The Maltese Falcon – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Back in late October of 2016 I reviewed Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel “The Maltese Falcon.”  To describe the review as highly enthusiastic would be an understatement.  I raved about the book.  Well, I’ll almost repeat the performance for John Huston’s film.  There are differences, of course.  And if you had read the book before seeing the movie you’d feel that both Bogart and Astor were physically miscast.  But the movie on its own merits is superb.

John Huston based the movie quite faithfully on Hammett’s book.  Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, one half of the San Francisco based private detective firm of Spade and Archer. He’s also his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva’s former lover (now that’s a complicated sentence!).

The story opens up with Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, announcing a new client, Miss Wonderly (played by Mary Astor).  Wonderly starts telling a tale to Spade and also Archer as he walks in during the story.  The story is a fabrication about a make-believe teen-age sister who has been spirited away cross country by a real gangster named Floyd Thursby.  Spade and Archer agree to tail Thursby in return for some also very real hundred dollar bills that Wonderly pays them.

Archer is shot and killed during his surveillance and this begins a sequence of events that involves Spade in a confusing search for the truth about a globe-trotting quest to obtain the legendary Maltese Falcon.  We meet corpulent Caspar Gutman played by Sidney Greenstreet, who is the ringleader behind the search.  Then there is Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, a mincing effeminate who sometimes works for Gutman and sometimes doesn’t.  There is Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s young triggerman who would rather shoot his opponents than negotiate terms.  And finally, we have the good cop/ bad cop duo of Detective Tom Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.  They show up at strategic moments to inform Spade that he is everyone’s favorite suspect in several murders.

The exact details of the plot are too much fun to spoil so I won’t go into much detail but suffice it to say there really aren’t any innocent parties involved unless you include Effie Perine.  Wonderly, which isn’t the last fake name she’ll go by in the film is up to her neck in the crimes but she becomes Spade’s femme fatale in the story.  Spade is a ruthless but strangely honorable character who lives by his own logic.  The criminals (almost everyone) spend the entire movie double-crossing each other in various iterations.  They all prove, with some prodding from Spade, that there is indeed no honor among thieves.  But the plot moves along smartly and by the end all the loose ends are neatly tied up and Sam Spade is sort of the last man standing.  Bogart even gets to apply an ironic tagline to describe the futility of the whole mad enterprise.

When I said that Bogart and Astor were physically miscast it’s because in the book Spade is described as a tall muscular blond-haired man.  Bogart is none of those things.  And in the book Mary Astor’s character is a woman in her twenties which at the point when this movie was made could hardly describe Astor.  Regardless, they make the characters their own.  And especially Bogart’s Spade is iconic and basically defines the Sam Spade character for most of the people who have heard of the Maltese Falcon.  The rest of the cast is also excellent.  Greenstreet and Lorre are so interesting and memorable that at certain points in the movie they push even Bogart out of the spotlight.

If you’ve never seen the Maltese Falcon then shame on you.  In fact, if I had my way people would read the book first and then watch the movie.  But this is a fallen world we live in.  So, I guess I’m already asking too much to recommend a black and white movie.  Highly recommended.

04MAY2018 – Quote of the Day

Enter Joel Cairo, Hammett could draw a word picture.

 

The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

Chapter 4 – The Black Bird

Spade returned to his office at ten minutes past five that evening. Effie Perine was sitting at his desk reading Time. Spade sat on the desk and asked: “Anything stirring?”

“Not here. You look like you’d swallowed the canary.”

He grinned contentedly. “I think we’ve got a future. I always had an idea that if Miles would go off and die somewhere we’d stand a better chance of thriving. Will you take care of sending flowers for me?”

“I did.”

“You’re an invaluable angel. How’s your woman’s intuition today?”

“Why?”

“What do you think of Wonderly?”

“I’m for her,” the girl replied without hesitation.

“She’s got too many names,” Spade mused, “Wonderly, Leblanc, and she says the right one’s O’Shaughnessy.”

“I don’t care if she’s got all the names in the phone-book. That girl is all right, and you know it.”

“I wonder.” Spade blinked sleepily at Effie Perine. He chuckled. “Anyway she’s given up seven hundred smacks in two days, and that’s all right.”

Effie Perine sat up straight and said: “Sam, if that girl’s in trouble and you let her down, or take advantage of it to bleed her, I’ll never forgive you, never have any respect for you, as long as I live.”

Spade smiled unnaturally. Then he frowned. The frown was unnatural. He opened his mouth to speak, but the sound of someone’s entrance through the corridor-door stopped him.

Effie Perine rose and went into the outer office. Spade took off his hat and sat in his chair. The girl returned with an engraved card–Mr. Joel Cairo.

“This guy is queer,” she said.

“In with him, then, darling,” said Spade.

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him.

Spade inclined his head at his visitor and then at a chair, saying: “Sit down, Mr. Cairo.”

Cairo bowed elaborately over his hat, said, “I thank you,” in a high-pitched thin voice and sat down. He sat down primly, crossing his ankles, placing his hat on his knees, and began to draw off his yellow gloves.

Spade rocked back in his chair and asked: “Now what can I do for you, Mr. Cairo?” The amiable negligence of his tone, his motion in the chair, were precisely as they had been when he had addressed the same question to Brigid O’Shaughnessy on the previous day.

Cairo turned his hat over, dropping his gloves into it, and placed it bottom-up on the corner of the desk nearest him. Diamonds twinkled on the second and fourth fingers of his left hand, a ruby that matched the one in his tie even to the surrounding diamonds on the third finger of his right hand. His hands were soft and well cared for. Though they were not large their flaccid bluntness made them seem clumsy. He rubbed his palms together and said over the whispering sound they made: “May a stranger offer condolences for your partner’s unfortunate death?”

“Thanks.”

“May I ask, Mr. Spade, if there was, as the newspapers inferred, a certain–ah–relationship between that unfortunate happening and the death a little later of the man Thursby?”

Spade said nothing in a blank-faced definite way.

Cairo rose and bowed. “I beg your pardon.” He sat down and placed his hands side by side, palms down, on the corner of the desk. “More than idle curiosity made me ask that, Mr. Spade. I am trying to recover an–ah–ornament that has been–shall we say?–mislaid. I thought, and hoped, you could assist me.”

Spade nodded with eyebrows lifted to indicate attentiveness.

“The ornament is a statuette,” Cairo went on, selecting and mouthing his words carefully, “the black figure of a bird.”

Spade nodded again, with courteous interest.

“I am prepared to pay, on behalf of the figure’s rightful owner, the sum of five thousand dollars for its recovery.” Cairo raised one hand from the desk-corner and touched a spot in the air with the broad-nailed tip of an ugly forefinger. “I am prepared to promise that–what is the phrase?–no questions will be asked.” He put his hand on the desk again beside the other and smiled blandly over them at the private detective.

“Five thousand is a lot of money,” Spade commented, looking thoughtfully at Cairo. “It–”

Fingers drummed lightly on the door.

When Spade had called, “Come in,” the door opened far enough to admit Effie Perine’s head and shoulders. She had put on a small dark felt hat and a dark coat with a grey fur collar.

“Is there anything else?” she asked.

“No. Good night. Lock the door when you go, will you?”

Spade turned in his chair to face Cairo again, saying: “It’s an interesting figure.”

The sound of the corridor-door’s closing behind Effie Perine came to them.

Cairo smiled and took a short compact flat black pistol out of an inner pocket. “You will please,” he said, “clasp your hands together at the back of your neck.”

The Black Bird

Dashiell Hammett was not a science fiction author. What he was, was a card-carrying communist, an alcoholic, a philanderer who deserted his wife and children and by all accounts a jerk. He squandered his money and his writing talent and by the measure of lifetime total output left a very sparse legacy as a writer.

So why am I writing about him? Because he was one of the greatest 20th century American genre writers. And by extension I’d say he was one of the greatest 20th century story tellers. And finally, because he wrote the Maltese Falcon, which is the archetype for the hard-boiled detective story and by extension for most of American genre fiction and film story lines for the 1930s and 1940s. In fact I would say that the film Blade Runner is without a doubt the legitimate grand-child of the Maltese Falcon. So therefore it’s related to science fiction. Thus I can semi-legitimately categorize this under sf&f.

I’ve never been a detective story addict. When I was young I read the Holmes stories and I have from time to time read some crime fiction. But sf&f were more my central interest. I came to the Maltese Falcon late in life. I can’t remember if I ever saw the John Huston film in its entirety in my younger years although I am sure I saw bits of it through discussions of classic Hollywood films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It was actually a very offhand chance that brought me to it. I was at a book store (Barnes and Noble’s or Borders?) back in the mid 1990s. They had some books for sale as remainders and a faux leather bound book caught my eye. It had the image of a black bird set off by silver highlights. It was an edition of the Maltese Falcon at a very reasonable price. How could a bibliophile resist? So I bought it and stuck it on a shelf for a year or two. One night I was tired and bored and there was nothing to watch on tv and nothing new to read. I looked around my old books and thought about rereading something I liked. I considered rereading Zorba the Greek for the hundredth time or some old short stories I like. The black book caught my eye. I hesitated. Why should I start that? It’s too long to fill an hour or two. I’d probably hate it. Eh, I’ll read it.

So I read it. I liked it. I recognized it. It was the written image of the American century. Here were the brash, mercurial, inhabitants of the early 20th century scurrying around their frenetic chaotic lives. This was a new world to them. The older world of family and community had dissolved into the urban machine. All certainty of earth and heaven had been removed. Their mission was to shove themselves through the crowded streets of the industrial age fast enough to collect some memories before the curtain came down on their short lives. All that was sure was death and taxes. You held onto a job to be able to pay the landlady and the butcher. The memory of the earlier world still existed in some of the older habits. Even the psychopath might still tip his hat to a lady or offer his enemy a cigar and a scotch. But the modern accelerators are already on the scene. You had mass communication in the form of the telephone, radio, phonograph and the big city newspapers. Transportation existed as the streetcar and the taxi. Automatic weapons, both pistols and machine guns had come on the scene. And most important was the new hero or rather the anti-hero. Sam Spade. He didn’t protect the weak and innocent. He was muscle and brain for hire to the highest bidder. If he caught a killer it might be just as much to give the police someone beside himself to arrest as it was to see justice done. His scruples wouldn’t prevent him from bedding the wife of his business partner. A the same time, it would compel him to avenge his partner’s murder. He was a professional and knew all the tricks and skills of his trade. But he was a violent man with a very dangerous temper.

So it’s a book of murder and cops and crime and crooks and femme fatales. There are twists and turns and ancient treasure and double and triple crosses. But surprisingly there are some small touches that stay with you just as much as the big scenes. There is a scene in the crowded dining area of his cramped apartment where he puts out food and drink in a way that makes you wish you were there. It’s a book with many things going for it. Some of the stylization seems unfamiliar and the violence less shocking than the latest slasher book. But you can detect the dna that underlies so much of modern genre storytelling.

I’ve since read the rest of Hammett’s works. That includes a few novels including the Thin Man book which also became a famous movie and a fair number of shorter stories. He has a number of good characters and some interesting plots. But in my mind the Maltese Falcon is the masterpiece and his claim to fame. I’d say it should be required reading for anyone who wants to write genre fiction. Not because you’ll learn how to write. And not to see where all the conventions came from. But just to show that good writing involves capturing the essence of a time or a place. It’s like a snapshot of the spirit. It tells the truth and that resonates. And that makes it last. You see there’s one other fact about Hammett that explains his success. He had worked as a detective. He actually knew what he was talking about. He probably never had to deal with people looking for a jewel encrusted golden bird but he certainly dealt with cops and crooks and desperate men of many types. He wrote what he knew.