the original Modern Library dust jacket for The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

  • Author:  Dashiell Hammett  (1894  –  1961)
  • Rank:  #59
  • Published:  1930
  • Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf
  • Pages:  217  (Vintage paperback)
  • First Line:  “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”
  • Last Lines:  “Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly.  ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered.  ‘Well, send her in.’ “
  • ML Edition:  #45  (two dust jackets  –  1934, 1942)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century  –  #56
  • Film:  1931 (**  –  dir. Roy Del Ruth), 1936 (**  –  as Satan Met a Lady, dir. William Dieterle), 1941  (****  –  #2 film of the year, #24 all-time, dir. John Huston)
  • First Read:  Spring, 1994

The Novel: We have the descriptions right away and they are wonderful.  We learn in the third line that Sam Spade’s eyes are yellow-grey and horizontal.  On the second page, we learn that Miss Wonderly is tall and slender, “without angularity anywhere.  Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow.  She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes.”  The eyes, by the way, are cobalt-blue.  The descriptions are so perfect, of course, because these are the kinds of details that Sam Spade would notice.  He’s a detective and he’s a good one.  The book isn’t in first person, but in third person limited, and we only learn what Sam learns and he learns as much as is humanly possibly because he watches and observes.

Of course, Hammett was the perfect person to write such a book.  After all, he had been a detective and he knew the world and he knew what kind of observations they would make.  In this novel, he would perfect what he had begun in his novel, Red Harvest, the previous year: the hard boiled detective story.  I often tell people that the only mysteries I read are the classics like Hammett and Chandler, but I also sometimes read Ellroy, because his L.A. Quartet owe a great debt to these California mysteries that came before.

This is what a good mystery should do.  First of all, it is not too long.  It takes enough time to tell the story, to set the mystery, to resolve it.  It doesn’t try and drag you through too many corridors, it doesn’t spring information on you at the last second, it doesn’t have chapters of 2 or 3 pages, it doesn’t try to give interesting characteristics to its detective.  It tells the story.  It provides the details.  Look at the way it describes the scene when Spade first knocks Joel Cairo unconscious: “The first struck Cairo’s face, covering for a moment one side of his chin, a corner of his mouth, and most of his cheek between cheek-bone and jaw-bone.”  Not a long, drawn out fight.  One simply punch, very well described.

Then there are the smaller parts of the story, the parts left out of the film because they would have slowed it up, but work so well in the novel.  Take the story of Flitcraft, a case that Spade had worked years before.  He tells the story rather matter of factly, describing the case and how it went down and the eventual outcome.  He doesn’t tell it to play up his skill as a detective, but because one part of the case always interested him: “I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into that same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma.  But that’s the part of it I always liked.  He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

And so the mystery novel has adjusted itself away from Hammett and Chandler, away from hard boiled literature.  If only they would adjust themselves back, more of the genre would be worth reading.

The Films:

the movie poster for the original 1931 film version of The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Oh, God, it’s so awful.  Granted, it’s not exactly fair to go to this film after a lifetime of watching the classic Bogart version, but still.  This was in the days before the code, when they could get away with more, when there were some truly daring films coming out of Hollywood.  This is the same year as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy.  And what do we have here?  Complete and utter dreck.

Part of the blame for this must go on Roy Del Ruth.  Everything about the pacing of this film is wrong.  In an attempt to give it a lighter tone, it moves more like a comedy and it just feels all wrong.  The Hammett dialogue is said without any wit or thought behind it.  They know the notes, but not the music.  Even with some of the scenes that this film gets away with that the later versions couldn’t (the bath, the strip-search), they fall completely flat.  There is no life to this film at all and that must be laid at the feet of the director.

But the biggest problem with this film isn’t the direction.  It’s the absolutely horrible performance by Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade.  I don’t know if the script-writers thought this was a good way to play it, whether it was Del Ruth’s direction or whether it was just that Cortez is all smug and smile and no wit or style.  His performance is so wrong for the words of Dash Hammett, so wrong for this story, even wrong for as bad a film as this is.  You could say that I’m prejudiced because of having seen Bogart in this role so many times, but it’s the book that makes this performance feel wrong.  Bogart perfectly aligns with the way that Spade is written.  Cortez is just awful.  Granted, no one in the film is good and I found Otto Matieson as Joel Cairo utterly ridiculous and Dudley Digges as Caspar Gutman just pathetic, but it is Cortez that is the absolute worst.

the novel was filmed a second time as Satan Met a Lady in 1936

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

If I thought I was depressed while watching the first film version of The Maltese Falcon, it was nothing to compare to how I felt when I watched Satan Met a Lady.  Here was a film directed by a decent director (William Dieterle, one of those stalwarts of the Warner Bros. studio era) and starring Bette Davis, one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.  Certainly this would be a decent version of the film.

It’s worse than the first one.  As much as I dislike Bosley Crowther for many of the reviews that he wrote for the New York Times over the years, he hit the nail cleanly on the head with this one: “deserves to be quoted as a classic of dullness, in future press releases, as often as The Thin Man – also based on a Dashiell Hammett theme – has been quoted as a classic of scintillating wit.”  Of course, part of the problem is that Davis knew from the start that the film would be complete dreck, fought against being in it, only starred in it after being suspended by the studio, and hated it forever.

She was right of course, and even if she had not given the worst performance of her entire career, it couldn’t have saved this film.  It’s not because it changes the story so much from the original novel (and it does change it considerably – it’s entirely possibly that if you didn’t know what it was based on you wouldn’t be able to guess it – there are some basic similarities, but not much).  After all, it’s easy to completely change things from the book, even a good book, and still make a good or even great film (just look what Coppola did with Heart of Darkness).  But it helps if you have some notion of what kind of story you are working with.  One of the reasons the Harry Potter films have worked so well is that even when they have departed from the books, they have stayed true to the characters.  This film doesn’t even stay true to the genre.  It wants to have a strange kind of detective story, nothing like the hard boiled novel it’s using as its source.

The biggest problem is comes down to is the climactic scene where the horn is finally claimed (yes, in this film it’s a horn, not a bird).  Whereas Spade is smart and cunning, playing off people against each other, he does it with the actual item well out of sight.  Warren William as Ted Shane, the detective in this film seems like he just wants to start an auction.  It’s a convoluted, messed up ridiculous scene that deserves to be laughed off the screen.  As an adaptation of the novel, it’s worthless.  But even worse, as a film, it’s just plain bad.

the 1941 John Huston version of The Maltese Falcon - one of the greatest films of all-time

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

It is the film more than any other, not only that I wish I had written, but that I wish I had lived.  I sit here writing this, wearing my black fedora, one of the few people in my generation who owns a fedora, not because of Indiana Jones, but because of Sam Spade.  In all the stuff I write over the years, sitting, unfinished, is Shadow of the Past, the novel that owes its existence to Faulkner and Hammett, the novel set in the dark, foggy San Francisco just before the war.

As a film, it is almost beyond compare.  It sits near the top of the greatest films ever made.  Everything about it is right – the cynicism from Bogart as Spade, the ruthlessness of Gutman, so perfectly played by Greenstreet, the weakness of Joel Cairo in the perfect Peter Lorre role, the sultriness of Mary Astor as O’Shaughnessy – but also the technical aspects, the dark, foggy streets, the music, the crisp editing, the brilliant direction from John Huston.

But most of all, it is a perfect adaptation of the novel.  Of the numerous films made from the 100 novels on this list, very few are as good as this one.  But none so perfectly adapt the novel into the cinematic.  You can go back and read the novel and hear Bogart and Greenstreet saying their lines.  You can remember everything about the film.  Of course, not absolutely everything is exactly the same.  Some of the scenes had to be truncated a bit because of the enforcement of the Production Code and some of the moments just don’t belong in a film, even when perfectly placed in the novel.

This film is as much a reminder of anything else how much I love both films and literature.  I would not do without this film or this novel.  I can not imagine not being able to watch this film again and again and again and I love those moments, sitting on the train, when I can immerse myself back into the novel yet again.  They are both a part of me.

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