Lauren Bacall is dead. Bacall would not have been surprised by old age. When she was 21, she looked as tough and as knowing as a forty year old. She was succeeded in the movies by innocents like Doris Day. Today, female film stars claim emancipation but pretend they are younger.
Throughout The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy pretends. She is the woman Bogart rejects so he can wait for Bacall in The Big Sleep. The subsequent film may be an adolescent fantasy but Bacall is mature and resolute. She is a woman fit for heroes. The rest of us are not worth her time.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy is different. She flutters her eyelashes and pouts, flatters the next stepping stone. If the stone is too high for a footstep, she blasts it away with a gunshot. Brigid O’Shaughnessy kills men and then lies. Brigid has something that Sam Spade wants, and it is not the Maltese Falcon. But, although sex is important, Sam is willing to send her to the electric chair.
The excitement in The Maltese Falcon is rooted in character. Sam Spade is an amoral hero. He is not even cool like Marlowe. He wears a silly watch chain and looks uncomfortable in his shirts. But he does surprise.
‘By, gad, sir,’ says Gutman. ‘You are an astonishing fellow.’
And so he is. Spade is not a hero. He lacks moral principles. Spade is interested in money and is willing to have an affair with the wife of his detective partner, a woman who irritated him but provided an alternative to a relationship. But Spade has a professional code, which is important because it secures business and income. It is this code and neither morality nor idealism that makes Spade surrender O’Shaughnessy to the police.
Both Mary Astor, who played Brigid, and Humphrey Bogart were actors capable of glamour. Yet when Spade admits that he will not let Brigid escape, Astor looks desperate and repulsive. Similarly, Bogart is tortured and talks through a twisted face. This couple had known physical bliss. As they argue, these characters look ugly. The bliss was an illusion.
The Maltese Falcon is a tale told with great style. The style, though, serves what then was thought to be realism. This is a tough world with shabby people. Dashiell Hammett was a left wing misanthrope who hated capitalism but was wary of the revolution. The good people in The Maltese Falcon are dependable and understand courtesies but are still selfish and have weaknesses. The plot is contrived and depends like other Hammett plots on distant history for a mechanism to make it work. But this suits the mood of the film. The plots of Hammett remind us that the world has always been rotten. Hammett lacks idealism and refuses to embellish. His style is formed through method and integrity and rooted in audacious confidence in a great story and unforgettable characters. Everything feels inevitable so maybe didactic Hammett was being more political than some realise.
Howard Jackson has written three books, which have been published by Red Rattle Books.
Red Rattle Books will be publishing Mortal Shuffle by Jim Lawler this October, another great crime novel with an amoral detective.
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