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Decoding the Gay Subtext in the Hollywood Classic, The Maltese Falcon

Everett Collection

Hard, tough, ruthless, masculine — the words often used to describe Hollywood’s 1941 detective classic The Maltese Falcon are also terms found in gay erotica to depict the male organ. 

That’s no coincidence; it’s what writer-director John Huston knew when he cast Humphrey Bogart as The Maltese Falcon’s detective hero, Sam Spade. Bogart — the most sinister of Hollywood heroes — rose to prominence after playing gangsters and low-class louts. His impolite demeanor matched the ruggedness implicit in Spade’s studly surname. The name became synonymous with Bogart’s screen image of a rigid alpha male whose code of honor could be distant and firm, yet attractive. 

Portayed by a Hollywood icon (rumored to be physically “gifted”), Bogart’s Sam Spade is the Maltese Falcon — the object everybody wants to get their hands on in the film, which was based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel. There are lots of slang terms for “penis,” but during the era of Hollywood’s highly moral Production Code, which mandated self-imposed censorship and elaborate innuendoes, the most imaginative euphemism had to have been “the Maltese Falcon.” 

Huston begins Hammett’s story of greed, disloyalty — and penis envy — with a brief history lesson about an object from the 16th-century Crusades, a “Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with precious jewels.” The search for this “priceless token,” stolen by pirates and rumored to be found in the Barbary Coast, drives the film and Sam Spade’s intriguing underworld encounters: They include those with a devious femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), and a host of equally lusty, scheming gay men, converging upon that sexual melting pot San Francisco.

The Maltese Falcon is Hollywood’s first gay masterpiece. Gender is considered fluid these days, but the intense interplay between dominant male Spade and his grasping suitors portrays a uniquely sensual competition over the ideal of manhood. It’s fascinating to see that the film dramatizes this as one of society’s primal myths and does so in the most unexpected way: The suspenseful plot gradually reveals Spade’s unmistakable homophobia. (And it might even expose your own in the way it makes Spade a cold, selfish lover.) For anyone who thinks gay film characters — and gay awareness — are new to Hollywood, this movie goes beyond political correctness and into the complexity of Hollywood’s tacit recognition of queerness. The Maltese Falcon’s gay squad constitute the glory of the studio era’s character-actor legacy. Among the Falcon chasers: Papa bear Kasper Gutman, a part that won Sydney Greenstreet an Oscar nomination, and curly-haired, pinky-ringed Joel Cairo, who pulls a gun as quickly as a gardenia-scented handkerchief, in what is Peter Lorre’s best comic role. Veteran actor Elisha Cook Jr. portrayed Wilmer the gunsel (a mobster’s boy toy) as a tough gay who makes Spade’s sexual panic flare up. These characters’ gay traits are evident — and fun to observe — even though genteel movie buffs have avoided the truth for almost a century. Spade’s homophobia matches Ethan Edwards’s racism in The Searchers; it acknowledges a cultural fact while underscoring another group’s presence.

Gayness is more than subtext in The Maltese Falcon; it’s what energizes the film’s high erotic current — O’Shaughnessy’s attempt to manipulate Spade’s libido helps to illuminate Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer’s attraction to Spade’s phallic principle. Except for, maybe, Robert Mitchum’s Out of the Past, this is the sexiest of all film noirs. The American Film Institute has ranked it no. 31 among the Greatest American Movies. But it is the no. 1 movie for grasping how gay sexuality figures in the Hollywood imagination. Bogart’s Sam Spade is an homme fatal.  

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