The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of…

Hereʼs the next portion of my literary critical essay on The Maltese Falcon. (Ironically, my overtired and awkward fingers mistyped the title as “The Tuff that Dreams Are Made of” — not inappropriate punningly, or misspelled, after considering Spadeʼs toughness yesterday.)

The characters who fall or fail in The Maltese Falcon share a common thread in their characters and behavior. They are all victims of their own desires.

Two groups of failures are most obvious: the criminal and the lustful. The criminals are the gang at each otherʼs throats over the black bird: Brigid OʼShaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Kasper Guttman (perhaps including as the latterʼs left wing, the snarling gunman Wilmer Cook); each greedily desires the supposedly jewel-encrusted legendary bird for him or herself alone (except the lapdog gunboy, Wilmer, perhaps) as is willing to do anything, betray everyone to accomplish that desire (and already has done so). The lustful comprise the Archers — weak Miles, Spadeʼs partner who dies because of his own drooling desire for Brigid, and his faithless wife Iva, who whiningly pursues her onetime lover, Spade, long weary of the sad affair and wilily avoiding her damp embraces at every turn. The first group is evil, the second merely pathetic.

Publicity still—Spade (Bogart) studies the black bird

Samʼs keeneyed secretary, Effie Perrine, wants him also (a glint in the fog of a long-running secretrial stereotype), but she is either decent enough or self-controlled enough not to worthlessly throw herself at the boss. She does perform an excessive number of chores way outside of normal business hours (perhaps this is why Philip Marlowe had no secretary), probably indicative of her interest in her boss (who refers to her by a number of endearments, including “angel” repeatedly), but she is sharp, wise and trustworthy (and in the book interestingly “boyish” at least three times — thus reducing her sexuality, perhaps?), a true coworker, not a selfish, slavish leech like Iva.

Spade also has an interest in the flesh, thus his affair with Milesʼs wife (which has definitely gotten him into some dirty trouble, at least shallowly) and Effieʼs knowing remark about Brigid in the beginning — “Youʼll want to see her anyway. Sheʼs a knockout.” Cunning Brigid tries to use her appeal to undermine his independence, wishing to reduce him to another male pawn in her schemes, like Thursby and Miles. She tries to seduce him (and in the book certainly succeeds, as in the original 1931 film version) to avoid telling him anything of genuine value about her plans and the bird. But Sam, whether they spend the second night together or not in Hustonʼs film, remains sufficiently wise to calculate that she had to be the one who shot Archer: “He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasnʼt quite that dumb. … heʼdʼve  gone up there with you, angel. …Heʼdʼve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear — and then you couldʼve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him…” He knows what a “sap” Miles was to surrender that way to his lust for a woman they both realized immediately had lied to them (“We didnʼt exactly believe your story,” he tells Brigid on their second meeting. “We believed your two hundred dollars. …I mean you paid us more than if youʼd been telling the truth, and enough more to make it all right”). And a sap is exactly what Sam Spade refuses to become, thus making himself remarkable, even in a soiled and earthly way, heroic.

The criminals are simply greedy, desirous of wealth or (since the tale of the black bird is so fabulous) the dream, the romance of wealth. Brigid has betrayed and killed for the bird, slaying Miles in a plan to also convict Thursby (itʼs not her fault that Wilmer shot Thursby before he could be arrested for Milesʼs murder). She was the key, the duplicitous sex object, to weaseling the bird from the Russian in Constantinople. Cairo tries to go a lone hand (unless there really was a mysterious “owner” as whose supposed agent he offers Spade $5000 for the bird) after working with the gang, then runs back to Gutman to betray Spade and Brigid. Gutman is willing to do whatever it takes (and will continue to take) to get his bird; the original schemes, of which Spade becomes entangled among the burnt-out ends, were Gutmanʼs; and the fat man is hatching new plans as he leaves Spadeʼs apartment with $9000 he just violently reacquired from the detective. And they all fail. Although Wilmer, having been appropriately cast as the fall-guy for his murderous ways, thinks heʼs getting away near the end, heʼs arrested along with Gutman and Cairo, when Spade tips the cops to the truth. Brigid tries using the truth to work her wiles on Sam at the end, but he will not play the sap for her and sends her over for killing Miles. The root of their evil is certainly greed for wealth.

Of course, ultimately, the black bird — for which Miles, Thursby, Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma, and who-knows-what-others have died — isnʼt real, just an illusion, a dream — or in a line Huston invented (not in Hammettʼs book), “the stuff that dreams are made of” (slightly misquoting and recontextualizing Prospero from The Tempest). The criminals assume the Russian had anticipated their theft and created a copy, keeping the real medieval bejeweled creation for himself (although apparently not knowing what was beneath the black enamel). But they may have stolen the only bird the man in Constantinople had, a lump of lead (or not); perhaps there never was a real Maltese Falcon. Spade never seems truly convinced about Gutmanʼs fairy story of the incredible token sent by the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain — Gutmanʼs romance spun to entrance Spade as the knockout drug in his drink takes effect. The bird is just the emblem of desire, worthless in itself, hiding no legendary jewels beneath its mundane exterior, unreal in the end…

I am not sure that I am quite done with this subject yet, but a sudden flood of jobs substituting and other errands and chores should prevent any further addition for a little while. I think itʼs time soon to extend the Quetzal County chronicle a little bit (and thus commit myself to this version of what I have in mind, at least as a test with you, dear guinea pigs) soon.

The automatically generated “possibly related post,” although heavily ironic, I believe when you look over the site, provides the twelve seconds when Bogart says the key line I used for todayʼs title. In case the automatically generated link changes, here it is.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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