Feminist Fridays: The Women of The Maltese Falcon

Chapter Three of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is titled, appropriately enough, “Three Women.” It opens with Sam Spade chastising his exhausted secretary, Effie Perine, for allowing Iva Archer, his dead partner’s widow, into the office. Spade is impatient with the woman–his secret lover–and extricates himself from her clutches as soon as possible. He later attempts to track down the elusive Miss Wonderly, who has checked out of her hotel in the wake of Miles Archer’s death.

As with much of the original novel, “Three Women” is translated almost verbatim into John Huston’s screenplay for the 1941 film. And of the three screen adaptations of The Maltese Falcon, Huston’s version best captures each of these women in the cinematic flesh. Through astute casting and subsequently strong performances, the film fleshes out three very different (yet familiar) female archetypes: the helpmate, the “spider,” and the conniving bitch. Spade’s interactions with the three women whose lives are intertwined with his own–Effie, Iva, and Wonderly (soon to be revealed as Brigid O’Shaughnessy)–reveal much about his character, and also illuminate how the über-masculine Spade rejects the very notion of femininity, even while he is, in some ways, very much at the mercy of the so-called “weaker” sex.

Effie (played by Lee Patrick) is the woman who knows all of Spade’s faults and accepts him for who he is (for the most part). Though he is somewhat affectionate in his regard for her–more so than with any other woman in the film–there is little indication that their relationship is, or has ever been, sexual. If anything, Effie treats Spade almost maternally. But theirs is ultimately a business arrangement: as his secretary, she keeps his life in order and follows his instructions to the letter, the very definition of a “Girl Friday.” Perhaps because of this, Spade does not treat her with the same shrouded contempt and judgment with which he views the other female figures in the film–though he still objectifies Effie, much as he does Iva and Brigid, by calling her “angel” in lieu of her given name.

Of the female characters, Iva (Gladys George) comes closest to stereotype as the prototypical “woman scorned.” She thinks enough of herself and her charms (the “web” in which she believes she has trapped the man) to assume that Spade killed Archer just to be with her. But his reluctance to see her after Archer’s death, and his disgusted facial expressions when she throws herself into his arms, indicate that Spade has lost interest in the woman. Spade finds Iva’s weeping–put-on though it may be–a nuisance, and she becomes an albatross around his neck when her fury over his short-sighted rejection of her (and the drama surrounding her) leads to Iva informing the police about their affair. In this case, Spade underestimates the trouble that a woman could cause him, and it ends up putting even more pressure on him as he tries to unravel the mystery of the black bird.

And then there’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Of any character in the film, she most matches Spade in both wits and manipulative prowess–as I stated in yesterday’s entry on the film, Brigid and Spade are, in some respects, two sides of the same damaged coin. But Brigid is somewhat more transparent than her male counterpart; her breathless speech and inability to look Spade directly in the eyes (notice how she’s always looking past him or to the side or up at the ceiling in many of their scenes together) mark her as a liar almost from the start. And Spade sees right through what he calls Brigid’s “schoolgirl” act; he does not believe her initial story when she hires him, and he does not believe anything she subsequently says. Knowing Spade distrusts her, however, does not stop Brigid from using her feminine wiles to try and ensnare Spade … and it works, to a degree–the man simply can’t help himself. One could argue that, with the two of them, the attraction is merely sexual, and an extension of Spade’s aggressive nature. The first time he kisses her, Spade grabs her face roughly and practically forces her lips to meet his–it’s an act of pure, possessive lust, not affection. And yet it works, because Brigid instinctively understands and accepts his aggression, because it’s an equally important part of her own nature. The fact that Spade even appears to entertain the thought, however briefly, of allowing Brigid to get away with Archer’s murder indicates the level to which she got to him–when he offers to wait for her, and hopes aloud that they don’t “hang [her] … by that sweet neck,” it’s the biggest concession Spade will allow in regards to the weakness of emotional attachment. Of course, that’s pretty much ruined with his next statement: “If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.” Quite the romantic, that Sam Spade.

It’s also worth noting that these women are not the only “feminine” characters whose paths cross Spade’s in the film. Just as there is a trio of female foils, there is a triad of male figures whose masculinity–at least in the eyes of Spade himself–is so negligible that they could be considered another “womanly” group within the film (in fact, there seems to be a theme of “threes” within the film–three women, three male criminals, three identities for Brigid, etc. … though the significance of that may be minimal, at best). Peter Lorre’s character, Dr. Cairo, can also be considered a feminine influence on Spade–and a decidedly unwelcome one, at that. Spade’s ire is raised from the moment Effie hands him Cairo’s gardenia-scented calling card, and is heightened when the foppish man enters the detective’s office. Spade takes a great deal of pleasure in bullying the effeminate Cairo, first by essentially emasculating the criminal by disarming the man of his (phallic) weapon, and later through physically imposing his brute strength on Cairo with a solid punch to the jaw. In Spade’s mind, Cairo is the epitome of weakness–a man whose appearance and demeanor are overtly feminine–and the man must thereby be punished. That same mindset extends to the gunsel, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.); Spade enjoys teasing Wilmer, casting doubt upon his abilities and then taking visible delight when Wilmer attempts to “man up” by threatening to kill Spade. And Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), though in many ways the most masculine of the film’s evildoers, is, by virtue of being Wilmer’s supposed lover, included in Spade’s derision. When the detective tries to turn Gutman against Wilmer, he does so by reminding Gutman that there is always another “son” (read: lover) out there, but only one gold-encrusted falcon. Spade’s expression during this scene hints at his distaste at the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer, but despite his own rejection of the very concept, Spade is not above using it as a means to an end.

The movie ends with Brigid being taken away to jail, but the book revisits the other two women in Spade’s life, ending with his return to his office, where he must face Effie’s disapproval and Iva’s continued presence in his life. There is a sense, however, that Spade will reject both–that he will ignore Effie’s feelings about what he has done to Brigid, and that he will, at some point, cast Iva out for good, for ultimately, Spade’s rejection of the feminine is an essential part of his character. His rough-hewn exterior–crude, hard-boiled, sometimes cruel–exists, in part, because it differentiates him from the “weaknesses” that affect others. He doesn’t demonstrate outward compassion after Archer’s death because doing so would mark him, too, as somewhat weak. The same goes for his final confrontation with Brigid; to allow her to get away with murder, all in the name of love, would be the action of a soft man, not a strong one. After all, sympathy and emotion are feminine traits, not to be tolerated in a “real” man. The most Spade can manage without compromising his self-made image is an occasional pat on the head for Effie, whose non-sexualized persona is no threat to Spade’s seemingly hard-won masculinity.

8 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: The Women of The Maltese Falcon

  1. I think it was wise to eliminate Guttman’s daughter for the film. The remaining ladies are perfect. And speaking of perfect, isn’t Astor in wonderful in that final scene when Bogie is explain why he’s sending her over? I want to give her a big hug and shout “Girl, you nailed it!”

    • I completely agree with you about Gutman’s daughter! Of course, if they’d even attempted to squeeze her character into the film (and have her even remotely resemble the character in the book), Joseph Breen probably would have had a stroke. Which, in retrospect, might not have been a completely terrible thing (okay, that was mean).

  2. Brandie, now that I’ve finally gotten a chance to read your MALTESE FALCON series, I couldn’t help starting in the middle (so to speak) with this excellent blog post about the women in Sam Spade’s life. I’ve been a MALTESE FALCON fan even since I saw the 1941 version, which made me eager to read Dashiell Hammett’s original novel, which made me a fan of all things Hammett forevermore! 🙂 I especially liked your attention to details like Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s inability to look Spade in the eye, and the gay subtext among Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer. Well-done, Brandie; now I’m going to catch up with the rest of this great post! 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Dorian! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and it’s nice to encounter others who share my all-abiding love for this movie. It’s just that damn GOOD!

  3. Brandie I have been following your Maltese Falcon series, and have been a bad movie friend — I am just now commenting. I can only give the excuse that I really haven’t been too well and also too busy, a bad combination for getting everything done I wanted to! This particular article has to be my favorite. You have shown such an in-depth, insightful assessment of the women and their roles in this film. I am really impressed. They are all important, wonderful roles, and I have to say I always liked Effie so much. She had the perfect secretarial job, I have to say. As one who has worked as a secretary for a long time, I envy Effie’s role in her boss’s work, and the excitement of it.

    I was really bowled over by your incredible insight into Spade’s character, which I hope you don’t mind that I copy here. It is just a wonderful piece of writing too: “He doesn’t demonstrate outward compassion after Archer’s death because doing so would mark him, too, as somewhat weak. The same goes for his final confrontation with Brigid; to allow her to get away with murder, all in the name of love, would be the action of a soft man, not a strong one. After all, sympathy and emotion are feminine traits, not to be tolerated in a “real” man. The most Spade can manage without compromising his self-made image is an occasional pat on the head for Effie, whose non-sexualized persona is no threat to Spade’s seemingly hard-won masculinity.” Yours is an insight that would rival any professional critique of the Spade character.

    This is just an excellent series, Brandie, and you have done it complete justice. Kudos!

    • Becky, I’m flattered and delighted by your comments. Thank you for your feedback! Re-acquainting myself with all three versions of Falcon last week was a fun exercise. To me, the story never gets old! The only problem is how to limit myself to only a week’s worth of posts; I could probably find something new to talk about every day for a month (thank God I simply don’t have the time to test that theory, however!).

  4. Pingback: Much Ado – to Wit and Woo | gabriel's wharf

  5. This is a great example about one advantage film has over books; lack of narration.

    Don’t get me wrong, sometimes narration is the best part of the book. But in the case of some classics like “Maltese Falcon” or “Oliver Twist,” the narration is offensive. And interestingly, the exact same story retold *witihout* that narration is suddenly not anywhere near as offensive. I’m fairly feminist, but never got any sense of Bogart’s Sam Spade having any significant issue with women (outside the typical “Ugh, women” of a frustrated male) and he seemed surprisingly tolerant of homosexuality for his time; Spade of the book, of course, is another story.

    The other book I mentioned, “Oliver Twist,” is another example. Being Jewish, I naturally found it hard to take Dickens’ outrageously antisemitic narration seriously; but in movies that sick almost perfectly close to the book, Fagin suddenly becomes nothing more than a villain who just happens to be Jewish.

    Very interesting analysis of “the Maltese Falcon.” Thanks for posting!

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