Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon
by Anne Sharp
It’s not unusual, when I tell straight male acquaintances that I belong to a worldwide cult of adoring female Peter Lorre fans, for them to say with disdain, “But I thought he was gay.” As if that mattered, but it speaks to the fact that to those of us used to the hypermasculinity of American males, Peter, who reportedly preferred women, registers as being something less than a “real” man. Certain nongay Jewish men are said to send out a false “ping” on gaydar, and Peter belonged to a generation of Viennese men who did things like kissing ladies’ hands and using cigarette holders that to most Americans would seem awfully sissified. This Old World metrosexual quality gave Peter a certain flexibility as an actor during his Hollywood career that professional American tough guys like Humphrey Bogart and George Raft didn’t have. From film to film, the Peter Lorre persona could be tough, violent and arrogant when required, but he could also demonstrate a range of emotions that American men weren’t supposed to express, including, in one memorable instance, the love that dared not speak its name in studio-era Hollywood.
What I always liked about Peter’s Joel Cairo in the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon” is that he’s just so ladylike. He’s graceful without daintiness, well-mannered without mannerisms, charming and comely and discreetly sexy. He really is the most sensitive portrayal of a gay man to be found in an American film of the pre-Stonewall era, which is probably why most critical discussions about gay themes in “The Maltese Falcon” totally ignore Joel and focus on what a big old queen Kasper Gutman is. This used to bother the hell out of me. In Dashiell Hammett’s original novel, Kasper (or Casper, as Hammett spells him) has a pretty young daughter, Rhea, and as far as the film goes, to me the gruff, aged, obese Sydney Greenstreet is just beyond sexual consideration. What signals does he send out to all these male commentators?
Years ago I wrote about this question in the "Ann Arbor News,” and got a reply from local mystery writer Loren Estleman, who assured me that in the mystery community it’s pretty well accepted that Gutman is meant to be gay in both novel and film, and that this is evidenced by the presence of Wilmer, his “gunsel.” He explained that gunsel was mid-twentieth century underworld slang for male lover, but that the people who made “The Maltese Falcon” didn’t know that, which is how the term made it into the film, right under the noses of the censors. He also informed me that Greenstreet, whose first American film this was, was famous on the British stage for playing gay butlers.
I didn’t know this about Greenstreet, and I took Estleman’s word for it, but I felt as though I wanted a little more background on that word gunsel, so I consulted Vito Russo’s book “The Celluloid Closet,” which I suspected might be his source. According to Russo, gunsel evolved from the German word “gansel” (“gosling”), which has a double meaning roughly equivalent to our “punk,” referring to either the “bottom” of a male-male coupling (with an implication of prison sexual abuse) or a shifty street character. Which to me would suggest that since punk was also considered a decent enough word to use in 1940s crime films, gunsel might have been too. But Russo says that Hammett’s use of gunsel to describe Wilmer in the novel is proof that the character is “implicitly homosexual,” and the fact that other characters in the book refer to him as “sonny,” “boy,” and “kid” is also a very gay thing.
Looking for more clues about Kasper and Wilmer, I reread Hammett’s novel. Hammett does describe Wilmer as being something of a twink, young, beardless, small of stature, with long, curling lashes, rosy cheeks, and a “hard masculine neatness.” When Sam Spade catches Wilmer tailing him and tries to question him, Wilmer’s reply, “two words, the first a short, guttural verb, the second you,” makes Sam threaten to punch him, really more the reaction of a gentleman defending his honor than a streetwise tough guy. So there is something sort of gay there. I really didn’t see the textual evidence for Casper/Kasper’s gayness though.
Russo himself doesn’t mention Greenstreet’s gay butler reputation or really say anything at all about Casper/Kasper’s sexual orientation, but he does disparage Peter’s Joel as a “perfumed fop with lace hankies,” complaining that the original character’s specific homosexuality has been diluted to nothingness in the film. I don’t know whether or not Russo knew that Peter’s nemesis Jack Warner had ordered him not to make Joel too “nancy,” but I do wish he’d given Peter more credit for the audacious bits of gay business he did manage to sneak into the film right under the radar of the Warners front office, such as the suggestive way in which Joel plays with the jutting handle of his umbrella during his initial interview with Sam, and later, while he’s frisking Sam at gunpoint, the split-second in which his hand lands on Sam’s rear end, causing Sam to indignantly spin around and punch him out. I think these subliminal gestures add meaning to the end of the scene, when, after being searched by Sam, Joel recovers consciousness, tidies himself up in the mirror, asks sweetly for Sam to give him his gun back, then points it at him and insists on continuing his pat-down. To which Sam consents, with an affectionate chuckle.
(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.