Sunday, June 22, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: The Maltese Falcon

The Set-Up: There'd been two previous versions of Dashiell Hammett's ground-breaking thriller "The Maltese Falcon," none of them too successful. That is, until a string-bean of a screen-writer who fancied himself an artist, and just happened to be Walter Huston's kid, came along and impressed everybody with his talent and his chutzpah. John Huston did a fairly straight, well, let's say faithful adaptation of the Hammett yarn, not puffing it up with chases and extraneous stuff, just staying true to the talk and casting good people to speak it. As the triad of conspirators with their claws out for the "black bird," he cast Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and, in his first film, the rotund Broadway actor Sydney Greenstreet. Huston emphasized his bulk and presence by shooting up at him from about waist-level (and yes, those shots are what inspired George Lucas to create "Jabba the Hut"). And it's to Huston's credit that he didn't go soft on the material, with an easy ending that would put a smile on the departing audience's face, rather than a thought in their head. He was presenting a mature motion-picture if anybody bothered to look, with a hero who wasn't afraid to be bad enough to be good.

His ace in the hole was Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was a Warners contract player, a short, skinny bantam rooster of a man, always in trouble with the studio. He'd started out playing callow jet-setters (one of his films he even says the line "Tennis, anyone?"), but it wasn't until he starred as gangster Duke Mantee in "The Petrified Forest" on Broadway that he began to get noticed. Even then, movie fame didn't come to him until he played the sympathetic gangster, "Mad Dog" Roy Earle in "High Sierra," (written by John Huston). George Raft was supposed to play Sam Spade, but he wasn't interested, so Huston got his own first choice--Bogart--to play Dashiell Hammett's detective. He and Huston would go on to make six pictures together, roles that stretched the Bogart persona and won him an Oscar for "The African Queen."

Bogart isn't really doing anything different than what he's done before with the character of Spade, but here, Bogart isn't a gangster or a man on the run. He's the straight man in a movie full of oddballs, audiences latch onto him as he's the least duplicitous one in the bunch. But even then, he's not afraid of some subterfuge to get to the heart of the mystery. In this scene he meets Caspar Gutman, a rotund dandy whose "gunsel," (though it's been misrepresented to mean "gunman," the real meaning of the word is "pederast.") has threatened Spade in the past. Gutman puts on a show, ingratiatingly, and even repeatedly says that Spade is "the man for me," but stops short of sharing his information. Sensing he doesn't have enough information to proceed any further with Gutman's cooperation, and with his bodyguard in the next room, Spade erupts...violently. Watch Bogart as he leaves the room, the momentum of his exit leaving him in the middle of the corridor, and as his face emerges from the shadows, you see that he's laughing at his own performance and smiles at the tension shaking his hand. Sam Spade knows himself very well, and that's what draws an audience to him. The self-knowledge that he's not all he's cracked up to be--he's vulnerable, but aware of his vulnerability.

The Story: So far, the latest case for the firm of Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Archer hasn't gone well, what with Archer being killed and all. There's Miss O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), the dame that hired them in the first place. Then there was Cairo (Peter Lorre), who shows up wanting Spade to find a bauble that makes O'Shaughnessy quake when its mentioned. It all comes around to Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the man who knows about the black bird and might do anything--even commit murder--to get it. Action!

(Sam Spade knocks on apartment 13C, and the door is opened by Wilmer, the tough in the lobby. In the background Caspar Gutman gets up and takes Spade's hand in greeting)

Casper Gutman: Ah, Mr. Spade!

Sam Spade: How do you do, Mr. Gutman?

(Gutman leads Spade by the arm into the room, Wilmer glowering after them. Reaching the settees, Gutman silently signals Wilmer to leave the room. Wilmer exits to the back bedroom, and Gutman pours Spade a long drink)

Gutman: You begin well, sir.


Gutman: I distrust a man who says "when". He's got to be careful not to drink too much because he's not to be trusted when he does.

Gutman: Well, sir...

Gutman: ...here's to plain speaking and clear understanding.

Gutman: You're a close-mouthed man?

Spade: No, I like to talk.
Gutman: Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things.

Gutman: Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice.

Gutman: Now, sir. We'll talk, if you like.

Gutman: I'll tell you right out. I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Spade: Swell! Will we talk about the black bird?

Gutman: You're the man for me, sir. No beating about the bush. Right to the point. Let's talk about the black bird, by all means.

Gutman: First, answer me a question. Are you here as Miss O'Shaughnessy's representative?
Spade: There's nothing certain either way. It depends.

Gutman: It depends on?
Spade: Maybe it depends on Joel Cairo.
Gutman: Maybe. The question is which do you represent? It'll be one or the other.
Spade: I didn't say so.
Gutman: Who else is it?

Spade: There's me.

Gutman: That's wonderful, sir, wonderful. I do like a man who tells you right out he's lookin' out for himself. Don't we all? I don't trust a man who says he's not. Now, let's talk about the black bird.

Spade: Let's.

Gutman: Mr. Spade, have you any conception of how much money can be got for that black bird?
Spade: No.
Gutman: Well, sir, if I told you, if I told you half, you'd call me a liar.

Spade: No, not even if I thought so. But you tell me what it is, and I'll figure out the profit.
Gutman: You mean, you don't know what that bird is?

Spade: I know what it's supposed to look like and I know the value in human life you people put on it.
Gutman: She didn't tell you what it is? Cairo didn't either?
Spade: He offered me $10,000 for it.

Gutman: $10,000! Dollars, mind you, not even pounds! Do they know what that bird is? What is your impression?

Spade: There's not much to go by. Cairo didn't say he did or he didn't. She said she didn't but I took it for granted she was lying.

Gutman: Not an injudicious thing to do. If they don't know, I'm the only one in the whole wide sweet world who does.
Spade: Swell! When you've told me, that'll make two of us.
Gutman: Mathematically correct, but I don't know for certain that I'm going to tell you.

Spade: Don't be foolish. You know what it is. I know where it is.

Gutman: Well, sir, where is it? You see, I must tell you what I know, but you won't tell me what you know. It's hardly equitable, sir. No, no. I don't think we can do business along those lines.

Spade: Well, think again, and think fast!

Spade: I told that gunsel of yours you'd have to talk to me!

Spade: (In anger, he throws his glass into Gutman's expensive glass decanter, shattering it) You'll talk to me today, or you are through! (Hearing the crash and the shouting, Wilmer has come back into the room, his hand in his coat)

Spade: Why are you wasting my time? I can get along without you! (Spade walks across the room, grabs his hat, then walks back to confront Gutman and Wilmer)

Spade: And another thing: Keep that gunsel out of my way while you decide. I'll kill him, if you don't!
Gutman: Well, sir, I must say you have a most violent temper.

Spade: Think it over! You've got till 5 o'clock!

Spade: Then you're either in or out...

Spade: ...for keeps!

(Spade walks out slamming the door behind him.(Smiling, he walks down the hall to elevator, pausing momentarily to watch his hand shake in nervousness.)As he smiles at his performance and nerves, he enters the elevator,

not seeing the arrival in the next car of Joel Cairo)


"The Maltese Falcon"

Words by Dashiell Hammett and John Huston


Pictures by Arthur Eddeson and John Huston

"The Maltese Falson" is available on DVD from Warner Home Video


Next week: We'll start a series of scenes based around the theme "Tell me a Story." They'll last the entire month of July

2 comments:

walaka said...

Interesting breakdown. I wonder, though... I seem to recall that in the book, Spade had a "wolfish grin" and seemed to enjoy violence for its own sake. Perhaps this was an indication of that side of his nature, rather than amusement at artifice? That is, he was kinda excited about the whole thing.

And I think a gonzel is not a pederast, but the younger half of such a pairing.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Here is how that scene is described in Huston's screenplay.

67. Int. Hall - Alexandria

CAMERA TROLLIES down the hall ahead of Spade. He puts two blunt fingers inside his collar, and pulls it away from his throat. He licks his lips as though they were dry. Then he takes out his handkerchief, wipes his face.

Reaching the elevator, he presses the button, then raises his hand, looks at it. The hand is trembling. Spade grins. The elevator door opens. Spade enters. As the door is closing another elevator door opens and Cairo steps out. Neither man sees the other.

Again, this is Huston, not Hammett. But I don't see anything there about Spade "enjoying himself" though the word for his hand is "trembling." Notice also that the wiping of the perspiring face is left out, as it could construe nervousness. Bogart's Spade does pull out a handkerchief and wipes his hands as he comes, grinning, down the hall, but I guess star and director decided against any more hint of nervousness. "The trembling hand" was also used for Bogart's character in "To Have and Have Not."

"catamite"--that's the word. Not "pederast"--I was thrown off by Nick Danger.