USA 1941


First, a half-remembered anecdote that is worth telling. A few years after she had finished filming The Maltese Falcon, Mary Astor was in Mexico making the nowhere near as distinguished movie Fiesta. Her husband was the reserved and publicity shy Dr Franklin Thorpe. Thanks to an unscrupulous Hollywood publicity department and a few local roguish newspapermen Thorpe was reinvented as a stud, the only man capable of sexually satisfying the beautiful Mary Astor. The untrue tales of his behaviour in the bedroom excited the local population, especially the men who believed they had found a genuine hero. Before the filming of Fiesta was finished Thorpe travelled to Mexico to join his wife Astor. Unaware of what was happening below the border, Thorpe left the train expecting to catch a quiet taxi to a local hotel. The roaring football-sized crowd that welcomed Thorpe was a surprise, as were the songs being sung in his honour.   When some of the men lifted Thorpe on to their shoulders, the publicity avoiding doctor must have feared for his life. The truth was that Thorpe was a quiet and modest man and Astor was the philanderer.  She was also a great actress and as the treacherous but anxious Brigid O’Shaughnessy she has her finest moments.


The Maltese Falcon is based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.  Raymond Chandler, the other great American author of 40s hardboiled crime, explained the appeal of Hammett. ‘He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.’   The flourish in that sentence also defines the difference between the two writers.  Chandler wrote more elegant prose and was romantic. Hammett kept the phrases simple and rooted his stories in the double-dealing world he knew. The irony is that the romantic Chandler is straight-laced while Hammett, despite his no-nonsense heroes, is playful.  Both men had a passion for alcohol, and that helps explain why neither of them wrote more than a handful of novels.


Boozer he may have been but Hammett the man has heroic status. His mix of sour misanthropy and left wing idealism ensured he was his own person.  As a young man, Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective but he left after witnessing their strikebreaking activities. When questioned about his politics, he refused to give names about his fellow travellers to the various committees and attorneys.  Dashiell Hammett was sent to prison where his job was to clean the toilets.  Playwright Lillian Hellman was the partner of Hammett for thirty years of her life.  She commented on his refusal to cooperate with authority.  ‘He had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word.’

And so did Sam Spade. The detective in The Maltese Falcon tells lies, pushes people around and is dismissive of the misfortune that befalls others. If Sam Spade lacks feeling, he understands loyalty.  Spade is neither romantic nor idealistic which means that he is not interested in redemption. But he will bring the murderer of his partner to justice. He has professional pride and realises his worth depends on him understanding what he owes his fellow detective. Sam Spade is attracted to Brigid O’Shaughnessy but there is a problem. Brigid killed Miles. Sam hands her over to the police. ‘If they don’t hang you, I’ll be waiting for you.’ We believe him. Spade is attracted to dangerous people. If anyone can wait twenty years for a deceitful woman who murders people, it is Sam Spade.


Both the book and the movie are great. There are fine details but in neither the book nor the movie does any of it feel like embellishment. Instead, we have steady steps on which we follow characters through a fanciful plot to a conclusion that is a result of messy lives and flawed people but somehow crystal clear. The story travels as straight as an arrow. The inventive details that do exist are almost invisible.  The actors make gestures and adopt certain postures but no one scene steals. At one point Spade and O’Shaughnessy hold hands but it happens in the bottom corner of the screen and is not likely to be noticed. Throughout the film O’Shaughnessy is either wearing stripes or surrounded by them, the bars on the lift and the Regency wallpaper in her hotel room. The Gay overtones in the novel are reduced to one word, ‘gunsel’, which is how Spade describes the gunman Wilma. The names of the characters are all the creation of Hammett, and he has fun with them.


The Maltese Falcon is like early Elvis rockabilly. It is situated on the cusp of two genres and eras, the golden age of escapist detective fiction and the hardboiled realism that followed. The history of ‘the black bird’ actually sounds like a sub-plot in an Eric Ambler novel.  Ambler also merged genres, classical thriller and modern espionage.

In the films of Howard Hawks teamwork can lead to democratic exaltation. His teams consist of straight talking equals. Despite the left wing politics of Hammett his literary output was not didactic. Yet the treacherous individuals who form the group that is united in finding ‘the black bird’ evoke our own experience of working in teams in a modern economic system. The people who are desperate to locate the Maltese Falcon are associates but, because of their ambition, they are also rivals. This is it is how it is in most workplaces. When under pressure, rivals tell lies. To survive they form shifting alliances depending on changes in circumstances or the progress that is being made. Gutman is not only willing to betray Wilma when needed he fluctuates in his attitude to Sam Spade. At one point Gutman negotiates a deal with the private detective. After the La Paloma docks into port and Gutman discovers the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon he dopes and abandons Spade. Joel Cairo and Brigid alternate between being friends and enemies. In a world where everyone is chasing that extra dollar this is how people in teams operate. Gutman and Joel Cairo switch as easily from being enemies to friends as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson do in the present British Cabinet. The bird that obsesses the members of our Government may have a paler countenance but she also has a history that preoccupies her pursuers.


The world of Sam Spade is not an open landscape of romantic possibilities. There is just one shot that is not of a studio set and that looks like stock footage borrowed from another film. Instead, Spade moves from one crowded room to another. This is how he meets and measures people and exchanges the necessary gossip and lies for business. Competition and intimacy are two claustrophobic elements in modern life. In the great radical American thriller Tucker’s People the author Ira Wolfert poses this question on the first page. ‘Is the world a cloth that may be cut to fit its people? Or are people cloth that must be cut to fit the world?’ The characters in The Maltese Falcon not only tell lies and contemplate sacrificing others. They are willing to cut themselves and others to fit a world where corruption and greed dominate.

The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon was the third attempt by Hollywood at adapting the novel for celluloid. It succeeds and sparkles because of the exceptional talents involved. Mary Astor is obliged to be an ingénue, a cynical operator, a violent and angry warrior and finally to acknowledge defeat and despair. All the actors are great.   For once the glamour of Bogart is kept under control. There are a couple of moments that reveal his limitations but he convinces as the fast talking tough guy.   When Joel Cairo accuses him of always having smooth explanations, Spade snaps back, ‘What do you want me to do, stutter?’


The voice and figure of Sydney Greenstreet dominate the film but the actor provides more than the flamboyance and bulk for which he is remembered.  The final exit of Gutman produces a strange waddle walk that almost makes his villainy endearing. When Wilma is pulled away from Gutman to be used as a patsy, Greenstreet underplays and looks like a man who has noticed a stain on his sleeve. The history of ‘the black bird’ is told twice in the film. At the end of the opening credits the screen is filled with a written account, and the same tale is told to Spade by Gutman. Rather than this repeated information being boring it adds to the power of the icon and suggests mystery and myth.  To succeed, though, the explanatory speech needs the confident delivery of Sydney Greenstreet, an actor who in more ways than one could fill a cinema screen. But all the actors grace the screen with their presence.  And the movie does something similar for its audience.  The movie may have certain playful notions but no one who watches the film is deceived.   The characters on the screen are as grubby and as untrustworthy as the rest of us. There is, though, consolation in the competence and achievement of director John Huston.  If only we could say something similar about the present Government.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.