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David Hines [userpic]

thoughts on THE MALTESE FALCON

December 3rd, 2009 (07:45 pm)
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THE MALTESE FALCON is one of my favorite books (though not, I think, my favorite Hammet; that'd be RED HARVEST, which I *really* want to see filmed with period setting but cast black so Don Cheadle can play the Continental Op), but only today did I get around to watching the film. That's the classic version, with Bogard and Astor and Lorre and Greenstreet -- Hollywood had filmed it several times before, but they quit after they got it right. There's a lesson in that.

(Side note: I don't know *how* I'd forgotten that the screenplay and direction were by John Huston. It gives remarkable reverberance to Polanski and Towne's CHINATOWN, because when Jack Nicholson's private eye Jake Gittes is sitting across a table grilling Huston's character, he's *grilling the guy who adapted and directed THE MALTESE FALCON.*)

Anyway, the thing that struck me, watching the film, is that the character I wound up feeling the most for was not in a million years the character I'd expected to.

THE MALTESE FALCON is a book about personal politics. I have a theory on story that I haven't written out yet, but the gist of it is that the job of the writer is not so much to have stuff happen -- although that's very important -- but *to evolve the social situation.* As in, the characters are faced with a social problem, which alters as they move through it. "Social" here means "involving people." The catch is that this dynamic must change, and that individual scenes must affect the course of this dynamic. Otherwise the story is boring. I call these changes "turns," by the way. A story is not a story unless it has turns to it; ie, it evolves its social situation. The longer a story, the more turns you will need.) An example is the DOCTOR WHO episode "Midnight," which takes place pretty much on one set within a very limited timeframe. This would easily gets boring, but the story changes -- it has turns. First turn: the vehicle breaks down. Second turn: something is outside. Third turn: the something gets *inside.* Fourth turn: the characters have to figure out what to do about the something inside. Fifth turn: their opinion on what to do *changes.* Et cetera.

Anyway, this has absolutely nothing to do with what I was talking about, except for the fact that THE MALTESE FALCON is entirely about social situations. It's not about blood and guts and guns; it's about people trying to maneuver each other into doing things. The end of the book, which takes place entirely in Sam Spade's apartment, involves complex negotiations about how the problem the characters have made for themselves is going to be resolved, including 1) how much money Sam is getting for the black bird and 2) who is going to be the fall guy for the murders that have taken place over the course of the story, because if the police don't get one fall guy to make a simple case on, they will have no choice but to make a complex case that may ensnare any or all of the people in Sam Spade's living room. Spade's choice for the fall guy is Wilmer Cook, played in the film by Elisha Cook, Jr.

Reading the book, I was most drawn to Spade, who is in a hell of a situation and thinks faster than a motherfucker to play everybody against each other, and is amazingly quick and ruthless about it. (There is a lot of male dominance game stuff (which I had on my mind in part because of last night's episode of the UFC's reality TV show THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER, which employed some dramatic male dominance gamesmanship), mostly between (the heterosexual) Sam Spade and (the homosexual) Wilmer Cook and Joel Cairo, but not in the blood-and-guts cock-measuring style Mickey Spillane's later Mike Hammer; Spade doesn't outposture or outfight people -- though he does both; mainly, he *outthinks* them, so his dominance games are more subtle than Hammer's; basically, Sam Spade is John Malkovich while Mike Hammer is Christopher Walken.) But watching the film, I was surprisingly drawn to Elisha Cook's Wilmer -- as Spade calls him, "the gunsel." "Gunsel" is often thought to mean "gunman," which is how it got by the censors; actually, it means "queer." Spade needles Wilmer a lot, and overcomes him socially and physically; he gets Wilmer expelled from a hotel lobby, and at one point takes Wilmer's guns away, which is even more of a symbolic castration than you'd think because Wilmer is very young, very emotional, and very proud, and unlike literally *everyone else in the story,* who is a quick thinker, Wilmer's guns are literally all he's got.

Wilmer, in short, is in totally over his head. He has guns he is quick to use, and eager to use, because killing people is the only thing he knows how to do: he tries to follow Spade, and gets caught; he tries to search a ship, and accidentally *sets it on fire.* Wilmer is desperate to prove his worth to others -- it's clear he greatly admires Sydney Greenstreet's mastermind Caspar Gutman and the urbane Joel Cairo, who is also Wilmer's lover -- and to himself, and Sam Spade just keeps showing him up at every turn. And then Spade convinces the people Wilmer loves to turn on him.

Man, *poor fucking Wilmer.*

Now I kind of want the AU where Spade accepts Gutman's offer and goes to Istanbul with everybody to try to get the black bird from the Russian general Kemidov. Or one where poor Wilmer somehow gets paroled after twenty years, and tries to kill Spade, only Spade disarms him again and then buys him a beer. And then presses charges and sends Wilmer right back to prison, because he can't trust Wilmer to not try to kill him again.

Comments

Posted by: Elleria (elleria)
Posted at: December 4th, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
Yellow Dragon

You ever read Spade and Archer by Joe Gores? It's a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. It's very good, and very well done sticking to the style of Dashiell Hammett.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: December 5th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)

No; I'll have look it up...

Posted by: A large duck (burger_eater)
Posted at: December 4th, 2009 05:43 am (UTC)

Although I've never seen it, Elisha Cook reprises the role of Wilmer in THE BLACK BIRD, a 1975 sequel with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr.

I should watch that movie someday.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: December 5th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)

I discovered that while looking up the movie! I really want to see that, now.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 4th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)

On the subject of Alternate Universes, the typo in your post that conflates Humphrey Bogart with Dirk Bogarde ....

;-)

STEVE O.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: December 7th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC)

Hah! Thanks.

Posted by: Bill A (billa1)
Posted at: December 6th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)

I come to the party late, but I have to tell you I've read the book and loved the Bogart movie, but I've never read any better essay on the character dynamics than what you wrote. I simply thought it was about avenging your partner even if he was S.O.B. just because he was your partner and you had a code that required justice for the guy and besides you felt guilty because you were sleeping with his wife. But I like your take on the characters. You're right, Wilmar was just as much as a victim as Miles. Nice job. :)

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: December 7th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)

Not just as much. Wilmer is still a shit -- remember, he commits two murders -- but he is an ineffectual little shit, which condemns him to life as a pawn...

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