"'The Maltese Falcon': The Black Bird in Print and on Film. Part One of Two."
The film The Maltese Falcon is a close adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel. This should come as no surprise given the film's production. According to the DVD supplementary material "The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird", John Huston wrote the screenplay directly from the book. The result was a film that captured much of the book's plot and dialogue.
The only exceptions of note were those called for by the Hays Code. While the Hays Code prohibited director John Huston from covering some of the novel's racier aspects such as Spade sleeping with Bridget and the fact that Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer are homosexual, Huston and his cast did their best to imply what the Hays Code prevented them from showing explicitly. While The Maltese Falcon captured the dialogue and plot of the novel, what about the actors and actresses? Did they do a good job of portraying the characters? As we shall see, the cast did a remarkable job of portraying the characters as they appeared in the novel.
First, there is Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid O' Shaughnessy. The character of Brigid is more complex than she appears. One might initially believe that she is a clever, manipulative woman who hides behind the façade of an innocent. A closer analysis of her character reveals that she is a clever, manipulative woman who acknowledges her duplicitous nature in order to gain sympathy and who suggests that she will change her ways. However, this confession and apparent repentance is a charade to entrap her victims even further. Astor captures this dual layer of deception with her body movements and facial expressions. When Brigid meets with Spade after Archer's death, Brigid looks down, pauses dramatically, and says "I have a confession to make" Later in this scene, she clasps her hands and tells Spade that she has to trust him. Astor's facial expression conveys the idea that Brigid is begging Spade to believe her. Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid hints at her duplicitous nature. When Spade talks his way out of a bad situation by telling detectives Dundy and Polhaus that Brigid is one of his operatives, Astor's facial expression shows that the wheels are spinning in her head. She seems to take a professional delight in seeing a person as crafty as her. Astor does a great job of showing Brigid's dangerous charm. Brigid is a notorious liar. Spade recognizes this and yet he is still fascinated by her. Astor's depiction of Brigid makes the audience believe that even the streetwise Spade finds it hard to resist her. Even when Spade turns Brigid over to the police, Astor plays the part of the victim, consistent with the character in the novel. Mary Astor uses body positioning to act vulnerable. Astor conveys this by lying back on a couch, as if she is a patient in a psychiatrist's office baring her soul. She says "I'm so tired…tired of lying and making up lies" Later on, She takes this one step further when she lies on her back, seemingly exposing her soul but also exposing her body for Spade to take her if he so desires.
There are a couple of moments when Brigid reveals that there is more to her than appears. At one point she tells Sam that she has done "bad things". As mentioned earlier, Astor plays this almost as if Brigid is trying to get Sam's sympathy by making him think she has changed, deflecting any thoughts on his part that she might be dangerous. A second instance is when Brigid attacks Joel Cairo. Astor raises her voice, a rarity in the film, and her face glares with anger. Writer William Mooney examines Brigid's plain attire marking it as part of her disguise. He observes, "…Brigid's clothes are modest, all part of her act to play the innocent. There is only one loosening of this protective cover, when she physically attacks Joel Cairo, revealing momentarily the animal beneath the demure façade" (61). This demonstrates the added storytelling possibilities in film. Despite an excellent portrayal of Brigid, it is difficult overlooking Mary Astor's matronly look in the film. The novel describes her as 22 while Astor was about 35 when the film was released. Regardless, Astor does a terrific job of capturing O'Shaughnessy's manipulative nature. She can play the naïve part along with a subtext that she is cunning. The true femme fatale relies more on her personality and charm than just physical beauty. I have no doubt that this ability to portray Brigid so well overrode director Huston's concern that she might not resemble the character physically.
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Hammett, Dashiell. "The Maltese Falcon" Dashiell Hammett Complete Novels: Red Harvest,
The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Thin Man. Ed. Steven Marcus. New York: The Library of America, 1999. 387-585. Print.
The Maltese Falcon. Dir. John Huston. Perfs. Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George,
Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. 1941. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2006.
"The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird". (Supplementary material on DVD release of The Maltese Falcon). 2006. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2006. Mooney, William. "Sex, Booze, and the Code: Four Versions of the Maltese Falcon." Literature- Film Quarterly 39.1 (2011): 54+. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.