A PERCEIVED SENSE OF CONTROL IS DANGEROUS:
in the maltese falcon (1941), humphrey bogart plays sam spade, a private detective whose sense of knowingness is forever suspect. what unfolds is a brilliant, complex tale: three men and one woman on a ruthless search for a jeweled falcon, all seemingly unaware of the other’s connections to spade, all equally dangerous.
the film opens when a new client, ms. brigid o’shaughnessy (mary astor), tells her story to spade. Iit does not involve the falcon, but rather, her sister’s dangerous fiancé, thursby, who must be tracked. for spade’s services, she offers a large sum of cash. bogart nods, rolls a cigarette. ms. o’shaughnessy figures him her idiot—he believed! not until their next meeting does it become clear that not only did he not believe her, he understood the exact extent of her fibbing: “you paid us more than if you had been telling the truth and more than enough to make it alright.” when Spade mentions that his partner, archer, was killed while tailing thursby, she says something to the effect “how sad.” without pause bogart replies, “stop it. he knew what he was getting into. those are the chances we take.” spade already knows that a perceived sense of control is perhaps most dangerous of all.
although the film was made twice prior, neither version achieved critical or box office success. the 1941 john huston production excelled for two main reasons: the script’s adherence to dashiell hammett’s original text and humphrey bogart. bogart was not warner’s first pick; studio politics had already selected george raft. when raft refused, huston hired bogart. after viewing early footage, warner head hal wallis urged huston to re-shoot. the problem: bogart was playing spade with a “leisurely, suave form of delivery.” wallis’ advice: let bogart be bogart.
a similar situation had occurred during the casting of Bogart’s breakout role in The Petrified Forest (1936) as unhinged outlaw Duke Manatee. Primarily a character actor, Bogart often played the violent sidekick of stars like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and James Cagney. “The audience was trained to dislike him,” writes David Thompson, “...a guy you could not trust to trust.” Leslie Howard, the star of The Petrified Forrest, wanted Bogart specifically for the role of the volatile Manatee: “No Bogart, No deal?”
in 1941 bogart hardly resembled hammet’s description of spade: blonde hair, over six feet tall, widow’s peak, shifty as the devil incarnate. Instead, he was in his early forties, balding, face puffy with drink. unlike the uber-manly james bond of the future with his impeccable, phlegmatic cool, when bogart gets hurt, he really gets hurt. and, more importantly, he is aware that there is not always a way not to get hurt. in the maltese falcon, bogart, or the he pioneered, realizes that to be smart requires a degree of fallibility: you never know what the other person in the room is thinking, will do; to be triumphant often requires degradation.
my favorite moment: when spade says to joel cairo—a gun-toting, immaculately coifed, gunsel for the villainous Fat Man—“i’ll slap you and you’ll like it.” bogart smacks cairo (peter lorre) almost playfully then takes his gun, shuts him up. gun fights aside, the pair agrees that spade will find the falcon, no questions asked, for a steep fee. however, this will not be their last confrontation. in fact, it is through bogart’s dealings with the fat man, and his hired help, that the viewer understands the extent to which bogart outsmarts nearly everyone he encounters.
directly after his visit with cairo, bogart meets the fat man’s second, still green, lackey wilmer (elisha cook jr.) on his way to ms. o’shaughnessy’s apartment. assigned by the fat man to follow spade, it takes spade only a minute or two to lose him. after hoping inside a taxi, bogart instructs the driver to stop at a random apartment. once inside the building, bogart presses every number on the call box then waltzes out the back door only to watch from the street a befuddled wilmer toiling over the call box. spade equally outwits the master himself, the fat man (sydney greenstreet). during the pair’s first meeting, the fat man pours spade a drink, asks, “are you a closed-mouthed man?” “no, I like to talk,” says spade. the fat man raises his glass: “i distrust a closed mouth man...here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.” despite his colloquialisms, the Fat Man rarely speaks clearly or directly, and the pleasantries dissolve when a raging bogart stands to his feet, smashes his glass, and delivers the Fat Man an ultimatum: if you are interested in my services, get me the money and details by 5:00 pm the following evening. here, as elsewhere, bogart’s upperhand relies on a plausible bluff: if the fat man believes spade knows the falcon’s whereabouts, he will not kill him or intimidate him too brutally. his sense of control, his “smartness” is only an appearance, an educated guess, a gamble. as soon as he shuts the door to the fat man’s apartment, he grins as he walks insouciant down the hall. the viewer is led to believe that his rage was merely an act, that spade played the fat man, and played him hard, which was his plan all along. But this is wrong. waiting for the elevator, bogart looks down at his hand, which is shaking violently, and when he smiles at his own hand, it is not a gesture of smug self-approval, but rather, a kind of stupefied disbelief that he actually pulled it off, nerves and all.
the maltese falcon is one of hollywood’s greatest films, not only because of the fantastic dialogue, lifted more or less directly from hammett’s original text, or its pared down, harshly lit, direct cinematography, but for the questions it raises: are knowledge and power the same thing? and if not, what is the nature of their relationship?
towards the end of the film, the fat man invites spade to his office and mixes him a drink. spade is aware that the drink is probably spiked. unwilling to blow his cover, the entire case, to avoid a single moment of degradation, bogart swallows the drink, falls to the floor. wilmer, still roiling from spade’s merciless taunts and evasions, kicks him not once but twice in the face. bogart knew this would happen. but to be sprawled on the floor, kicked in the face, to be drugged does not make him weak or stupid or any less triumphant: it happens to him—is out of his control, a natural occurrence if one is to venture into the wild. while it is logical to assume that the fat man will not kill or otherwise physically maim him while drugged, it is only an assumption, an educated guess, gamble taken under the false assurance of “facts” and “logic.”
if the fat man had murdered him, it would not have made spade any less suave or shrewd. knowledge is invaluable insofar as it can help lessen, if not always prevent, the brunt of the wild instant. spade’s greatest strength is his awareness, and acceptance of, personal fallibility. you can never know what someone will do to you. you never possess full control. bogart takes the kick in the face, but he does not forget it.