October 20, 1941 [The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra]

In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is first described as a "blonde Satan" with a v-shaped face made up of little v's, sharp and strange--and he grins "wolfishly" and growls over hundred-dollar bills. And he's all we've got, in a world that manages to be even nastier.

The movie version wants to retain that, but there is something in Humphrey Bogart's eye, both clever and somehow kind, even when he's roughing up a gunsel--or staring down Brigid O'Shaughnessy, sending her over. Bogart brings a kind of softness--sensitivity?--to his characters. I can't help but think of Karloff, those watery eyes pleading with us to love the Monster. With Bogart, it's also his eyes--with his mouth as counterpoint, almost unsure of itself. It's that mouth that brings us closest to the book: Everyone's always licking their lips in Hammett, and Bogart must do the same, from habit or some past injury, curled and a little wet. It is almost ugly, and keeps him from dissolving into kind commiseration with every thug in his way.

Maybe I'm bringing Roy Earle into the picture here. High Sierra presses Bogart's soft side at us, a sad comfort in a doomed life. I knew Earle was going to get it the moment he talks about the stars with the crippled girl, how they make him know he's standing on a ball that's turning--and his almost-trembling hand turns as he speaks, holding the Earth gently while he tries to undo all the bad things he's done.

But he can't--no more than Spade can save Brigid. And while such fond dreams may have drawn Earle to Ida Lupino and her wounded face, and while for Spade it may always be "bad business," it's also too bad for these tough guys' hearts, which in Bogart's chest want to beat quietly but steadily for something more than jewels or Falcons. As the elevator gate closes, Brigid already behind bars and going down, "the stuff that dreams are made of" looks like nothing of the kind. It's Bogart's face that dreams, that wishes he were someone else. When Peter Lorre as the perfumed reptile, Joel Cairo, observes, "You always have a very smooth explanation," Spade shoots back, "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?" The line makes you grin like Spade the wolf--as my favorite gumshoe, Phil Marlowe, once observed, everyone's hard-boiled these days--but a part of Bogart always stutters, goes unwillingly into the dark corridors of these movies--so that we can admit or discover our own unwillingness, our soft spot for a star-lit night and someone who will stand there with us and look up.


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