Nobodyʼs Sap

About two months ago (here, here and here) I started and developed most of a planned essay on The Maltese Falcon. However, even though it may not have seemed like it back in April, I never finished it. Hereʼs the final set of thoughts on Samuel Spade (Bogart or not). I would like this critique more finished, more polished and fully argued. But itʼs time to post, and just now, this is all I have…

Spade seems heroic, but is he actually? His defiant loner attitude may not be what generations have falsified the tough guy private op to be. His individuality and independent strength may get him through his adventures, but they may also be his tragic weakness. Spade may be doomed to utter loneliness, unable to actually connect with another person.

Spade cannot trust anyone. Admittedly, Effie comes the closest to trustworthy as his employee, and he does give her important and subtle jobs to accomplish, such as sheltering Brigid OʼShaunessy (a chore which the secretary fluffs), taking care of Captain Jacobiʼs corpse and the cops, and finally fetching the all-important package from  the post office to his apartment. However, Spade never actually shares anything of importance with Effie, and in fact realizes she has misunderstood and misvalued Brigid right to the end. Effie can be a tool, an effective employee, for whom Spade might even feel a kind of strangely paternal affection, but she is not a partner, and one of his realizations in the course of the story is that her utility (not quite trustworthiness) has its limits; for him, in some ways, she is not much more valuable than the hotel dick at Cairoʼs apartment. And Effieʼs importance results not so much from the trust Spade doesnʼt put in her, but the fact that she happens to be around at some crucial moments, particularly Jacobiʼs deadman arrival. If she hadnʼt been there to use (and distract), Spade would not have revealed as much to her as he did. Effie is only human, and humans have shortcomings: they fail.

He doesnʼt trust his friend Tom Polhaus, the policeman, who is a part of the system, the government, after all, and Polhausʼs later assistance to his lieutenant and the assistant district attorney donʼt make him seem necessarily the best friend. But clearly the man tries, and in the film in particular he seems a better friend to Spade than Sam is to him. Itʼs just that unlike Spade Tom has allegiance to something more than himself — law enforcement (possibly even justice). Spade has to protect Spade.

Nor does he trust either his partner, Miles Archer, a weak man given to lustful mistakes in judgment, or Mileʼs adulterous wife. Spadeʼs clearest almost-moral choice is to avoid extending his illicit relationship with Mrs. Archer. And what was she doing the night her husband was killed, the night she lied about? Trailing Sam, she says, but even thatʼs an untrustworthy action. NO, neither Archer, although important in his life are genuinely friends, much closer than the hotel detective or other acquaintances. Spade has Archerʼs name off the office less than a day after Miles was killed; no more Spade and Archer — now itʼs just Samuel Spade, as he prefers it.

Obviously, our detective cannot trust the bad guys — Cairo, Gutman, the kid — although he plays at pretending he might reach a business understanding with each. Encountering Cairo, who attempts to hold him at gunpoint and search his office, Spade quickly determines the little homosexual must be knocked out to be checked out (and robbed). Spade actually screws up with Gutman, accepting and drinking the mickeyed drink during their second conversation (an act close to trusting), and  he awakes to realize (again) that he must stand stalwart, alone and mistrustful of all others. Humans have shortcomings, even Spade himself, and he must watch even himself for mistakes, for weakness. And the kid, well, Spade knows a violent nothingness when he sees it and treats the punk accordingly.

Most importantly, Spade cannot trust Brigid OʼShaughnessy. She lies to him at every turn, right up to the end. And he keeps catching her at it. Clearly, he is attracted to her: they even have a sexual relationship (as clear as it could be in the Twenties — or the Forties) for one night. But he secretly searches her room (the morning after that one night together, when we readers or viewers at least feel pretty certain that she is just trying to distract him from asking her more questions), and on the climactic night, strip searches her for the thousand dollar bill that he figured correctly Gutman had just palmed (a scene the original movie version emphasized, risquély). But he had to be sure: she had to strip, to prove that she hadnʼt taken the cash. He canʼt just trust her, evidently in particular after she operated as the ruse to draw him out of town to supposedly rescue her from Gutman. And in the end, he turns her in as a murderess, again correctly. He may have feelings for her (I think the Bogart version definitely does), but it isnʼt love because he knows sheʼs untrustworthy. He knows, after all, that she killed Miles.

Dashiell Hammett

Spade himself, however, canʼt be trusted. He clearly knows this about himself, which may help to explain why he doesnʼt trust anyone else. If Brigid slept with him from actual feelings of love (and we donʼt know that she didnʼt), he betrays her the very next morning and lies to her on his return about where heʼs been. He makes deals with Cairo and Gutman (multiple deals in the end), which he breaks (for good cause). However, if Gutman and Cairo left Spadeʼs apartment believing they were heading off to Constantinople in quest for the falcon again, theyʼre wrong — Spade calls the cops on them the moment theyʼre out the door. Yes, theyʼre crooks and the kid at least is a killer (like Brigid), but Spade is actually protecting himself. Thereʼs no fall guy if he keeps to the bargain and lets them go, and without a fall guy to blame for Miles and Thursbyʼs murders, the trouble all falls on Samuel Spade. So Gutmanʼs mob has to go down and so does Brigid. The case is cleared and Samʼs out from under the gallows. For now.

Sam, after all, has to watch himself as well. He has permitted sex to drag him into Mrs. Archerʼs clinging arms, a weakness not far removed from Archerʼs own lust beguiling him up the dark alley after Brigid the first night. Spade feels himself drawn toward Brigid, even knowing what  liar, manipulator and killer she is. Perhaps that is part of the reason for the humiliating strip search: he feels he has to force her through this test, otherwise he might be weakening, trusting her even on a small point. And how tempted is he by the vast wealth these crooks seem to be chasing? He would have kept the payoff cash (maybe?), if Gutman hadnʼt forced him to use the last bill as evidence for the cops. And he does all right financially over these few days, with moneys from Brigid, Cairo and (ultimately not) Gutman. He is in business as a detective and must keep the coffers filled to keep afloat.

Spadeʼs the independent operator (thoroughly so once Archerʼs gone). As such, he has to watch out for himself, protect himself. As he says several times in the story, “I wonʼt play the sap for you,” meaning I wonʼt be weak, I wonʼt give up myself for another. And heʼs very good at it. He does watch out for and protect himself very well. He comes out of the situation in good shape, paid pretty well, no longer encumbered by Archer (how easily Sam let Miles take that job the first night…), cleared with the law (and uncompromised on that front also), unsullied by Brigid (although probably more than tempted there), and perhaps wiser about many things (just as he starts having learned from his still ongoing mistake with Mrs. Archer, he shuns Brigidʼs femme fatale charms and even perceives the romantic weakness in Effie). Maybe he has even learned unfortunately about trusting himself too much. Sam Spade is nobodyʼs sap, sadly. In always watching out for Number One, he has doomed himself.

Listening to NPR as we awaken every morning, I recently heard a suspense novelist interviewed on Morning Edition about a new book of his on Greek resistance during World War II. The author observed that he was writing about real people with families and jobs and friends, people who had a lot to lose if caught and tortured by the Nazis, against whom all those loved ones and responsibilities could be threatened as leverage to get the resister to break. Traditional big-time fictional heroes donʼt have those connections, those weaknesses in the time of pressure  — not Spade, not Philip Marlowe, not Conan the Cimmerian. Hammett even in the act of creating the tough guy private eye understood exactly what that isolation meant: independence of action and utter loneliness. And Bogart, with that stricken look of horror and fear on his face near the end, giving up Brigid, reveals the same tragic truth.

And I worked more on this today/Friday, even after the post appeared early this morning. I like it better now. Those who get e-mail notifications or RSS feeds may want to look at this portion of the essay again. I have also put the whole thing, with further revisions and additions throughout, together as a Longer Item, here.

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

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