Fictional private eye Sam Spade doesn’t believe in sugar coating. In The Maltese Falcon, he tells a client, “We didn’t believe your story. We believed your $200.”
This, to us, reveals Spade’s genetic makeup – shrewd, blunt, knows the value of a dollar. He doesn’t care about feelings; he cares about truth.
Sam Spade, one of the best-known detectives in American literature, is a product of the novelist Dashiell Hammett, who himself was a private investigator in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Hammett wrote gobs of crime fiction, including The Thin Man (1934), The Glass Key (1931), and The Maltese Falcon, which was first published as a serial in Black Mask Magazine in 1929.
He’s a terrific writer. As Raymond Chandler said, “He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
Hammett’s novels are custom made for the movies, e.g. The Maltese Falcon that was most famously adapted to the screen in 1941 by John Huston. (This film, incidentally, was Huston’s first feature as a director.)
The Maltese Falcon has a somewhat layered plot, but here’s a brief overview: A private detective (Sam Spade) is hired by a woman to find her missing sister. When his partner is murdered while investigating, Spade discovers the murder is connected to a centuries-old, jewel-covered falcon that could be worth millions of dollars.
It’s a story that keeps you guessing. You don’t know which characters to believe and, more importantly, you don’t know what this bunch is capable of.
In our opinion, the film follows the book as closely as it can, and it’s expertly cast, especially when it comes to Sam Spade.
Now, Book Spade and Film Spade do not look alike. Book Spade is a fair-haired man with yellow-grey eyes. (“He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” writes Hammett.) Contrast this to Film Spade, played by the dark-haired Humphrey Bogart.
However, Book Spade and Film Spade share an important quality: an aversion to magnanimity.
Magnanimity is often exploited, and someone in a cutthroat business (pun intended) never admits to it. Spade, deep down, is a helpful person, but he would never cite an altruistic reason for his actions. “I won’t play the sap for you,” he snarls, meaning: It’s bad for Business.
Example 1: Spade disliked his deceased partner, Miles Archer. Film Spade goes to have a look his partner’s freshly-murdered corpse, and runs into a police detective (Ward Bond).
Detective: “Tough, him getting it like that, ain’t it? Miles had his faults like any of the rest of us, but I guess he must have had his good points, too, huh?”
Spade: “I guess so.”
Did you see that? Spade is looking at the shot-through-the-gut body of his dead partner, and “I guess so” is what he comes up with. There’s no room for sentiment in This Business.
Example 2: When Book Spade explains why he was determined to find his partner’s killer, he does not concede It Was The Right Thing To Do. Instead, he goes on for a page and a half about all the practical reasons why tracking down the murderer is Good For Business:
“Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him…. [W]hen one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.”
He’s right, but he’ll never say the dead man deserved justice. It’s all about the balance sheet, baby.
The Maltese Falcon was adapted to screen twice before: The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936). If you haven’t seen the 1941 version, we urge you to do so as soon as you can.
The Maltese Falcon: starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George. Written & directed by John Huston. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1941, B&W, 100 mins.
This post is part of the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.