Until this week, I had never seen The Maltese Falcon (1941), John Huston’s directorial debut starring Humphrey Bogart.
Of course, The Maltese Falcon’s reputation preceded it, but what struck me was the movie’s take on its women, reduced by Bogart's hard boiled Sam Spade to “precious” or “angel,” but really heroes and villains in their own right.
It’s easy to write off the Falcon as sexist, or even misogynist: Female characters are brushed off with barely a thought, placated with sweet nicknames or a brief moment in Spade’s fickle arms. One woman, however, defies this trend, with insistent character development that brings her again and again to the fore and leaves you thinking that perhaps John Huston was a step or two ahead of his time.
This woman is The Maltese Falcon’s femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She shows little promise for upsetting normative gender relations when she first enters the screen, described by Spade’s loyal assistant Effie as a “knockout.” A teary-eyed victim, she tells Spade about her sister who has run away from New York to San Francisco to be with a dangerous man. Weepy, breathy, shaky and wrapped in furs, Brigid wants Sam Spade to help her get her errant sister back.
But when Brigid appears next, it starts to become clear there's more to her story—and her character—than we first realized. Sam Spade, ingenious private detective, could tell she was lying, even though we couldn’t. She had given a fake name and invented her story to cover up the troublesome truth of her own circumstances. Throughout the film, she lies through her teeth, until Sam, and we, can hardly rely on a word she says.
We have to keep listening, however, as this beautiful liar is the only person on Sam Spade’s side who holds the key to the mystery at the heart of the plot. With her reluctantly disclosed knowledge, she is the owner of the movie’s story, its true narrator—a powerful position for any woman in classic cinema.
Don’t get me wrong—Brigid isn’t exactly empowered by this film; she’s certainly no Mae West. In the end, Spade sends her to prison against her will as she tries desperately to stop him by professing her love. But having entered the story as an apparent victim, she is carted off as a perpetrator—an undeniably more complex figure than the precious image that first met the eye.
If you, like me, haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, now’s your chance: It will kick off the METRO CLASSICS series at Landmark’s Metro Theatre in the University District this Wednesday, March 4, playing at 7 and 9:15pm.
The series brings a classic film to the screen every Wednesday night until April 29, and includes greats like Forbidden Planet, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, My Own Private Idaho, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Fly.
A special thanks to the programmers at Metro for including My Own Private Idaho in with the black & white classics. Haven't seen that one either. And I'll happily put away my long-held anti-Keanu prejudice for early Gus Van Sant on the big screen any day.