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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, Apr 1 1998
The Maltese Falcon
John Huston's The Maltese Falcon is a high-water mark of tough-guy storytelling and the most influential movie in the whole Warner Bros. Festival of Classics running at the Castro this week. In this faithful rendering of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled masterpiece, first-time writer/director Huston and his favorite star, Humphrey Bogart, created a dangerous, edgy model of American manhood. Independent and unpredictable, their Sam Spade is a private eye with a solid code and a vicious streak. His antagonists include a temperamental homosexual (Peter Lorre) and an antsy kid (Elisha Cook Jr.) who's referred to as a "gunsel" -- a slang term with two dictionary meanings, "punk" and "catamite." Spade's women are the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) and his partner's wife (Gladys George). When Bogart slaps Lorre around or embarrasses Cook, Huston plays the scenes for laughs -- the victories are too easy. When Spade explains why he's going to hand the woman he loves over to the police, you're simultaneously impressed by his professionalism and revolted (or amused) by his bookkeeping approach to romance.

Spade's coldblooded romantic accounting may mean different things to men and women. To Dwight Macdonald, this summing-up is the movie's "great scene," illustrating Spade's wised-up priorities: "He rates his own skin first (realism about death), money second (in a capitalist economy, money is part of one's skin) and sexual love third." Pauline Kael, however, regrets "that Huston didn't (or couldn't) retain Hammett's final twist" -- Spade's girl Friday, Effie (Lee Patrick), realizing "what a bastard Spade is." Kael still loves the movie for Spade's "ambiguous mixture of avarice and honor, sexuality and fear." And she's right. The omission of that last bit of Hammett ensured that Spade's image as the loner-professional with a code would endure more strongly than his image as a sadistic bastard.

-- Michael Sragow

The Maltese Falcon screens Tuesday, April 7, at 9:30 p.m. as part of the 32-film "Warner Bros. 75th Anniversary Festival of Film Classics," running April 3-9 at the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market). (The festival repeats April 10-16 at the UC Theater in Berkeley.) Tickets are $6.50; call 621-6120. For a complete schedule, see Reps Etc., Page 69.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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