Sunday, May 9, 2010

Alternate universe movies: "The Maltese Falcon" with Gene Tierney instead of Mary Astor

Recently, while watching 1944's Laura with Elizabeth, I hit the Pause button during a pivotal scene featuring Gene Tierney. (Although it wasn't only to admire Tierney's form in that white satin gown during the party scene, I did turn to Elizabeth to mention,"You just want to reach out and stroke her ass." Replied Elizabeth: "Yep." We watch movies well together.) I paused it to note something that occurred to me while watching — that I wish the alluring yet mysterious Tierney we see in Laura had been cast as scheming temptress Brigid O'Shaughnessy opposite Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in 1941's The Maltese Falcon.

While I, like most movie buffs, adore The Maltese Falcon, I never have felt the lusty heat from or toward Mary Astor in the role of the "knockout" O'Shaughnessy. She feels miscast to me. And that's frustrating since I really do want to identify with Bogart/Spade as the hardest of hardboiled noir detectives falls for — and then cynically plays — the lying, murderous femme fatale for all he's worth. But I just can't find it in Astor's portrayal. I acknowledge that I'm in the minority on this one, as though I'm the only one who can't see the pretty pony in the picture full of colored dots, which just adds to the frustration.

Now, ordinarily I flinch away from using words like "unfeminine," and certainly this isn't a post that should meander into concepts such as the "male gaze" effect; nonetheless, for such a period "sexy dame" Astor strikes me as too, oh, mannish or schoolmarmish to generate the kind of sexual heat and disorienting desire that makes a tough cookie like Spade crumble, even temporarily, contrary to his own professional nature and personal interests.

In Dashiell Hammett's novel Brigid is — or at least successfully passes for — a "girl" only 22 years old, exuding an innocence and timidity so convincing that it works on both Spade and, to a deadly degree, his partner Miles Archer. I don't think I'm simply preconditioned by the novel when Mary Astor enters the office of Spade & Archer and I see a considerably older woman (Astor was 35) who's been around the block so often she has her own stool at the corner bar. From then on, the chemistry just isn't there, which has always slightly spoiled the experience for me.

So that crucial element of The Maltese Falcon has always held me at arm's length, and I miss that sweat-stained, seductive noirish heat.

It's all subjective, of course, whether an actress or actor pushes one's va-voom! buttons, and The Maltese Falcon has plenty of pleasures to keep me held from start to finish. Plus, Astor does a fine job in the role, even if she was wrong for it. Still, I've tended to watch The Maltese Falcon imagining Brigid played by, say, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, or Veronica Lake. Geraldine Fitzgerald had been offered the role, but when she opted to do a stage play instead, Brigid went to Astor. The Fitzgerald we see in the following year's The Gay Sisters would have put an intriguing, and in my mind more appealing, spin on the role, though I have to squint and cock my head to see her as the femme fatale type.

And now here I was watching Laura when it clicked — Gene Tierney would have been ideal as Brigid. She could have played a va-voom! sexuality hiding a steely determination, and mixed a dangerous schemer with an inescapable allure, all without leaning too hard on any single aspect of the character. Granted, Falcon was three years before Laura (Tierney would have been 21, ideal for Brigid), and Tierney was signed with 20th Century-Fox instead of Warner, and in Astor the studio had a much more established "name" than Tierney. But in my imagination's alt-Hollywood, it all works out.

No matter. I love The Maltese Falcon for the well-cast, crisply written, precisely directed classic that it is. A couple of Christmases ago Elizabeth even presented me with my own film-authentic Falcon, which sits looming on the DVDs case. It's what dreams are made of, as the man says.

Another thing that struck me about Laura — Dana Andrews seems to have studied for his role as the dick by watching Jimmy Cagney movies. Several times his body language reminds me of Cagney, although his trenchcoat-and-fedora shamus is of the Bogart mold. And Vincent Price looks 11 feet tall and linebacker broad, especially when he's wearing that prototype of David Byrne's Big Suit.

Maltese Falcon trailer hosted at TCM:

Music: Jessica Williams Trio, "Kristen"
Near at hand: Hammett's novel, hardback edition with cool slipcase