The Maltese Falcon—Two Movies and a Book

falconI have been having great fun reading Dashiell Hammett’s book The Maltese Falcon.   The movie version with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre has been so iconic it is hard to imagined the characters any other way. (Mary Aster also played a leading role, but her acclaimed beauty was always too dated for my taste.)  A favorable book review of a recent prequel that describes how the detectives Sam Spade and Miles Archer became partners in their own agency triggered my interest in the original published version.

Roger Ebert called The Maltese Falcon one of the greatest movies of all time.  It was John Huston’s debut as a director.  He gave himself a bit part as the dying ship captain who stumbles in with the falcon wrapped in paper and string.  Hitchcock was famous for doing the same in his movies.

The story of the Maltese falcon statue sounds like it came right out of The Da Vinci Code.  After the Crusades, the Knights of Rhodes gave the jewel-encrusted statue to King Charles V in return for the island of Malta, but it was stolen by pirates.  Kasper Gutman, an antiques scholar, played by Sydney Greenstreet, tracked it through its many change of hands.  It had been covered with a black enamel to hide its value and ended up with a Russian general who was unaware of its origin.  When he would not sell it, Gutman stole it, but was double-crossed by his gang and, as the story opens, no one knows who has it.

When doing quick search on Google, I was surprised to find the Bogart movie, done in 1941, was the second one.  The first was produced in 1931, a year after the book was published, but is sometimes shown under the title Dangerous Female to avoid confusion of the two.  According to the synopsis, the earlier version, before the infamous morality code of 1934 (Hays Code), was open about Spade’s affair with Archer’s wife and Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor’s character).  This was only suggested in the Bogart version, as was Joel Cairo’s flaming homosexuality (Peter Lorre).  Early in the book, Spade tells Brigid that Cairo offered $5,000 to hire him, and she replies, “Can I buy you with my body?”  Too bad that line never made it to the Bogart movie. Their line was, “What else is there I can buy you with?”

Bogart certainly resembles Sam Spade who is described several times as having a “satanic” look, although Spade is a blond with yellow-gray eyes.  At one point, Spade “drew his lips back over his teeth in an impatient grimace.”  Bogart must have copied this expression for the movie, and it became his trademark ever since.

Spade is often smoking cigarettes, not surprising for a book written in 1930, but he rolls his own, described in great detail, licking the paper and twisting the ends before he puts it in his mouth as I once saw my uncle do when I was very young.  Even Spade’s secretary, Effie, rolls one for him, so I gather it was a common skill in those days.

Joel Cairo is virtually identical with Peter Lorre, so much so, it is difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part.  In fact, all of the actors are right-on.  Sydney Greenstreet (Gutman) and Elisha Cook, Jr.  (Wilber, the young, psychotic henchman) are exactly as described in the book.  Much of the dialog in the movie is unchanged and I can picture the actors saying the same lines. (Gutman laughed again.  “By Gad, sir,” he told Spade, “you’re a chap worth knowing, an amazing character.”) 

The book, although more open than the movie, was still a product of its time.  It shrank from actually spelling out the “F” word.  In a confrontation between Wilber and Spade:  The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second “you.”

Hammett’s style was obviously copied by Mickey Spillane, the author that burst on the scene in our early high school years.  Spillane’s story of the detective Mike Hammer in I, the Jury, was read intently by most of the boys in our class.  Both Sam Spade and Mike Hammer were hard-boiled, antisocial detectives.  Both the Maltese Falcon and I, the Jury have an involved, almost incomprehensible plot that was only explained at the very end.  Both end with the detective’s glamorous lover as the murderer they ruthlessly turn over to the police.  In I, the Jury, the memorable scene is at the very end when the bad girl seductively takes off all of her clothes as Mike Hammer explains how he unraveled her guilt.  Near the end of the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade forces Brigid to take off all of her clothes to prove she did not steal some money (no, that scene did not make the movie versions).  Both very similar: tough detective, involved plot, and ending with a naked bad girl.  I suspect the love-hate feelings of the detectives for their lovers resonated with many of their male readers.

I can hardly wait to begin Hammett’s other book, The Thin Man, also in the same volume I’ve been reading.  Can it be as good as the 1934 movie with William Powell and Myrna Loy playing Nick and Nora Charles?

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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