Film Noir

The Sam Spade Business Model

Humphrey Bogart (standing) makes a deal with Sidney Greenstreet. Image:
Humphrey Bogart makes a deal with Sidney Greenstreet (seated). Image: Cinema of the World

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.)

AP photo of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). Image
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). Image: AP Photo, QuotationOf.com

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.

Bogart has had it Up To Here with Mary Astor. Image: One Geek's Mind
Bogart is tired of Mary Astor’s creative narrative. Image: One Geek’s Mind

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.

Notes:

  • For a must-read overview of The Maltese Falcon’s iconic quotes, read Chris Sturnhann’s thoughts HERE.
  • For a list of the Best English-Language Novels (The Maltese Falcon is #54), click HERE.

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.

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33 thoughts on “The Sam Spade Business Model

  1. Good choice! I love me some Dashiell Hammett. I wrote a paper on three of his novels four years ago and I’ve felt close to his work ever since. The similarities between the book and film versions of The Maltese Falcon are startling. Considering the Production Code, it’s quite an achievement. I’ve heard some Hammett fans bemoan Bogie’s portrayal, which is just insane to me — as you pointed out, the physical appearances may be different, but their cores are the same. John Huston did a fabulous job with the screenplay, as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right – considering the Production Code, it is amazing they were able to make the film adaptation so close to the original novel. Like you said, Huston did a terrific job with the adapted screenplay.

      Like

  2. Huston really hit his first crack out of the ball park. I love this movie as much for the supporting performances (Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet, Elijah Cook Jr.!) as I do for Bogie. Thank you for reminding me of it once again and making me smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I so agree; it’s hard to imagine a movie getting any closer to it’s source book. When I finally read the book I was surprised at how close it was; it felt almost like reading a screenplay at times.

    Like

  4. “We didn’t believe your story. We believed your $200.” Love that line! I’ll have to have my husband look at this post because he reads Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He’s totally hard-boiled. 😜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t that a great line? I started reading Hammett and Chandler in the past couple of years, and I was so impressed by their writing. I was biased and just didn’t expect crime fiction to be so well written and, in the case of Chandler, almost lyrical. I was a bit sad it took me so long to read them!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have read The Maltese Falcon a dozen times and seen the 1941 version of the movie almost as many. The only part of the movie that I found perturbing, which it must be said was blunted due to the Hays Code, was the way they blunted the character of Joel Cairo. Lorre did an excellent job, granted, but in the book he was much more blatant. Still, it is a good adaptation. And a good review.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a fantastic film altogether, and astonishing to realise it was Huston’s debut as director. I haven’t seen the other film versions of this story as yet, but this one would take some beating. I especially love Bogart as Spade (I’d forgotten he was supposed to be blond but I don’t think it matters at all!), but Lorre, Greenstreet, Astor and the others are all great too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Love both the book and the film! Have you ever seen the original 1931 pre-code version? A good film on its own though much prefer Bogart’s Spade. That said, there is lot’s pre-code delights to admire.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Love Hammett (and Chandler & co.) those were always my role models, if I ever wrote fiction, but then that level of wit is something super special. Great pick! Thanks so much for joining the blogathon! Nice to have you along.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aren’t they great writers? You can hardly put the books down once you get started.

      You really should think about writing that type of fiction. I bet you’d have a lot of fun with it – and so would your readers.

      Like

  9. Dashiell Hammett is one of my all time favourite writers. I go back and forth on whether I prefer The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon. They are both great books! And they both made for two great movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love Bogart as the hard-boiled detective–hard to imagine a grey-eyed blonde in his place! I didn’t realize Hammett penned Spade. He’s such a different character from Hammett’s other detective, Nick Charles..at least in the way William Powell portrayed him. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The 1941 movie is wonderful, indeed! I also recommend it to everyone. I own a copy of the novel, but wth my ever-growing to-read list, it is a bit forgotten in the shelf.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’d no idea that this was Huston’s directorial debut. The guy really knew how to make an entrance! I love this film. We mentioned how Bette Davis was meant for Dark Victory. Well, Bogie was no less meant for the Falcon. What a match! This is yet another that I’ve got to watch again, Ruth. Now, that will be a fun couple of hours. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Bogart is a brilliant casting choice for Sam Spade, with that cynical outlook. I BELIEVE Bogart is Spade, and not just Bogart acting as a gumshoe.

      Yes, John Huston was exceptionally talented. Like you said, The Maltese Falcon proves he knew how to make an entrance.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I really enjoyed reading your post. I learned so much about the writer of the books and director of the Maltese Falcon, and also about the character of Sam Spade himself. You really get his character across when you said he wasn’t a fan of being magnanimous and gave examples of it in the movie and book. I also love the quote from Chandler you cited, “He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before”, speaking about the author, Dashiell Hammett. Very profound way of explaining his talent. You have given me so much to think about, it will be even more enjoyable now. Thanks, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

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