The Maltese falcon

 

75 years ago today–October 18, 1941– the directing debut of one of the great American eccentrics, John Huston.

The beginning of the noir as a prestigious genre.

The beginning of stardom for Humphrey Bogart.

The only Dashiell Hammett adaptation. The real introduction of the hardboiled detective to the national audience.

In these days when we contemplate whether shamelessness is not the better way to conduct political affairs, it’s useful to think about this movie. After all, the hardboiled detective is the kind of citizen whose concern with justice is private & who knows that the law & the public order are corrupt, possibly beyond redemption… So the first thing we need to learn is that you need to make a beautiful story out of the ugly corruption of the human heart. That’s the truth about politics in a nutshell.

I’ll tell you about the story briefly. Maybe you know it–but you’ve never heard it told this way. This is a San Francisco story. It’s a greed story, which recalls the gold rush & the desperate American struggle for wealth independent of normal life. It’s a city story–a private detective has to face up to squalor & corruption, immorality & anonymity. He’s called Sam Spade–it’s a glib name, which recalls cracking wise, & at the same time the great love Americans have of the truth, or at least of saying what’s on their mind. People are afraid that telling the truth ultimately is the same as calling a spade a spade: That the truth is an ugly truth & everything that’s not ugly is just a euphemism or an illusion. If the truth turns out to be the same as disillusionment, what’s the point? This is the job of the writer in a democratic age–to reassure people that we can survive the death of aristocratic glory, that we should defend our new power of justice against delusions of grandeur, & that the human ugliness of justice has a moral beauty of its own. Sam Spade is ugly, but admirable. He’s not a happy guy, but he really is a hero–telling his story, putting on display his greatest adventure does justify him–it is a life worth living.

In San Francisco, commerce brings both the European past of aristocracy & the Asian or Eastern past of intrigue. They’re both the same thing, because they conceal cruelty behind beauty & they use beauty to justify inequality. Supposedly, the free market is supposed to be about people getting what’s good for them in a reasonable way, by agreements & contracts. But in reality, human desires are far uglier & more violent. They are lawless & the laws of the market are pathetic in comparison. It takes real men & fake men to restrain the things that come into America, from the past, & which threaten to upend the fragile democracy.

Everything American in the story is ugly or at least drab. Everything beautiful is wicked. There is a stark moralism about the realism of the hardboiled detective story. The way to understand The maltese falcon is to think of it as the temptation of Sam Spade. What tempts him? A beautiful woman. A great criminal mystery which brings out his powers of mind & body. What do these two things have in common? They’re un-American in a very specific way–they bring up, free from moral concerns, the desire for conflict & adoration that makes & unmakes manly men. The ambition to be the best–to know what’s really worth having & to get it, laws be damned. Striving & succeeding–man’s revenge on the world that does not appreciate him leading to his assuming his proper station. Fighting off justice & God–being utterly self-reliant while defying the misery of this world.

You may think this is making too much of a drama out of things. Well, that’s the same as making a crime story out of what should be a small newspaper item about an event of no concern to most Americans. This is about trying to show what really matters to men & why men matter in our world. The essential Sam Sapde line is this: Don’t be so sure I’m so crooked as I’m supposed to be. This is the word of a man who prefers nobility to vulgarity, but lives in a vulgar world. He knows he won’t get a statue; he knows they won’t be naming their kids or their cities for him; he doesn’t think there’s much reward to doing the right thing when nobody else can or will. The funny thing is, in America you might get your movie, even if you don’t get your statue. The phantom-image of democratic resentment is the true image of aristocratic nobility. There’s no reality that really corresponds to this story. Sam Spade makes up his own story: He’s honestly angry when he’s faking a rant to the District Attorney–he’s honestly prudent when he’s faking detachment when he turns to the stenographer to make sure he gets it all written down right. That’s what he calls good work. A man needs to know about pride & prudence both if he’s going to know not to lie to himself & not to let others make a fool of him. This is the secret teaching of such stories. This is the open secret of manly dignity.

But so far I’ve only talked to you about what’s truly beautiful about the movie–not why people were so taken with it–not why it’s really attracted people’s attention. Let’s talk about why it’s such a success with Americans. This is a movie made in closest possible imitation of the book that surpasses the book. There are three reasons for this. 1. Detective novels appeal so much to Americans because they are plot driven. Plot you can film. Motion looks better, if not more transparent on film. John Huston beautified the plot, added glamor, as people say, classed up the joint, as people say, but put his faith in the uncompromising morality implicit to the story. People would follow the plot because they knew in their hearts that it was all too plausible. For example, he restored the great troubled ending, against precedent & against what we may call the producer’s or studio boss’s taste for happy endings. The moral seriousness of the story comes across & the audience has to admit that the cynical humor is the natural answer of a heart lacerated by a love of justice that this world cannot satisfy. You end up thinking that all drama is a search for God, bound to fail.

2. Americans believe that character shows up in speeches. For a ‘walk the walk’, ‘put your money where your mouth is’ race, Americans really are suckers for moral speeches. Well, maybe not quite suckers–a character has to earn his moment of truth-telling, usually by suffering, but he does get his moment. Heroes have one moment where they fully reveal themselves–in America, they do it by talk. The importance of dialogue for characterization is really at cross-purposes with the importance of the plot. Actions should speak louder than words, but they don’t. Morality just shows up better in speeches than in deeds. Why should this be? Well, it’s partly because even Americans dread death & want to be remembered–it’s partly because a man who faces up to injustice really does want the truth to come out, even if it cannot win the day–it’s partly because men don’t just defend themselves, they defend humanity, &, anguished as it is, the human being is the speaking animal.

3. Then there’s the specific democratic character of the Hollywood movies, past, present, & future. The entire film is shot from Bogart’s point of view. That was the thing about Bogart–which later Sinatra imitated so well–he could bear the burden of the moral failures of the American people. He looked like a man who’d been through much & he made people believe he’d come out of it not much the worse for wear. The injustice & the unhappiness could be born after all with a democratic kind of dignity–with a wise crack rather than a Shakespearean heroic speech–full of self-doubt & a kind of resentment that our successes so little compare with our dreams–but with a kind of moral satisfaction–a man can weather the storm that is this world of ours. You see that storm etched in the lines of Bogart’s face & he deserves all the elegance of his expensive suits & the oracular suggestion of his emergence among clouds of smoke. He snarls like an animal–he contains a murderous anger–but at the same time, he knows about love & suffering, he takes pity on people whose faults mar them or ruin them, & he does not end up corrupted by dreams of luxury, opulence, & splendor. That’s why he looks so much like himself on screen: The elegant suit, the smoking, & the angry body they form all go together. He threatens to come apart & yet he restrains himself. Every man wants that degree of self-control.

I’m going to call it quits here. You see, I’ve given this a lot of thought & I’ve already talked too much about it. Let’s say, I’m not half the writer John Huston was or half the actor Bogart was. You’re going to have to put up with me, however, because they’re not here to speak for themselves… I’ll write a book about the old movies one day & that’ll make more sense of what the people who knew how to tell stories knew about America. Meanwhile, if you think there’s something to what I say–you’re going to have to read this again. Nothing I can do about that except to offer to answer questions, which might turn out to make obscure things even more obscure… Finally, if you do think there’s something to this, do me a kindness & vote to publish this so I can share it with everyone else, too…

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  1. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Wonderful article. But this was actually Warner Brothers 3rd adaptation of the novel. They made a version in 1931, preproduction code and another in 1936 with Bette Davis. But Huston finally got it right.

    Off topic a bit, I have friends who moved into a San Francisco apartment building. They were puzzled why tourist buses kept stopping by. They learned Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in apartment #2.

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Eustace C. Scrubb:Wonderful article. But this was actually Warner Brothers 3rd adaptation of the novel. They made a version in 1931, preproduction code and another in 1936 with Bette Davis. But Huston finally got it right.

    Thanks. Yes, you’re right about the adaptation. This was the first one with the ending from the novel intact–even the language, the sequence, the point of view. It’s also said in the movie gossip world, it was shot almost in sequence. If you want to talk about events seeming fated, the plot really seemed to dominate everything here!

    Off topic a bit, I have friends who moved into a San Francisco apartment building. They were puzzled why tourist buses kept stopping by. They learned Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in apartment #2.

    Nice story. Well, I hope your friends love the movie. They should amuse the tourists with little stories! Wouldn’t that be great? You stop by the building & someone drops you a good anecdote? You gotta work with serendipity when it shows up, right!

    • #2
  3. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    One of the best things about The Maltese Falcon is that it has been remade so many times.  There is a 1931 version.  There is the 1936 adaption called “Satan Met a Lady.”  (Everyone is drunk, if I recall, because I suppose they wanted to add a “Thin Man” element since Hammett wrote that one too.)  There is a 1975 comedy called “The Black Bird.”

    It’s instructive to see the choices that differentiate a good and bad movie.  You can have all of the elements of a great movie and just not know how to make the material work.

    • #3
  4. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Wonderful article. But this was actually Warner Brothers 3rd adaptation of the novel. They made a version in 1931, preproduction code and another in 1936 with Bette Davis. But Huston finally got it right.

    We’re all thinking the same thing.

    • #4
  5. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    For me, the essence of noir is: what do you do when you know that someone is lying to you?

    O’SHAUGHNESSY : I have a terrible, terrible confession to make. That story I told you yesterday … was just a story.
    SPADE: Oh, that. Well, we didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss …What is your name, Wonderly or LeBlanc?
    O’SHAUGHNESSY: It’s O’Shaughnessy, Brigid O’Shaughnessy
    SPADE: We didn’t exactly believe your story. We believed your $200.
    O’SHAUGHNESSY: You mean …
    SPADE: You paid us more than if you’d told the truth and enough more to make it all right.

    Spade is, after all, a detective. He’s actually after the truth, when no one else seems to be. And he’s comfortable with being lied to; he actually falls in love with someone who lies to him in every scene, and he knows they’re lies, even as she says them.

    What a great character! A man who can forgive liars and phonies, even playing the same phony games with them, who is nevertheless honorable and wants to find the truth.

    What a politician he’d have made!

    • #5
  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo:One of the best things about The Maltese Falcon is that it has been remade so many times. There is a 1931 version. There is the 1936 adaption called “Satan Met a Lady.” (Everyone is drunk, if I recall, because I suppose they wanted to add a “Thin Man” element since Hammett wrote that one too.) There is a 1975 comedy called “The Black Bird.”

    I’ll add, apparently, the studio wanted to call Huston’s classic ‘The gent from Frisco.’ Wow!

    It’s instructive to see the choices that differentiate a good and bad movie. You can have all of the elements of a great movie and just not know how to make the material work.

    Well put!

    • #6
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    KC Mulville:For me, the essence of noir is: what do you do when you know that someone is lying to you?

    O’SHAUGHNESSY : I have a terrible, terrible confession to make. That story I told you yesterday … was just a story.
    SPADE: Oh, that. Well, we didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss …What is your name, Wonderly or LeBlanc?
    O’SHAUGHNESSY: It’s O’Shaughnessy, Brigid O’Shaughnessy
    SPADE: We didn’t exactly believe your story. We believed your $200.
    O’SHAUGHNESSY: You mean …
    SPADE: You paid us more than if you’d told the truth and enough more to make it all right.

    Spade is, after all, a detective. He’s actually after the truth, when no one else seems to be. And he’s comfortable with being lied to; he actually falls in love with someone who lies to him in every scene, and he knows they’re lies, even as she says them.

    What a great character! A man who can forgive liars and phonies, even playing the same phony games with them, who is nevertheless honorable and wants to find the truth

    What a politician he’d have made!

    So you’re on to something here! He has other quotable remarks about lying. That it’s needful to be a little corrupt–because the naive don’t stand a chance in this world. That he’s not exactly what he seems: He plays a role. So on & so forth.

    But he loves justice, not truth…

    • #7
  8. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    I can’t remember if this made the movie, but the novel has a lesson for our times:

    “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

    The movie is also notable because it centers on a Hitchcockian MacGuffin without Hitchcock.

    • #8
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Hoyacon:I can’t remember if this made the movie, but the novel has a lesson for our times:

    “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

    The movie is also notable because it centers on a Hitchcockian MacGuffin without Hitchcock.

    Yeah, the line made it into the movie. Bogart is really good with it.

    As for the other thing, the MacGuffin, I think that’s much misunderstood. There’s no such thing as a pure object of desire. These people have practical reasons to chase after the bird, even if what they believe is insane. It’s important that their ambitions are secretive, private, taking them around the world, in exotic places. It’s to do with lawlessness & the insanity of desire. But it also opposes their character to the basic American attachment to common sense. They’re really impractical people, even if they’re ingenious.

    I’d argue that at least in some of the Hitchcock stories, this serves the same function: It gives a public scope to private life & it allows Americans to learn psychology, which they hate. They’re never gonna love Jane Austen or Henry James like they love suspense stories. They’re never gonna admit the darker motives that impel them to love crime stories. But a certain part of the work of relating morality to fantasy gets done in this kind of story-telling, as I tried to show.

    It’s also important to see that Sam Spade does not choose the delusion…

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Spade was also a tall blond in the book.

    • #10
  11. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Almost forgot this one:

    Joel Cairo: You always have such a smooth explanation.

    Sam Spade: What to you want me to do, learn to stutter?

    • #11
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Arahant:Spade was also a tall blond in the book.

    Not to say, 6″ tall if he was an inch… Not exactly Bogart, who was more democratic, let’s say!

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Hoyacon:Almost forgot this one:

    Joel Cairo: You always have such a smooth explanation.

    Sam Spade: What to you want me to do, learn to stutter?

    There’s a lot of sympathy in the story for clever speakers, as opposed to tough guys…

    • #13
  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    You wouldn’t suspect a detective story of carrying a brief for eloquence, but there it is. After all, even crime stories have writers!

    • #14
  15. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    Thank you, Titus! Do you know how much the dingus is worth?

    • #15
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    John Park:Thank you, Titus! Do you know how much the dingus is worth?

    I’ve got one on my bookcase. Heavy bird.

    • #16
  17. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Casting Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cooke wasn’t too shabby either.  It made the movie have an enjoyable seriousness.

    • #17
  18. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Great piece! Minor quibble:

    The only Dashiell Hammett adaptation

    “The Glass Key” was released in 1935. There was a 1930 adaptation of “Red Harvest,” but it wasn’t particularly faithful.

    • #18
  19. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    James Lileks:Great piece! Minor quibble:

    The only Dashiell Hammett adaptation

    “The Glass Key” was released in 1935. There was a 1930 adaptation of “Red Harvest,” but it wasn’t particularly faithful.

    I was confused by that in the O/P.  The Veronica Lake “Glass Key” was 1942 (who cares about Brian Donlevy).  Then there’s The Thin Man.

     

    • #19
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The casting is perfect.

    I’ve long had a theory that Huston had to call Greenstreet back in during editing to dub in “It’s a fake! It’s a fake!” when the Falcon is finally revealed for what it is. For one thing, the sound doesn’t really match, and of course there’s no shot of him speaking the words. Why? (theory:) In black and white it’s not at all clear what the problem with the bird is. The moment needed that extra bit of clarification. This boosting of a scene in dubbing would be rare but not unprecedented.

    Trivia fact: Before the first uranium bomb was called “Little Boy”, the design was meant for plutonium and would have needed to be 17 feet long, so its original name was “The Thin Man”, after upper crust detective Nick Charles, and “Fat Man”, the implosion bomb, was named for Kaspar Guttman, Sidney Greenstreet’s character. So both of America’s atom bombs were named after characters written by a Communist.

    Personal trivia fact: In the late Nineties I was at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic. There was an in-person tribute to Lauren Bacall, and when the screening was over we all walked out into a thunderous summer rainstorm. I gave Lauren Bacall my umbrella, knowing I’d never see it again, but also knowing I’d dine out on the story forever. Besides, “Betty” was Jewish; I have a weakness for Jewish gals!

    • #20
  21. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Gary McVey:The casting is perfect.

    I’ve long had a theory that Huston had to call Greenstreet back in during editing to dub in “It’s a fake! It’s a fake!” when the Falcon is finally revealed for what it is. For one thing, the sound doesn’t really match, and of course there’s no shot of him speaking the words. Why? (theory:) In black and white it’s not at all clear what the problem with the bird is. The moment needed that extra bit of clarification. This boosting of a scene in dubbing would be rare but not unprecedented.

    I agree with you on this. In addition, his stabbing at the bird at this point doesn’t match his stabbing actions both before and after.

     

    • #21
  22. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Kurosawa’ classic Yojimbo is said to be a loose adaptation of Hammett’s Red Harvest. (A great movie and a great book.)

    The Maltese Falcon is really the go-to exception when people say there aren’t any good remakes or there aren’t any great adaptations of great novels.

    • #22
  23. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    I’ll buy the book. I’ll even read it. No promises on understanding it.

    • #23
  24. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    John Park:Thank you, Titus! Do you know how much the dingus is worth?

    Don’t have a clue!

    • #24
  25. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    James Lileks:Great piece! Minor quibble:

    The only Dashiell Hammett adaptation

    “The Glass Key” was released in 1935. There was a 1930 adaptation of “Red Harvest,” but it wasn’t particularly faithful.

    Let’s not forget The thin man. I know all that, but my point was…

    Thanks for the kind words! Glad to see you around-

    • #25
  26. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    genferei:I’ll buy the book. I’ll even read it. No promises on understanding it.

    You’re a better man than I am-

    • #26
  27. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Eustace C. Scrubb:Kurosawa’ classic Yojimbo is said to be a loose adaptation of Hammett’s Red Harvest. (A great movie and a great book.)

    The Maltese Falcon is really the go-to exception when people say there aren’t any good remakes or there aren’t any great adaptations of great novels.

    The new Lord of the Rings are pretty good on both counts.

    I wouldn’t sneeze at Lord of the flies either.

    I’m not sure I’d say the novel The Maltese falcon is better than Shane, let’s say.

    I’ve all sorts of other quibbles. Another great adaptation–The big sleep.

    • #27
  28. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Hoyacon:

    James Lileks:Great piece! Minor quibble:

    The only Dashiell Hammett adaptation

    “The Glass Key” was released in 1935. There was a 1930 adaptation of “Red Harvest,” but it wasn’t particularly faithful.

    I was confused by that in the O/P. The Veronica Lake “Glass Key” was 1942 (who cares about Brian Donlevy). Then there’s The Thin Man.

    Donlevy was really good. But Alan Ladd was great!

    • #28
  29. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera:The new Lord of the Rings are pretty good on both counts.

    I wouldn’t sneeze at Lord of the flies either.

    I’m not sure I’d say the novel The Maltese falcon is better than Shane, let’s say.

    I’ve all sorts of other quibbles. Another great adaptation–The big sleep.

    I would observe that 20th century literature has been more successfully adapted to the screen than literature from previous times.  I don’t have a theory about why.  Among classic movies, only Ben-Hur and Wuthering Heights are based on 19th century books.  Wizard of Oz is from 1900.  Gone with the Wind is from 1936.  The Maltese Falcon from 1929.  Jaws and The Godfather were recent popular books.  The Grapes of Wrath, From Here to Eternity, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Silence of the Lambs.

    I suppose you can count or not count West Side Story depending on whether you want to give more credit to Shakespeare or to the Broadway production.

     

    • #29
  30. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I’ve no problem explaining it. Americans suck at understanding strange things & most of history is-

    • #30
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