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Common reads > The Maltese Falcon --spoiler thread

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message 1: by Werner (last edited Jan 15, 2009 06:33AM) (new)

Werner Since Jim suggested a spoiler thread for this discussion, I thought it wouldn't hurt to go ahead and start one, for those who've already read the book. The others can chime in as they finish it!

To start with, I'll pose a question. Agatha Christie took a lot of flak from mystery fans because, in one of her novels, the narrator is revealed in the end to be the murderer; many people felt that she had broken some kind of sacred unwritten rule of mystery writing. American noir fans probably weren't as nitty-picky about rules, written or unwritten, as British mystery buffs; but the idea of having the detective's love interest turn out to be the killer is certainly a departure from the usual mystery storyline, at least in those of the more traditional sort. Did you feel that Hammett was committing a grave literary sin here? Or is the proper verdict, "Fooled you --and fair!" as Dorothy Sayers said about Christie's denouement?

message 2: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I thought it was a fine story & I had no issues with the way he handled it, except maybe that she actually managed it. Big gun for a lady to use properly without bruising or goofing it. Actually, I thought the chase he led us on was fun & very good.

message 3: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
I got to watch "The Maltese Falcon" last night with Bogie & directed by John Houston. With the cold, we started to watch TV early & I watched most of it while my wife was out doing the horses.

It followed the book very closely. It was fantastic to watch. Almost like re-reading the book. There were a few things cut out, but they were very minor, IMO. He found the item about the boat circled in the trash in the movie. In the book, he found a section cut out & had to get an old copy & figure it out. An empty lot rather than an empty house when she runs him around. Two examples that did nothing to harm the story, just cut it down a bit.

While Bogie wasn't the Sam Spade described by Hammet, he worked for me. So did all the other actors. The lines were perfectly delivered. Some were so memorable in the book were even more so on the screen. I'd highly suggest watching the movie after reading the book.

message 4: by Werner (new)

Werner Jim, quick question: what does the abbreviation "&amp" stand for? Excuse my ignorance! :-)

message 5: by Dan (last edited Jan 18, 2009 09:46AM) (new)

Dan Schwent (akagunslinger) Werner wrote: "Jim, quick question: what does the abbreviation "&amp" stand for? Excuse my ignorance! :-)"

Even though you asked Jim, I'll field this one. "&amp" is the replacement for the "&" symbol in HTML or XML code so web browsers can display it properly. I've noticed that it shows up in people's Goodreads feed but not their original posts. It looks like there's a bug somewhere in the Goodreads code.

message 6: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
Dan's right. I don't see "&amp" just an ampersand, so something isn't formatting correctly. I rarely write "and" preferring the ampersand, so if you ever see "&amp" again, please just translate it mentally.

The movie soft pedalled the sex a bit more than the book. We don't see Shaughnessy spending the night or any gay relationship. We don't really have to see the former & the latter wasn't something I missed either. It may have removed a little of the impact of the betrayal of the gunman, but not much.

message 7: by Tim (new)

Tim Byrd (timbyrd) | 48 comments Jim wrote: "It followed the book very closely. It was fantastic to watch. Almost like re-reading the book. "

If I remember correctly, the script is an almost exact translation of the novel, one of the few instances of that ever being done. (It's the only one I know of).

www.DocWilde.com, home of the Frogs of Doom

message 8: by John (new)

John Mayer | 66 comments As to the gay relationship, if I recall correctly Wilmer (was that the Elisha Cook character? It’s been many years) was described in the book as Guttman’s gunzel, which, I believe, is Yiddish for gay lover. Because the term includes “gun” people quickly assumed it was underworld slang for gunman, and it quickly became a common term for gunhand in mysteries thereafter (sorry if I’m repeating common knowledge). Hammett, of course, also wrote The Thin Man, but I don’t know that he had much to do with the movies, or if he started writing The Fat Man for radio as sort of a repudiation of the movies. Seems like I heard something along those lines. He wrote some of the radio scripts; very few of the shows are known to still exist.

Hammett was fun to read, but not, in my view, very realistic, which seems surprising since Hammett actually WAS a detective.

message 9: by Werner (new)

Werner John, that's interesting (and not common knowledge at all!). My recollection of the term Hammett used, though, is "gunsel," with an s rather than a z --I'll have to check the book out and look it up. (And would Hammett necessarily have known Yiddish? I'm not very familiar with his life; I didn't know he was ever a detective, for instance.)

When I read the book, I picked up on the fact that Cairo was effeminate, and on the hints that he might be homosexual and have a crush on Wilmer; but I didn't get the idea that Wilmer was effeminate or returned his feelings. And Guttman didn't come across as homosexual; he compared his feelings for Wilmer to a father-son relationship. (Of course, the family was pretty dysfunctional.... :-))

message 10: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
John, that's very interesting. I always thought of a gunsel or gunzel as a hoodlum, not knowing it could also mean gay. According to Wiktionary, it can mean both: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gunsel

Wikipedia has an interesting article on 'The Maltese Falcon' too. Here is the 1941 version with Bogie:
& here is the 1931 version:

There are a lot of interesting facts in the article, including that this was Greenstreet's first film. It lead to many others & [from the Wikipedia article:]
"Greenstreet's characterization had such a strong cultural impact that the "Fat Man" atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II was named after him.[9:] The appellation "Fat Man" for Gutman was created for the film - in the novel, although he is a fat man, he is referred to as "G.""

Wow! History is so cool.

message 11: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments I just finished reading the book, and I didn't get the feeling that Wilmer and Cairo were lovers at all. Cairo is almost certainly homosexual. Besides his dress and mannerisms, either Luke the hotel detective or Spade, when talking to each other, refer to him as a "fairy," which--unlike "gunsel"--has only one possible meaning in this context.

But Wilmer seems repulsed by Cairo, at least physically. He draws away from him in disgust at one point toward the end, when Cairo is touching him and whispering in his ear and Gutman and Spade are discussing how to set Wilmer up for a fall. So, John, I'm not 100% convinced by your assertion that Hammett used "gunsel" as a synonym for "catamite." Although when I looked the word up in my dictionary, it does say that the word "gunsel" entered the English lexicon in 1929, and comes from the the Yiddish slang word for "catamite," which is derived from the Yiddish word for "gosling." Similar, I suppose, to today's word, "twink."

Could Hammett have just been using the word as a joke? Besides the use of the word, is there any evidence in the text that either Gutman or Wilmer is gay? Or that they are lovers?

message 12: by Werner (last edited Feb 01, 2009 05:41AM) (new)

Werner Wilmer not only drew away from Cairo in disgust at that point, but hit him in the mouth, drawing blood, and "snarled, 'Keep away from me.'" When I read it, my interpretation was that he was probably reacting to a homosexual advance, and Spade's "the course of true love" wisecrack hinted at the same thing.

Spade, of course, gets a major kick out of annoying people. So his use of the term "gunsel," even with a homosexual connotation, might have just reflected his belief that it would be insulting to Gutman (who might have been Jewish, given his name), rather than any conviction on his part that the two actually were lovers.

message 13: by John (new)

John Mayer | 66 comments Adam said: ‘So, John, I'm not 100% convinced by your assertion that Hammett used "gunsel" as a synonym for "catamite.” ‘

It’s not my assertion; it’s fairly common knowledge (not all that common, apparently). Here’s a clip from Wiktionary: ‘The former usage - a gun-toting hoodlum - derives from Dashiel Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon". Hammett's publisher at the time refused to allow any rude or profane terminology in his publication. Hammett slipped in "gunsel" - a street term for a young, gay man - as a joke. Since it is used throughout the book to refer to the character of Wilmer - a gun-toting thug - most people erroneously assumed that is what it meant and it stuck.‘

In other words, the homosexual meaning came first and the misuse of the word for gunhand derived from Hammett’s usage. Therefore, Hammett could hardly have intended a usage that didn’t yet exist.

Maybe Wilmer and Cairo were both Gay and Wilmer just wasn’t attracted to Sissies, as they were euphemistically called on radio. Funny, I never assumed Cairo was gay in the movie, just foppish. I read the book after seeing the movie, so it still didn’t dawn on me. In fact, since I hadn’t heard the trivia bit about gunsel, the fact that any of the characters were gay didn’t occur to me as best I can recall. But, like I said, it was a long time ago when I read it and most of us were probably much less sensitive to such things.

message 14: by John (new)

John Mayer | 66 comments PS  What’s a catamite?

message 15: by Charles (new)

Charles (kainja) | 30 comments If I remember correctly, a catamite is a male homosexual who likes to play the more feminine role.

I think it's pretty clear in the book that Cairo is gay and is attracted to Wilmer, but that Wilmer does not return the affection.

message 16: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments A catamite is specifically a boy or a young man who is in a sexual relationship with an older man. That's the dictionary definition.

message 17: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments re: the word "gunsel," here's a good article: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topical... It supports everything you said, John.

message 18: by John (new)

John Mayer | 66 comments Interesting article, Adam. Sounds like Hammett intended for the word to be misinterpreted (or interpreted two different ways). But I doubt he would have anticipated how widespread the erroneous usage would become, even traveling back into the past and the old west. Since incorrect pronunciations become accepted as correct (like forte pronounced for-tay instead of the correct fort), I wonder if incorrect usages become correct also. Is gunsel now a proper term - even if anachronistic in Deadwood - for gunhand?

message 19: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments "Gunman" is absolutely a correct definition for "gunsel," and has been for a long time. But interestingly, if you look the word up in most dictionaries, it gives both definitions. "Catamite" and "gunman (slang)."

message 20: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments Last night I watched Roy Del Ruth's 1931 film version of The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid O'Shaugnnessy (although she goes by the name of Ruth Wonderly for the entirety of the picture).

I really enjoyed it. The direction and acting weren't as good as John Huston's version from 1941, but it was a lot sexier and Spade was more of a heel. It was a faithful adaptation of the book, except for the last couple of minutes (Spade gets a job with the D.A.'s office as an investigator and also goes to visit Ruth Wonderly in prison ... there's also the matter of an eyewitness to Archer's crime that means that Spade would have known all along who killed Archer, at least that's the implication). Obviously there were elisions, since it was only an hour and twenty minutes long, but it's worth seeing, especially if you've just read the book.

Also, I've seen intercourse visually symbolized plenty of times with trains going through tunnels, but this was the first time I've seen the big needle in an old 78 record pounding back and forth in the end groove really fast to symbolize "doin' it." And it was awesome.

message 21: by Jim, Co-moderator (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
It's interesting that you noticed the older movie was sexier, Adam. (Where did you manage to find it?) According to the Wikipedia article I linked in my last post, Huston faced a lot harder censorship. I hadn't realized that we'd become less permissive in the middle of the century than we were at the ends.

The book made me think Cairo was gay & had the hots for Wilmer, but nothing ever made me think the affection was returned. I saw the movie after reading the book & thought that he could have been gay in the movie, but it wasn't clear.

I think it is so cool that Hammett managed to create a new meaning for a word. Wow! The power of the press.

message 22: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments The older version is sexier for a very simple reason; The Hays Code (which was adopted by the motion picture industry in 1930 but was not actively enforced until 1934.) Pre-Code cinema isn't too racy by today's standards, but it's very suggestive. Unlike Huston's version, Spade really does make Wonderly strip in the kitchen to discover if she took the $1,000 bill, and while she's not shown nude, there are several shots of her lovely neck and shoulders as she hold her crumpled clothes to her breasts and listens intently to the goings-on in the living room.

Spade's sleaziness in the 1931 version is off the charts, too. He seems to be interested in only three things: 1. Pussy, 2. Money, 3. Justice. And his interest in justice is a distant third behind money and pussy.

The gay stuff was really soft-pedalled in Del Ruth's version, though. Peter Lorre was more stereotypically gay-acting in Huston's version than is the man who plays Cairo in the 1931 version. Dwight Frye (who played Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula around the same time) does a good, creepy job playing Wilmer. And Dudley Digges acted and spoke exactly as I imagined Gutman while I read the novel, though he wasn't quite fat enough.

A DVD of the 1931 version is easy to get your hands on. It's on the second disc of the three-disc special edition of The Maltese Falcon (1941) released on DVD in 2006. Also on the disc is the looser comedic adaptation of The Maltese Falcon from 1936 with Bette Davis called Satan Met a Lady (which I plan to watch as well). You can search "maltese falcon dvd" on Amazon.com or rent it from Netflix.

message 23: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments Today I listened to a one-hour radio version of The Maltese Falcon that was originally presented on Lux Radio Theater on February 8, 1943. It stars Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade. Here's a link to an mp3:


It's less than an hour long with all the pitches for Lux soap flakes and admonitions to housewives to save their cooking fat so it can be made into dynamite (eat it, Axis!), so there are a lot of elisions and little details from the novel that are lost. Also, Robinson gives a fine vocal performance as Spade, but I couldn't help picturing his face the whole time, and he's definitely not what I picture Spade looking like. Still, it's a fun little adaptation, and worth listening to if you've recently read the novel.

message 24: by Jim, Co-moderator (last edited Feb 09, 2009 06:25PM) (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 234 comments Mod
Thanks, Adam. I actually have the Lux audio version. It's about 13mb zipped. It's probably available on Archive.org, but I'm on the modem & too lazy to check right now. If someone wants it & can't find it, let me know & I'll put it up on my site for download.

I see I have "The Thin Man" & "The African Queen" as well.

message 25: by Adam (new)

Adam | 70 comments There's another radio version of The Maltese Falcon available on archive.org starring all the people from the John Huston film; Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet. It was broadcast in 1946 on "Academy Award Theater." I haven't listened to it yet, but probably will soon.

Archive.org is great. They've also got a ton of episodes of "The Adventures of Sam Spade." None of the stories were directly written by Hammett, but Howard Duff has a great voice to play Spade, and his banter with Lurene Tuttle (who plays Effie Perine), is a lot of fun.

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