Written by Cindy Collins Smith
Published July 12, 2008
In his EW video on the creepiest performances of all time, Michael Emerson (Ben Linus on Lost) reveals that Sidney Greenstreet creeps him out:
Another über creepy performance, I think, is Sidney Greenstreet's in The Maltese Falcon. He's one of those characters who's so civilized on the surface, and yet you hope you're never left in a room alone with him. — Michael Emerson
Well, that's one performance I didn't see coming! Greenstreet's character, Kaspar Gutman (a.k.a. "The Fatman"), is probably the most affable character in The Maltese Falcon. But of course, as Emerson points out, it's all surface. Below the surface, Gutman has no compunction about having his henchman bump off people who get in the way of his objective — just as he has no compunction about selling out his henchman to the police only a moment after claiming that the young man is "like a son" to him.
What I find odd is that Emerson honed in on Gutman when there are really so many creepy characters in The Maltese Falcon to choose from. How about that leering lech of a partner who gets himself killed by the crafty dame? How about the effete crook who offers Bogart's detective $5000 for the return of the bird? How about the dame herself who plays schoolgirl innocent while concocting murder?
When I see this movie, my money for creepy is on the femme fatale — the dame. She is a serial confabulationist who the second she gets caught in one lie initiates a new one. By the end of the film, we're not certain that anything she's said is true. She seems as substantial (or insubstantial) as Keyser Söze.
Yes, Gutman is a sociopath (like so many of Emerson's choices). But I still find it curious that Emerson finds the disjunction between civilized surface and murderous interior so über creepy. Is this one of those factors that Emerson brings to his own creation of Ben Linus — a character who appears so civilized on the outside but who helped The Hostiles annihilate the Dharma Initiative (the community he grew up in) and personally killed his father as part of that purge, seemingly without a second thought?
(This is putting aside, of course, the fact that we still don't know the whole story of the Dharma Initiative, why they couldn't get along with The Hostiles, how/why the purge occurred, or Ben's complete role in that event. What we do know is that Emerson played Ben throughout season three of Lost as a hyper-civilized sociopath — an interpretation that reached its pinnacle in "The Man Behind the Curtain" episode's flashback to the purge.)
So allow me to speculate that perhaps Michael Emerson's unease with Kaspar Gutman is one of those factors that he draws on (consciously or unconsciously) to make us uneasy with Ben Linus. After all, an actor can find inspiration in the strangest places. It's well known that Anthony Hopkins' characterization of Hannibal Lecter was inspired in part by HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey!
Speaking of which, let me add that the "off-the-grid" choice of Sidney Greenstreet tells you everything you need to know about why Michael Emerson is qualified to play creepy... and why I'm not. I would have gone for a perfectly obvious creepy performance and probably selected Hannibal Lecter for this slot. Emerson's choice, on the other hand, is so unexpected that it's inspired.