Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Real Mystery of "The Maltese Falcon"


(Note: this post contains spoilers about the novel The Maltese Falcon as well as oversimplification of its complex plot.)

Last night I finished rereading The Maltese Falcon, my "welcome to San Francisco" book. I first read it in high school, for a course about detective fiction through the ages. I remember coming into class where everyone was buzzing about the twist ending: "The falcon was a fake all along!"

"Yeah," I said, "but didn't you notice the other twist?"

"What?"

"Rhea and Wilmer are the same person!"

But no one else had picked up on what I thought was the most subtle and fascinating element of The Maltese Falcon. I wrote an essay about it, and ended up submitting it with a few college applications that wanted to see one of my academic papers. (My teacher explained that everyone thinks they know The Maltese Falcon from seeing the movie, so they'll be blown away by a paper that tells them they have it all wrong. Also, a student who writes about a pulp detective novel will stand out from the multitudes who write about Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby.) Sometimes, I credit this paper with getting me into Vassar.

Let me explain my theory. OK, the basic plot of The Maltese Falcon has detective Sam Spade agreeing to help some shady characters get their hands on a valuable statuette, in exchange for a cut of the profits. The criminals are:
  • Gutman, a jovial fat man, ringleader of the gang
  • Joel Cairo, an effeminate homosexual Greek man
  • Brigid O'Shaughnessy, beautiful femme fatale
  • Wilmer Cook, surly boy (18-20 years old?), handy with a gun
At one point, these characters send Spade on a wild-goose-chase: they tell him that Brigid is in Gutman's hotel room, but when Spade gets there, all he finds is Gutman's daughter Rhea, who has been drugged with knock-out drops, and has been poking herself in the stomach with a pin to keep herself awake so she can tell Spade where the others have gone. This is a really bizarre scene: Rhea never appears elsewhere in the novel, so it's hard to know what to think of her. Why is she living with her criminal father? What does she do while he chases treasure around the world? Why does Gutman never mention her? Even more bizarre, after Spade puts Rhea to bed, he phones a hospital and lets them know that there's a drugged girl in Gutman's suite. Later, he learns that when the doctors arrived, "there was nobody there." Weird!

Indeed, the character of Rhea raises so many problematic questions that the movie version tinkered with the plot and eliminated her entirely.

When Spade catches up with the criminals, he tells Gutman "That daughter of yours has a nice belly...too nice to be scratched up with pins." Gutman says nothing. But Wilmer steps forward and raises his gun: "Everyone in the room looked at him. In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo looked at him there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed, drew back his advanced foot, straightened his legs, lowered the pistol and stood as he had stood before, looking under lashes that hid his eyes at Spade's chest. The blush was pale enough, and lasted for only an instant, but it was startling on his face that habitually was so cold and composed."

As soon as I read that passage, I felt certain that Wilmer was Rhea in disguise. Why else would he/she react so violently? Why else would there be such an odd look of reproach from Brigid and Joel? Why else would Wilmer blush? I started looking for other clues that supported my theory.

The physical appearance of the two characters is similar. Wilmer is "an undersized youth," Rhea is "a small girl." There are many references to Wilmer's cold white complexion, and Rhea has a "face that was white and dim." Wilmer has hazel eyes, Rhea has golden-brown eyes. Also, though Wilmer talks tough and packs heat, his "long curling eyelashes" are feminine. And he is always described as having a "composed," "low," "flat" voice--the voice that a girl would need to adopt if she was disguising herself as a man. (This is why I assume it's Rhea in disguise as Wilmer and not the other way around. It's easier for a girl to look like a young man in coat and cap, than for a boy to look convincingly like a beautiful young woman in satin pajamas.)

Then there is the odd doubling where Spade easily lifts and carries both Rhea and Wilmer at different moments. When Rhea falls asleep after being drugged, "Spade caught her up in his arms—scooped her up as she sank—and [held] her easily against his chest." Later, after Spade knocks Wilmer out in a fight, "He put his right arm under the boy’s arm and around his back, lifted him without apparent effort, and carried him to the sofa."

Furthermore, when Spade tries to carry Rhea to her bedroom, he first opens the door of a room where "the clothing...and the things on the chiffonier said it was a man’s room”--so he turns around and finds a "room that was feminine in its accessories." Now, this does sound like Rhea and Wilmer are two different people with two separate bedrooms. But the very fact that Dashiell Hammett included this detail--if Spade had found Rhea's bedroom on the first try, the plot would not be affected--makes me think that something else is going on. Maybe Gutman planned ahead and put the two sets of clothing/toiletries in two different rooms on purpose. If a detective broke in and searched the hotel suite, for instance, he would be very confused to see one bedroom with both female and male clothing in it--but not if there were two separate bedrooms. Also, because Spade first carries Rhea into the male room, it seems to symbolize that she truly belongs there.

Now, the traditional interpretation of the character of Wilmer is that he is gay and possibly involved with Gutman. Spade contemptuously calls Wilmer a "gunsel," which sounds like it means "guy with a gun," but is actually an old term for the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. There's a long scene where Spade tries to persuade the criminals that they need "a fall-guy" and Wilmer is just the person for the job. Gutman protests--maybe it's because Wilmer is his young lover, but wouldn't it be even more powerful if Spade is threatening to send Gutman's own daughter, Rhea, to jail?

Gutman eventually gives in, but twice says he loves Wilmer like a son: "I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but--well, by Gad!--if you lose a son it's possible to get another--and there's only one Maltese falcon." Mightn't this be an attempt to say some final paternal words to Rhea, without revealing the true situation to Spade? The final chapters of The Maltese Falcon are tense and twisty without thinking that Rhea and Wilmer are the same person--but if you go back and reread them from this angle, they become even more interesting.

However, Spade's plan falls through, and we learn at the end that Wilmer has shot Gutman to death (presumably for trying to sell him out). So if you think that this is a disguised girl shooting her own father--why, it's positively Oedipal! (And as my teacher would be quick to remind me, Oedipus Rex is one of the first detective stories of Western literature.)

I enjoy thinking that Rhea, Gutman's pretty blonde daughter, dresses up like a tough boy and goes around cursing at people and threatening to shoot them. It gives the novel an ironic twist and adds to the theme of gender confusion (cf. Cairo's homosexuality, Spade's "boyish" but attractive secretary, etc.) Still, after rereading the novel, I'm not sure if this is "really" what Hammett intended--not sure if the time frames all work out correctly. For instance, in order to wake Rhea up in time to disguise herself as Wilmer, Gutman would need an antidote to the knock-out drops, and does that even exist?

So maybe there's no elaborate subterfuge of Rhea disguising herself as Wilmer. But you can't deny that Hammett sets up a doubling between the two characters--the daughter that Gutman ignores and the young man that he "loves like a son." Still, when Gutman says those words to Wilmer, there's an ominous chill to them. He may love the boy like a son, but we know that he has no compunctions about slipping his own daughter a Mickey Finn...

Image: Humphrey Bogart as Spade and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer from the 1941 movie. Photo from filmsquish.com

9 comments:

karen said...

Brilliant analysis. I've read the book many times--it's one of my favourites--but this never occurred to me. Can't wait to go back and play detective.

karen said...
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RTyst said...

That is a very good analysis, but there I believe there is something wrong with it. On pg.164, Rhea mentions Wilmer's name "Yes...Wilmer...Cairo" explaining who took Brigid. I believe that Rhea is the daughter Gutman never wanted but shows her compassion because she has no where else to go. Gutman's spouse is never mentioned. The line "father...kill me..." would imply the question to your analysis, Why would Gutman kill someone he so dearly loves like a son?

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Hi RTyst, thanks for commenting. It's been a while since I read the novel, and as I said at the end of my post, I'm now more of the opinion that "there is a weird thematic doubling between Rhea and Wilmer, but they are not literally the same person" rather than my more excited teenage thought of "Wilmer is Rhea in disguise!" Nonetheless, it's something that does not tend to be much commented on when people discuss The Maltese Falcon.

rifer said...

The scene with Rhea is certainly weird, but I found an earlier reference to "his daughter" equally confusing. When Cairo first visits Spade, Cairo states that his client (presumably he's referring to Gutman) claim to the falcon is "...more valid than Thursby's". To this Slade replies, "What about his daughter?", to which Cario responds, "He is not the owner!"

I could never understand how Spade knew Gutman had a daughter at this early stage of the plot (the name Gutman isn't revealed until much later in the book); and why would Cairo respond as he did?

Marissa Skudlarek said...

You're right, Rifer, that is very bizarre. I know that some of these old pulp novels can have loose plot threads (e.g. the famous example where Chandler admitted that even he didn't know who kills the chauffeur in "The Big Sleep") but that is an exchange of dialogue that seems very hard to explain.

Your President said...
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Your President said...

I'll take it a step further. Wilmer is the illegitimate son of Gutman who, 17 odd years before, deserted the mother and child to pursue the quest for the Falcon. When he talks about Wilmer being like a son and then callously sells him out for the Falcon as he did before but this time it may cost him his life Wilmer decides to exact his revenge.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

That's another possibility... and would also explain why Wilmer and Rhea look similar (they have the same dad).