewhat crooked may be good for business. But, he says if the bird had been real, more money would have been one more point in her favor. Is he as deceptive as the others? Earlier on he says, “Everybody has something to conceal.” His name is “Spade.” Is he as black as the bird? At least he has a code he lives by.

The ironic thing is the black bird is exactly what it appears – a black, unimpressive figure. It was what Sam says at the end that it is: “The thing that dreams are made of.” Sometimes we wish to believe the lie, because it is all we have left.

Next week’s film is Quiz Show.

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