Today we continue my little trip into movie-reviewland with a brief literary character critique of the Huston Maltese Falcon.
Sam Spade is the archetypal solitary sleuth, tough guy, independent operator. At least that’s what all the critics say, and I lack the savvy to contradict them. Raymond Chandler gave Hammett’s creation the prime spot as well. Besides, Spade — as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart — was my introduction to the classic American private eye. I don’t remember when I first saw the movie; it was sometime in high school because I developed a fascination for Bogart movies while still in Mt. Pleasant and I think while not yet in college. Peculiar these days to think of a time when old black-and-white movies were easily available on regular television, however late at night. I am still searching for a Bogie film in which the scent of jasmine is of primary importance (does anyone know which flick it is?). Late-night movie runs were how I first met the Marx Brothers, too. (Of course, as I think about it now, Huston’s The Maltese Falcon was only about 38 years old when I probably first saw it on TV. Right now, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is over forty years in the past— so it really is suitable that Turner Classic Movies had it as the prime feature this past Saturday evening.)
Hammettʼs character defines the tough guy private eye. Spade is an outsider, running his own game and not giving the cops one jot of information he doesnʼt think they actually need, sneering at the impotent intervention and threats of the DA. Spade is a free agent, running his own business his own way (especially once partner Miles Archer is shot dead), living a deliberately solo life in his pretty dingy apartment (and avoiding the clutches of Milesʼs wife, with whom Spade somehow had fallen, before the movie begins, into a sordid affair that he clearly regrets), relying on no one else except the clients who seek his expertise and cold skills. Spade after all needs cash to operate in the grim reality of capitalist America, and he passes up no opportunity to acquire the green during the film — even from the duplicitous Brigid OʼShaughnessy. He has friends and acquaintances who seem to like and respect him — cop Tom Polhaus, the house dick at Cairoʼs hotel and the taxi driver, for instance, and his faithful secretary Effie Perrine— and perhaps even fear him sometimes. Most important, as the story plays out, Spade shows a fierce sense of his own personal morality and dignity.
The other characters lack everything Spade has, except for Effie, who is dedicated, self-sacrificing, observant and brave. In particular the trio chasing the falcon are greedy and conniving. Brigid is selfish, untrusting and manipulative (not that Spade is trusting nor above working events in his own favor), and she is a heartless killer. Gutman likewise serves only himself, shifting and reshifting loyalties and partnerships as circumstances change, and renegging on his deal(s) with Spade with each turn of chance (in particular reacquiring his cash at gunpoint when the bird turns out to be fake). Cairo is selfish but weak (Hammettʼs Twenties cultural biases show in the easy characterization of this guy as queer) and ineffective, unable to act successfully on his own. And Gutmanʼs gunsel, Wilmer, is violent and overawed with himself (the negative mirror of Spade—over-equipped with guns, while Spade carries none; killing others, while Spade just threatens under necessity; working willingly for Gutman, while Spade accepts clients to whom he never becomes subordinate; having to assert his sense of self-worth while Spade in dignity acts, however ruthlessly; childish in contrast to Spadeʼs experienced maturity; ultimately running away, while Spade faces every danger; ineffective finally).
Other characters are weak compared to the hero as well. The cops and DA are compromised by their subordination to the system/government (which is why it was so very wrong of the 1931 film to “reward” Spade at the end by getting him a job with the DA). Other associates — Effie, the house detective and the taxi driver — need Spadeʼs direction or guidance to be worthwhile; he is their decision-maker. Iva Archer is just witlessly self-centered (and deceitful — where was she the night her husband was shot?), and Miles is a slavering lust-monkey for Brigid, dying for his weakness. All of the bad characters are selfish.
Although Spade watches out for himself and seeks to stay both straight and safe (as safe and straight as possible in his dangerous position), he is not selfish like the criminals or victims. What makes him different then? The baddies (and the weak ones, like Iva and Miles) surrender to their desires, becoming wicked or victims—deluded by desire. Spade may want things as well (more money, less of either Archer, possibly Brigid or love), but he remains clearheaded and dedicated to truth (possibly Brigidʼs biggest sin is her unwillingness to ever tell the truth willingly) and his sense of rectitude, moral straightness. Like the book, the film is ambiguous whether Sam would have jailed the whole lot if he could have gotten away with Gutmanʼs tens of thousands, but he (and the audience) continually realizes of the threat of civic justice hanging over his head: “This isnʼt the spot for the school-girl act. Listen to me. The pair of us are sitting under the gallows.” Even when heʼs (maybe) pretending to be just in it for the dough, there has to be a fall guy to satisfy the requirements of the legal system. And the cops, societyʼs “justice,” will be satisfied with the wrong fall guy — for the public, for the system, it just has to look good, to appear that justice is being done. (And tough luck, evidently, for poor Wilmer, tough guy crook and gunhappy sap, who fits the copsʼ bill so perfectly…)
Spade is tough but true, and itʼs the moral side that makes him a hero, not the toughness. He does come out of this case with considerable money in his pocket — Brigidʼs $700, some of Cairoʼs loose cash (I think), and a final thousand withheld from Gutman, as well as his own business unencumbered with a weak partner. The tough guy gets those rewards. The good guy sends Brigid “over” for murdering Miles: “When a manʼs partner is killed he is supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around — bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.” Note that care for “every detective everywhere.” Thatʼs the moral man speaking.
Lots of modern takes on the private eye would have us believe that the toughness makes the hero (ahem, Quetin Tarantino). Not true. Bad guys can be tough, generally are (thatʼs why Bogart made such a good bad-guy actor), but good guys have something more than toughness—decency. Thatʼs why theyʼre the good guys, although being good may not be easy or even desirable. And thatʼs why great literature, like this movie, has depth and value.
I have more to explore about this movie, but this character profile makes a long enough post for today. We’ll have more on The Maltese Falcon soon, possibly already tomorrow. (All pictures link to sources — some worth checking out for more information.)