One of my biggest quibbles about queer representation in modern culture is that if the queer character is centered in any way, it’s the fact of the character’s queerness that takes center stage, as if a queer character can’t have a full range of character traits that include being queer. If there are any character flaws, they are the result of being queer, and not say being raised in an environment of privilege and entitlement as so many heteronormative leading characters. Positive queer traits are only defined as queer if they somehow compliment, entertain, or enhance the heteronormative social structure. Think the sassy gay neighbor.
So, imagine my delight and surprise when I treated myself to a viewing of The Maltese Falcon one snowy and cold Saturday night during a Covid quarantine.
To briefly summarize the plot, a morally ambiguous private detective is hired by a glamorous femme fatale to protect her and her sister from sinister forces, only to be ensnared in an international scheme to locate and sell a stolen Egyptian artifact. What ensues is a mass of plot twists and double crosses that is well worth the time it takes to eat a barrel of buttered popcorn.
Released in 1941 and starring Humphrey Bogart as the detective and Mary Astor as the femme fatale, the film came just as a world war was brewing and the Hayes Code began dictating decency on movie screens. As the seminal cinematic study of queer representation, The Celluloid Closet details, many resourceful artists found ways to sublimate and disguise queer material. You just had to know what to look for to appreciate it. As the war and Hayes grew more intense, “morality” took a stronger and stronger hold, until the 1960s when nearly everything was once again fair game for subject matter – except homosexuality. Even when depicted, queer characters were tragic, pathetic, silly, or scary and almost certainly dead by the end of the picture.
So, imagine my shock and surprise when Lee Patrick as Bogart’s secretary, Effie bursts into Sam Spade’s office to announce the arrival of Mary Astor. She’s all atingle with excitement and gives a quick evaluation of Astor’s appearance, not only knowing Spade will appreciate her but signaling her own approval. The queerness of this character can be debated, but she’s the only woman in the film who doesn’t sleep with Spade. In fact, she’s completely unimpressed by any of the men she encounters in the film, including Sam Spade. Whereas the other two female characters are somewhat emotional and “helpless,” it’s Effie is the competent equal of any man in the film. What hints at Effie’s queerness is the eagerness with which she takes Mary Astor home to protect for a few days. Sam asks Effie if she likes her, and Effie very enthusiastically says that she does. Yes, she absolutely does.
The Celluloid Closet had prepped me for Peter Lorre’s entrance, and even in context there is nothing at all subtle about his character, Joel Cairo. Although there’s a lot of humor in the character, he’s not the butt of the joke. Joel Cairo knows who he is and isn’t ashamed in the least. What’s more, Sam Spade knows who Cairo is, and doesn’t care. Spade treats Cairo with the same level of disdain he treats all the characters, and that disdain is based upon the situation, not sexuality. There are a few mildly homophobic comments in another scene with some detectives, but they’re more mild taunts as a strategy for throwing the detectives off balance than they are a display of passive homophobia.
But even with Lorre’s unsubtle performance, it’s Sydney Greenstreet as The Fat Man that is the queer heart of this movie. He’s smart, nearly outwitting Bogart a few times, and witty without being camp or overtly evil. What’s more, he has a boytoy that he unapologetically shares a hotel bedroom with. Everyone knows the situation. It means nothing to them.
What is fascinating and refreshing is that none of the actors playing these queer characters commented on the queerness. They play them with dignity, grace, and humor. All of this then makes Greenstreet’s final flourish as he exits true, charming, and funny, not stale and insulting as it might have been in another film. But what’s most refreshing for me is that none of the queer characters die at the end. Even in the twenty-first century, that’s still a rarity.