Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies

Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.”

The whole idea of acting, of pretending to be someone else, in ordinary life, is essential to life in America. De Tocqueville pointed out that in an extreme democracy like ours, a lot of nobodies desperately try to be somebody. America’s lure is self-reinvention, the real American dream. America is filled with people who have ripped themselves from their original place to recreate themselves. After all, you can’t do it around people who know you. How else but don a mask of who you want to be and try to turn it into a face? Dress for success.

To actually take on a second identity one must act as if one were not acting. The mask must appear as a face. Movies introduced acting that was supposed to appear natural, as opposed to the stylized acting of the theater, and so offered a school for this talent. Real-life acting is improvisation: danger comes out of the blue. Such acting requires, for example, that one answer a question like, “Do you remember the time you did X?” with a certain aplomb. Little bits of the fake past are bombs that explode when someone asks an innocent question. The invented past is a minefield. Dubious sincerity and authenticity threaten the act. It is a stressful life and makes a good movie. It is exciting to watch somebody think on his feet.

In nineteenth-century novels, such as Anna Karenina or Emma, that take place within a stable society, the characters have little opportunity or desire to be someone else. Anna and Vronsky, even when they leave Russia to escape, do not try to be other people. And Emma is always Emma, Knightly always Knightly. They are all known to everybody. They have always been there, and if they tried to disguise themselves would be recognized on sight. Besides they would all consider it beneath them, probably criminal. In that society the character caught trying to be someone else would be extinguished as a human being. They would henceforth present an acted version of themselves, as one does when going dirty through customs.

In American movies, on the other hand, characters frequently pretend to be someone else. The character is acting within the movie. An actor has two parts, one of which is the other pretending to be someone else. Movies that explore real-life acting are about the nature of the movies. The audience might or might not be let in on the secret from the beginning. The acting job is a nice one for the audience delights to see the character pretend to be another in clever, intentionally-bad, but-not-too-bad acting. In a few movies it is imagined with depth.

Alfred Hitchcock refused to play on secret-identity thrills in Vertigo. Scott (James Stewart) is hired by a vaguely-remembered old friend, Gavin (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine, he says, is possessed by a dead woman named Carlotta Valdez, Madeleine’s grandmother and a suicide. Scott who, in what he thinks is scientific realism, rejects such an idea with scorn, suggesting psychiatric problems. Nevertheless, he takes the job.

It never occurs to him that she might be acting, pretending to be both Madeleine and possessed by Carlotta. Madeleine is, of course, not really Madeleine. Gavin has hired Judy Barton to play Madeleine as part of a plot to murder the real Madeleine. Scott follows Judy/Madeleine and falls in love with her. When she apparently commits suicide he is despondent but soon discovers Judy, now herself again with the completion of the scheme. She is now a shop girl Scott finds on the street. Scott then tries to make Judy into Madeleine.

Kim Novak plays Judy Barton playing the false Madeleine Elster pretending to be possessed by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes who has come back from the grave to commit suicide again in the body of Madeleine. Gavin planned to make it look as if it were the living but fake Madeleine who jumped from a tower, thus covering his murder of the real Madeleine, whom he threw down, already dead. The Madeleine charade sets Scot up as a witness who can’t climb the tower and actually witness because his acrophobia prevents him. Everything goes perfectly, but love is the fly in the ointment.

Judy does not walk, talk, or much look like Madeleine. She is lower class, and Madeleine drove a Rolls and belonged in it. Nevertheless, Scott sees the resemblance. She is material out of which he can make the woman he wants. When he proceeds to make her into Madeleine it stokes his passion. She melts under his molding of her, her eroticism being the perfect complement to his. She needs to be recreated by him. Her crime with Elster has been successful but love prevents her from freeing herself from Scott who threatens at every turn to unmask her. Judy now looks exactly like Madeleine, but she is clearly Judy playing Madeleine unlike earlier when there was no sense of Judy at all. Now, though dressed and made up as Madeleine, she walks and talks like Judy. She can’t really become Madeleine now that Scott knows she is Judy. That was not a problem with Gavin because they were criminals and meant nothing to one another.

While trying to make Judy into Madeleine, Scott discovers a necklace that belonged to Carlotta that Madeleine had had. He falls out of love when he discovers she actually is the woman he is trying to make her into. Presumably discovery of Madeleine’s crime committed partially against himself dampened his ardor, but more to the point, he is not interested in the Madeleine Gavin created. He decides to “free himself from the past.” At the end Scott judges Gavin’s creation of Madeleine as superior to his own. The work of art done for the sake of crime is superior to that done for love because love demands the true nature of the loved one. So Scott drags Madeleine up into the tower and she falls or jumps to her death. He is cured of his acrophobia.

Reinvention, so central a myth to our country of nobodies trying to be somebody, is essentially criminal. The word recreant carries that context. Mowbry calls Richard “a recreant and most degenerate traitor” in Richard III. Penetration through the masks is erotic, but eros ends where the masks end. The hope that love might connect real beings buried underneath the masks fails because love was love of the criminal. Disorientation, vertigo, follows.

The theme is taken up differently in The Maltese Falcon. Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) introduces herself to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) as Ruth Wonderley, then takes the alias Miss Leblanc before finally revealing her real name. Here we have a deck of false identities, none of them carefully constructed. Perhaps it is Astor’s limitations that she does not distinguish her aliases with her acting. But in this movie it is unimportant, for any problems she encounters will be solved by getting out of town. Even after revealing her “real” name, she continues to make up stories about who she is and what she is doing. “I am a liar”, she finally declares to Spade, and indeed that is her true identity, someone with a pocketful of identities. He tells her not to brag about it, but the fact clearly excites him. A running theme of the movie is Spade telling O’Shaughnessy just how good her acting is. It is the most fascinating thing about her, perhaps the only true thing.

Spade falls in love with her. He loves her, but that doesn’t stop him from turning her in to the cops at the end because, “when a man’s partner is killed he is supposed to do something about it.” We are left to wonder whether he would have turned her in if she had murdered someone else he had no obligation to. He is fulfilling an obligation, however distasteful and so asserting the primacy of obligations over love. O’Shaughnessy had hoped Spade would see her as the one who loved him and nothing else. To love her he would have had to embrace some bottom line truth about her. He would have had to embrace the liar and double crosser. To embrace her would be to embrace the life of one night stands in cheap hotels. Then all the rest wouldn’t matter. They could start over together again and again.

He admits his love, but dismisses it. He knows she killed Archer, his partner because Archer was too smart to be outwitted except when his mind was fogged by lust. Spade differs from Archer in that he is aware of how lust clouds the senses. Archer wouldn’t have been fooled by a man. Spade does not imagine he is immune. He knows he is vulnerable and guards against it. Otherwise Archer and Spade are the same. Spade is alive and Archer dead because of this difference. Now she knows he knows about her crimes and the double cross is inevitable. Love between criminals leads inevitably to betrayal. Finally, in the last scene behind the cage of the elevator, love has proved impotent. O’Shaughnessy, lies all exposed, is silent, simply a body locked away in an elevator going down. No longer able to hide who she really is, she is just the one who did it.

The characters chasing the Maltese Falcon betray one another left and right. The double-cross is a dish served up hot, cold, and everywhere in between. Gutman hired O’Shaughnessey, Thursby, and Cairo to get the Falcon for him. They took it for themselves and then Thursby and O’Shaughnessey betrayed Cairo before he could betray them. Then O’Shaughnessey betrayed Thursby and hired Spade to help her do it. Then she killed Archer, betraying Spade. All this to get the bird and cash in. To survive in this world one must think on one’s feet.

The bird has a romantic story, and, one imagines, with all it’s encrusted gems, is thought to be beautiful, but its pursuers want cash on the barrelhead. Aside from O’Shaughnessey they do not pretend to be people with other names, although Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) is at first referred to as simply “the fat man” as if they didn’t know what name he was using. Their names– who knows or cares if they are real– are as good as aliases, for they have no human connections and come and go like migratory birds. Maybe their names are real names, maybe not. Who knows, who cares? They are double-crossers, hastening to do to others before others do to them. They all have one foot in the shadows. For the most part they simply disappear and materialize as ghosts, living in hotels, pockets filled with fake passports. Completely adrift, they have to keep moving to keep out of the clutches of one another. For them other people exist only as aids or hindrances in this competition in the endless pursuit of the bird.

The only character who is not chasing the Falcon is Spade, though he does at one point pretend to be. When the bird proves to be a copy, the others vow to continue to pursue the real bird. Not Spade. He obviously thinks only fools would do so. The desperate quest is a quest for a chimera, the search endless. But it supplies a new identity, the null identity, that of seeker after this chimera, a self-destructive and delusional identity that gives purpose to lives without connections as they drift, wafted on breezes of rumor. Perhaps The Maltese Falcon is a mid-twentieth-century Moby Dick with a whole boatload of Ahabs. Hats off to Dashiell Hammett and everyone else involved.

Unique among detectives, I believe, Spade has no use for clues. No piece of broken railing dry where it broke as the car plunged through tips him off that it broke after the storm. Spade does at one point ransack a room. He is not looking for a clue to a crime, but something to tell him where Gutman has gone. Spade pays attention to what people do and say. It is the narrative that tells him who did what. He knows O’Shaughnessey killed Archer because he knows Archer would let his pecker overcome his judgment and he knows how her killing him makes the story make sense. He doesn’t bother to look at the crime scene of Archer’s murder.

Sam Spade is often given credit as the archetype of the hard-boiled detective. He lives by a code which allows him to sleep halfheartedly with his partner’s wife, but requires him to turn in the woman he says he loves because she killed his partner. Obligations trump love. That is hard-boiled. But is it? Spade knows that Archer is a womanizer. Perhaps he just feels sorry for Iva, his wife, and sleeps with her out of kindness or pity. Then, when Archer is killed, she takes his affection the wrong way. In the novel this seems more likely.

In all the talk about Sam Spade’s hard-boiledness no one seems to have noticed what I think is his most important characteristic: he always knows what to do next. He can think on his feet. He doesn’t even need to size up the situation. Life, for Spade, is a series of moves that flow naturally and gracefully from the situation at hand. Spade is always ready to act. Scene after scene gets its interest when Spade gives instructions as to what to do next. Spade knows how to move through a dangerous world. He lies to the police, but doesn’t himself commit crimes. He wakes up Effie, his secretary, in the middle of the night and gives her instructions. When the police threaten to arrest him and the conspirators, Spade makes up a story that is ridiculous claiming that a believable story would have had them all arrested. Not the law, but protecting his own integrity informs his actions. He refuses to take Lt. Dundy’s slurs lying down, even though it gets him into trouble. “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” he says. Spade goes through life relying on his ability to think on his feet and take no guff to preserve who he is. Integrity, he believes, is his only salvation. He knows only too well that certain actions, like committing a crime will destroy who he is. After that he couldn’t talk to the police in the same way. Above all Spade wants to remain just who he is, neither all that good or bad, but with integrity.

As in Vertigo, real-life acting supplies an erotic charge. Both penetrating the masks and creating them and having them penetrated is exciting. It is the female facility with these masks and the male energy to penetrate through the falsehoods or the male ability to create the masks and female ability to adopt them. that lights the flame. But it disappears abruptly when the masks come to an end. Spade says “maybe you love me, maybe I love you”’ but turns O’Shaughnessy in anyway, possibly to a death sentence. Her crime puts an end to masks and to love. This dark Eros, fueled by a kind of transgression, cannot survive the end of masks and so cannot endure. For trust is, after all, trust that there were no masks.

Love dangles false redemption in front of the reinvented person when it offers a connection that promises to do away with all the complications and falsehoods acting in real life presents. Love penetrates the masks to join two beings that presumably exist underneath all that. The lovers insist that this is their real selves. But born from the masks is always the criminal, the shape-shifter that inspired love. Love fails to conquer in both movies, signaling the impossibility of reconstituting identity after a reinvention.

There are false identity movies with better outcomes for the characters. There is, for example, The Lady Eve. Here love wins. But this is made possible only because Eve refuses the spoils won by her criminal persona. So this persona never acts in real life, for its actions are not completed. A criminal is a criminal because of what he has done.

Other well known and interesting treatments of this theme include The StuntmanFace Off and The Usual Suspects. There are many others including all super hero/secret identity movies. Hitchcock explored this theme in movie after movie.

Social identity involves a web of relationships that tie one into promises and obligations. They are the heart of human existence. To make a promise is to declare independence from physical law and thus declare one as not merely ruled by billiard-ball nature but is a self-ruled being, a human being, not a mere location of physical processes. As Nietzsche put it man had to learn, “to guarantee himself as a future” rather than letting nature move him. It says, for example, “ I will be here tomorrow at noon no matter what happens.” Freedom is the ability to keep promises.

Criminal societies often try to reconstitute ordinary society with strict codes of omerta and oaths of loyalty. They divide the world into the ins and the outs. Secret identities divide the world between those that know you under one name and those that know you under the other. But what of those who know you as both the one and the other and know you are in with the other and out with the one. One keeps promises to the ins and betrays the outs, but those who are in are never sure they are in. After all the betrayed once thought they were in. No one can fully trust the remade. “Made men” need the right blood lines, guaranteeing that they have not remade themselves. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas can’t become one for this reason.

So life for the remade is always uneasy. Remaking yourself is betraying your friends. If someone has betrayed someone else he might betray you.. Liars can never again be quite believed. In the Wild Bunch when Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) tells Pike (William Holden), “It’s not your word, but who you give it to,” he is trying to justify a betrayal and expressing precisely the problem of the criminal reconstitution of society. For just who is this “who”. Societies do not welcome those of their enemy who spy for them, betraying their former friends.

The criminal’s only alternative is to simply do without social identity as do the characters in the Maltese Falcon, and abandon himself as a human being. He will be his social security number or a fake one. He can be whoever his fake passport says he is. He will laugh all the way to the bank. He will acquire fuck-you money and they can all go to hell. He will do whatever he God-damned well pleases. He just won’t be anybody in particular. In the United States where almost everybody is remaking themselves to beat the band and therefore in this situation, the host society, so to speak, of this changeable parasite, does not exist. It is, essentially, the law of the jungle and, whatever else it is, it is exhilarating, just as is burglary, for awhile.

In a recent Series, Sneaky Pete produced by Amazon, Giovanni Ribisi is both Marius, his real self, among criminals, and Pete among ordinary, basically-decent, no-better-than-they-have-to-be people. The shifty con man is the real Pete, the prodigal son, supposedly the same guy who left as a child, is fake.

No one really expects to encounter enduring human beings any more. Identity is like the “skin” on a computer game, changeable with a makeover. You are who your present ID says you are. With other people you make deals and then go on your way. No residual obligation, no interest in history, ever remains with anybody. No one takes promises seriously unless they are on paper, the hallmark of mistrust in which we are drowning. The memory hole? What do you expect? I’m not that guy any more. We simply treat masks as masks, no longer mistaking them for people. We can do business with masks or on line personae, for we rely not on the promises of people, but instead on written evidence. Human beings are mythical creatures of whom we have heard tell, but they are of no importance, and do not really exist. They have joined the shades in Hades. What is left are masks.

Everyone knows that everyone else is out for anything he can get. Dirty deeds are just business, just politics, or just fun. We have simply thrown the idea of the person who persists through time and place into the dustbin of history. Logic went with it, since contradiction is answered, “that was then”. Attempts to throw someone a lifesaver of love are halfhearted. We all move on. It feels like space travel. Reinvention is not just once, but many times. The very idea of trust is absurd. Divorce is the last act of marriage. Anyone who believes in someone’s promise of love is an idiot. Get a prenup or be a jerk. Even getting it on paper works only because the state enforces it. Otherwise people would just say fuck you. Bottom line, a person is now a body that either does or does not have fun. If not, change lives.

A mask that presents itself as nothing but a mask must also present the emptiness behind it. No existence through time other than as a mask hiding nothing. The body awakes and finds it is there. It is a new day, or the first one. The body is fond of itself. It feeds itself, gives itself pleasure. It ages unpleasantly for no good reason, so you work out more. Horror! People say it will someday die. So work out, but get on with your bucket list. Fucked up? People don’t like you any more? Change your name. Get out of town. Heck, why not just use a number next time.

Being here now, we don’t exist through time, so perhaps death too is a mask. The false Madeleine disappeared into her faked suicide, then reappeared. She became the real Judy. Without identity, reincarnation is either nonsense or inevitable, depending on how you look at it.

Such, it seems to me, is the result of recreation when it becomes the cultural norm.

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: