In 'The Maltese Falcon' Dashiell Hammett created a seminal modern detective novel, tightly compact, fast moving and full of compelling characters and memorable situations. It is easy to see how it became one of the great movies of the 1940s.
Published in 1930 and set in Hammett's favoured San Francisco setting, 'The Maltese Falcon' reputedly drew on the years the author spent working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In many ways his experience shows. The characters in the novel are based on real people Hammett met during his Pinkerton career and his mix of fact and fiction brings the plot to life. Hammett himself described the central character, Sam Spade, as;
'A dream man, in the sense that he is what most of the detectives I worked with would like to have been.'
Indeed Spade is a hugely impressive detective, eventually solving the case with so little evidence that even Poirot's grey cells might have had difficulties. Admittedly Spade's main emphasis is not evidence. He is a sharp, intelligent man with a decidedly cruel streak whose first loyalty is to himself; after that, it is a struggle between his clients and the law. The pieces of the case are generally brought to him, rather than his actively going out and hunting for them, and he rarely appears to have thought things out in advance, preferring to react as he goes along on the basis of what he knows and assumes.
'The Maltese Falcon' details Spade's involvement in the crossings and double-crossings surrounding the hunt for a statuette of a falcon that was sent as a gift from The Order of St John to the King of Spain in the 1500s. Spade slips, almost unwittingly, into the maze of murder and intrigue after his partner Miles Archer is murdered whilst out working for a client, Brigid O'Shaughnessy. To go further into the plot here would not only take a huge amount of time but also spoil the book. Suffice it to say that in Spade's determination to discover who killed Archer and what the fair Brigid is up to, he comes across the effeminate Joel Cairo, the sinister 'fat man' Gutman, and teenage gunslinger Wilmer, all in pursuit of the legendary falcon.
Hammett's prose zips tautly along as Spade tries to keep one step ahead of the rest. The plot focuses on the characters rather than the setting, and each location in the novel... Spade's home and office, O'Shaughnessy's apartment, Gutman's hotel room... displays something of the character it houses. Every character, in turn, is a masterful study in selfishness and deceit, 'dark side' to the fore as each struggles to gain the upper hand. Even Spade's final action - almost a sacrifice - is committed because it will benefit him, rather than because it yields justice. Yet it is these imperfect features that make Spade, and the other characters, so real and appealing. Hammett wonderfully evokes the seedier side of the world, yet still manages not to make it depressingly nihilistic.
'They don't make them like they used to!'
This is a movie that lends credence to that cry. Made in 1941, 'The Maltese Falcon' heralded the arrival of writer/director John Huston. By any standards the film would be a stunning debut, and not a shred of Hammett's novel is wasted in this adaptation. If only more books were translated to the screen like this.
This is the movie that finally made Humphrey Bogart a star. In the central role of Sam Spade, Bogart is on screen almost permanently, and although he doesn't really look like the 'blonde satan' the novel describes, he makes the reckless malevolence of the character stand out clearly. The rest of the cast fit perfectly beside him as Hammett's creations come to life before us. Peter Lorre delicately avoids campness as the effeminate Joel Cairo. Mary Astor as Brigid displays pure wide-eyed innocence, and more than a hint of dangerous allure. Elisha Cook, Jr. is the surly Wilmer, and Sidney Greenstreet is the crème de la crème as the sinister Gutman; joviality was never so frightening. The pitch-perfect casting leads to only one problem: on re-reading the book it may become impossible for you to banish the features and voices of the actors from your mind.
The seamless fit of actor and character owes much to the incredibly faithful screenplay: Huston lifts the majority of lines straight from the novel. The only thing lost in translation is the presence of Gutman's young daughter Rhea. In many ways this is an improvement on Hammett's original. In the novel Rhea's main function is to forward one small element of the plot. Huston side-steps this problem neatly with an early phone-call, leaving only the few relevant supporting characters and Astor confidently holding her own as the lead female trying to survive in her male-dominated circle.
Huston's film is one of the first of the 'film noir' genre, and it has to be wondered - would it look as good in colour? The darkness of the story is visualised perfectly in the gloomy hues of this black-and-white gem and its mostly interior settings. The character of San Francisco is displayed more in the sophistication of its cosmopolitan inhabitants than in the scenery.
There isn't a weak link in the movie. Huston builds up the tension superbly as even Spade becomes obsessed with the falcon. His final act is a wonderful mixture of self-sacrifice and selfishness as Astor displays her pain, both at what she sees to be Spade's betrayal, and at being unmasked. In the end, the final word must come from Spade, when he tells Officer Polhaus the significance of the falcon, describing it as 'the stuff that dreams are made of.' He could easily be describing this movie.