Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, John Huston’s first film would come to be seen as foundational to the period of American cinema known as film noir, since it sets out many of the formal features of noir, along with the strange gender dynamics, and anxieties about sexuality, that would be so integral to this era in American cinema. The film opens with a f damsel in distress narrative, as Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) turns up at the office of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), a pair of private detectives. In breathless tones, she tells them that her sister has fallen in with Floyd Thursby, a serial bigamist, and that she has been tasked by her family to travel to San Francisco, where Spade and Archer are located, and bring her back to New York. Right from the start, the West Coast is framed as an aberration in respectable femininity, as Bridget appeals to the detectives to recover her sister and reinstate order, suggesting that they start out by shadowing Thursby to get a handle on his movements. At the same time, she cautions them against Thursby’s dangerous attributes, accentuating his masculine qualities so as to make her seem more feminine by comparison, and so more in need of the detectives’ assistance.
While Spade treats Bridget with professional reservation, Archer is smitten, and agrees to trail Thursby himself, at which point the plot quickly grows more abstruse and convoluted. After going to Thursby’s hotel, Archer is shot and killed, propelling Spade into the midst of a plot in which Ruth (whose real name is Bridget O’Shaughnessy) is part of a trio of characters who are intent on getting their hands on the Maltese Falcon, a jewel-encrusted bird created by the Knights Templars in 1539. As an opening intertitle informs us, this artefact is incomparably valuable, but has only been glimpsed intermittently in the intervening centuries, having finally – apparently – made its way to San Francisco in the last couple of days. There, Joel Cairo, (Peter Lorre) an effeminate and homosexual dealer, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the corpulent ringleader of the operation, and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr), Gutman’s body guard, are waiting to receive the bird, meaning that Spade has to insinuate himself into their circle in order to have any chance of catching Archer’s murderer.
It takes all of Spade’s resources, however, to manage the plot that unfolds around him, as he tersely – and continually – translates the convolution of the narrative into shards of economical dialogue. In the process, Huston sets out the basic syntax of noir as an oscillation between narrative sprawl and hard-boiled lexicon, in which even the most jaded swagger is never quite enough to fully contain the story, or permit the story to make total sense upon first viewing, at least in all its particulars and implications. In effect, Spade’s lexicon provides him with a shell through which he can manage and mediate the vast demands of the city, a mobile protective device that would quickly become associated with the detective’s car, once hard-boiled cinema lighted upon Los Angeles as its main backdrop.
While parts of Spade’s investigation are set during the day, daylight barely finds its way into the film. Even when daylight does occur, it feels like the tail end of night, the wee small hours of the morning – or as Spade calls them, the “ungodly hours” – which is when most of the action takes place. Midway through the film, Spade is drugged by Gutman, and wakes up on a sofa just as evening is starting to fall, and that muddled timeframe captures the broader ambience of the film as well, which always feels as if it is heading towards nightfall, even or especially when it is morning, or when Spade is embarking upon a fresh day of casework. In part, that’s a result of the sets, which are spacious but still feel cramped, just as the indoor world often feels like a form of entrapment, but also the only really safe place for us to be. The only time the action moves outside for any great length of time is the murder of Archer, which we see from the perspective of whoever is helming the gun. Not only is this sequence very emphatically set outside, with Archer tumbling down a grassy slope before coming to rest with the San Francisco cityscape glittering behind him, but it is also quite theatrically outside, as the clear use of back projection suggests that even the camera can’t quite bring itself to venture out to the street for any significant length of time.
Certainly, other scenes in the film take place outside, but they’re always shot through with a surveillant potentiality that seems to debilitate Huston’s camera as much as Spade himself. Even the longest of these scenes is cut short, as Spade realises he is being trailed, and so gets in a cab immediately, while the rest tend to involve characters stepping into or out of cars, desperate to narrow the gap between front doors and automotive transport. Meanwhile, the distance between the street and the rooms where the action unfolds takes up more and more space in the film, as if the city has intruded or been displaced into the labyrinthine corridors and elevator foyers that escort Spade to and from his destinations. Across all these wanderings, the falcon itself becomes a symbol for the film’s spatial arrangements, and the precarious narrative that Spade is forced to construct around it, since the falcon is only safe to possess in transit, whether on the way to somewhere else, or while arranging to give it to someone else. More literally, the falcon is a reminder of how much of the narrative sprawl is simply unavailable to Spade, with the opening intertitles reminding us that since the loss of the bird in the fifteenth century it has only been sighted a couple of times before turning up in San Francisco in the present day. Even in the sixteenth century, however, the falcon wasn’t entirely safe in transit, since it was first stolen, at sea, by pirates, as it was being ushered by ship from the Knights Templar to Charles V of Spain.
That loss of narrative control forms the backdrop to one of the most unsettling meditations on gender in the noir universe. From early in the film, it’s clear that while Spade might respect professional women, he’s not sexually attracted to him. Although he gets on well with his secretary, Effie Perine (Lee Patrick), the most modern woman in the film, she’s emphatically a buddy, rather than a love interest (“You’re a good man, sister”). At the same time, Spade doesn’t seem especially attracted to traditional women either, or to the vulnerability that accompanies traditional displays of femininity. While the screenplay suggests he was carrying on an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (Gladys George), he’s repelled by her the moment Archer dies, not – you sense – from guilt, but because her husband’s death reduces her to a quivering heap. Yet that begs the question of what kind of woman is attractive, and how attraction to women can be stabilised as a lynchpin of masculine identity, since Spade’s secretary is too modern to be a sexual object, and Archer’s widow is too traditional. So unclear is it what a woman is supposed to be that the nature of male desire is also unsettled, leading to an intrusion of homoerotic impulses spearheaded by Joel Cairo, who first announces himself at Spade’s office with a gardenia-scented business card.
While Cairo seems to be the only homosexual character per se, all three of the men fall short of Spade’s masculine ideals, and all three are unimaginable with a woman. Meanwhile, the only other men we see are the police force, and while they might be traditionally masculine, they are too aligned with social institutions for Spade to completely trust them. The paradox around the right kind of femininity is thus reframed as one of masculinity, as Spade finds himself around men who seem either too masculine or not masculine enough, men who run the risk of either effeminizing him or emasculating him. Here, as in so much noir, it is effeminacy, as much as femininity, that unsettles the detective, as the presence – or possibility – of homoerotic desire becomes synonymous with the flamboyant narrative sprawl against which the detective pits his hard-boiled vocabulary.
The solution that The Maltese Falcon finds to this paradox is almost as unusual as the paradox itself, as it emerges that Spade is only capable of being attracted to the performance of femininity, or the simulation of femininity. Time and again, Spade seems more delighted with Bridget when he knows she is lying, or trying to seduce him into trusting her, just as Astor brilliantly cycles through virtually all the performative modes of vulnerable femininity from the sound era, continually resetting her performance in the face of even the most scathing cynicism from Spade. It’s no coincidence that their most tender kiss occurs just as she is lying about how tired she is of lying, telling Spade that she wishes she could simply “be herself.” Nor is it a coincidence that this kiss is paused, midway through, as the camera pans over to the window where Wilmer is surveilling the building, since embracing the performative nature of femininity requires Spade to expose his own masculinity to a different kind of performative scrutiny as well. In that sense, Spade is like a cinematic audience – he knows that Bridget is acting, but is entranced by her performance despite himself. In that way, his paradoxical relation to women is absorbed into a broader cinematic paradox, in which he can only believe in Bridget’s performance because he knows it is a performance, offering cinema itself, and what would come to be known as film noir, as the prime site where this crisis in gender can be reset or at least remediated in some way.
Yet the crisis is never resolved, partly because Spade is never able to fully escape his own performance of masculinity. For every time he testifies to Bridget’s performance, Gutman testifies to the power of Spade’s performance, commending him as a “character, sir, a real character.” It is as if the audience, through Gutman, are seeing a hard-boiled cinematic character for the first time, especially as Gutman takes a particular pleasure in Spade’s hard-boiled delivery. Not only does Gutman commend Spade for his plain speaking, not only does he absorb Spade’s plain speaking into his own flamboyant verbiage, but he frames that whol process homoerotically, all in a series of utterances that are rambling and aphoristic, circuitous and direct, more and less concise than Spade, all at the same moment: “I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” In other words, Gutman takes the same pleasure in Spade’s performance as Spade does in Bridget’s, and yet the twist, is that Spade takes even more pleasure in his own performance that Bridget does in her own, or than anyone else does their own. Hence one of the most iconic moments in the film – a scene where Spade rants and raves at Gutman, before laughing to himself as he leaves the hotel.
That laugh is the anarchic kernel of The Maltese Falcon – the genesis of a whole school of noir, and beyond that neo-noir, from White Heat to Taxi Driver, in which the only recourse for disenfranchised men would be performing their masculinity to themselves in ever more insular, manic and schizophrenic ways. From Jimmy Cagney’s final monologue in White Heat to Robert De Niro’s conversation with himself in Taxi Driver, this ludic energy would sustain much of American cinematic masculinity over the next fifty years, starting here as a particularly pointed riposte to the playful performativity and comic masculinity of the high screwball era. In that sense, The Maltese Falcon is anti-screwball, even as its notion of gender is even more performative than screwball. For if Spade is only attracted to performative femininity, or cinematic femininity, then that must mean his own masculinity is performative too, as much as matter of fantasy as the cinematic screen where it is being disseminated. In that fluid space, his performance of masculine command is just as likely to settle upon the men in the film as upon Bridget, most dramatically when he threatens to slap Joel Cairo in the face if he doesn’t stop being histrionic. It’s not hard to seen, then, why noir took such a hold of the American imagination, since it perpetuates the very crisis in masculinity that it set out to dramatise and resolve, with the result that The Maltese Falcon feels oddly truncated, incomplete and abrupt in its provisional resolution, even if it is also that very sense of incompletion that made it so foundational to subsequent noir films, all of which can be understood, perhaps, as so many failed attempts to complete Huston’s vision.
It’s apt, then, that the falcon turns out to be an imitation, and that the real falcon is at large. Throughout the film, the double meaning of “bird,” and the centrality of the word “bird” to the hard-boiled lexicon, has turned the falcon into a kind of fantasy of femininity, handed from one man to the next in the dance that comprises the narrative, but also revealing, in the process, that their masculine self-image is a fantasy too. The sheer sprawl of narrative is thus in itself one the main sources of anxiety for noir, and a source of looming emasculation, just as the falcon encapsulates “all the loose ends of this dizzy affair,” and of his own masculine self-regard, that Spade never resolves. The only scene to leave the San Francisco city limits takes him to a blank lot where, he is promised, Bridget will be, and that empty zone is what the film is ultimately, desperately, trying to pivot its way around, producing a rhythm that may be indebted to San Francisco’s vertiginous twists, but which also presages the role that the unmappable Los Angeles cityscape will play in subsequent noir. In the concluding act, all the main characters wait for daylight to arrive to get their hands on the falcon, but because they never get the real falcon, it is as if daylight never arrives. Instead, we are left with the quintessential noir trope of bunkering down in a hideout – in Key West, in a petrol station, on the high sierra – for a morning that never comes. The last note is Spade demanding Bridget be honest even as her performance is what is keeping him in the room – the demand that would be addressed by the post-Hays Code cinema of the 40s, and of noir in particular, which was especially and obsessively fixated on just these aporia in American masculinity, “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and the nightmares most of all.