Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Maltese Falcon (1929)

I'm glad I took an opportunity to go through Dashiell Hammett's groundbreaking masterpiece of hard-boiled detective fiction again. Hammett was always a thoughtful, deliberate, and careful writer who set a certain level of clarity as a baseline. This narrative is so clear, in fact, that whole sections of it have been channeled intact into the classic 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart. The Fat Man's character is particularly faithful and the others are right there. But I also felt, a little sadly, like I've used up all my opportunities to be astonished by it, in either form—once apiece for book and movie.(There's also a 1931 film version I've never seen. Maybe that will get me one more time.) That was a little disappointing because so many of my favorite novels, stories, and movies somehow yield up new things all the time. Sam Spade by Hammett is different from Humphrey Bogart—that always surprises me, and I think I like Hammett's Spade a little more. The object of the title, a statuette, is a classic "MacGuffin," an object motivating everyone in sight but with little intrinsic interest otherwise. (True story: when I went to check the definition of the term just now, I found The Maltese Falcon used as a primary example.) The problem might be that so many of its elements have been copied now they feel a little like clichés. The hostile tension between police and private investigators, for example, or the scene where the detective is drugged and/or coldcocked. You didn't see much of that with Sherlock Holmes, but they're all over Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. And don't forget the femme fatale—not invented here, but done memorably well (perhaps even more so in the 1941 movie). I classify Chandler and Macdonald with Hammett, as masters of this particular form. For me, all of them can be too often too preoccupied with byzantine plot points that don't add up or are just confusing. In terms of its influence, for better and worse, do I have to remind you of Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard and his appreciation of Hammett inside the holodeck as an example of the unfortunate abuses? One forgives the familiarities of The Maltese Falcon because in many ways it's the original, after all, and it doesn't have much of the problems of excessive detail found elsewhere. Hammett has got it just about right here and it's still a great read, wonderfully intricate in its setting, all pell-mell action and pieces moved swiftly about the board, with Spade figuring the angles in advance of everyone else. At least one great movie came of it too. The dialogue sings, the twists and turns come fast, and the characters are priceless. I envy anyone who's about to experience it for the first time.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Hammett got a chapter in my dissertation. I focused more on Red Harvest for the novels, but Maltese Falcon for the movies. It's important that Huston, who as you note saw that the book pretty much worked as a movie with few adjustments, left out the final scene in the book, when Effie expresses her contempt for Spade. (There is also a good old-time radio version of Spade played by Howard Duff ... he was replaced later and those suck ... it's not really Hammett by that point, but it's entertaining.)

  2. This posting brought back memories of how much I enjoyed the book and the film the first time I discovered them. Thank you.

  3. I think this was made 4 times as a movie (I know there are 3 for sure, one with a different title). The Continental Op stories were, I think, cleaner stories. I still like the story Spade tells about the guy in Seattle almost hit by the falling safe.