The Maltese Falcon critical essay

Spadeʼs face was expressionless. He asked: “You believe her?”

“Donʼt you?” Wise replied.

“How do I know? How do I know it isnʼt something you fixed up between you to tell me?”

Wise smiled. “You donʼt cash many checks for strangers, do you, Sammy?”

“Not basketfuls…”

from The Maltese Falcon, Chapter XII “The Merry-Go-Round”

Lone Operator and Nobodyʼs Sap: Sam Spade, flawed hero

In March of 2010, while Janet was partying over a weekend with the girls in Milwaukee, I used several of the evenings available to me to watch some DVDs that I didn’t think she’d be particularly interested in. Somehow Christmas 2009 arrived fast from my point of view. Therefore, I was a little taken aback when Janet pointed out to me back then that I needed to: A) get to writing our annual Christmas missive, and B) come up with a list of Christmas-gift suggestions for both sides of our families. The Christmas letter, as in just about every former year when I was still working, filled about a day and a few hours on another (after Janet had a chance to proofread, edit and correct) to compose and complete. The gift list needed to go out by e-mail much more immediately, so in desperation I racked my brains for things I desired. (The previous year, under similar pressure from time, I had accidentally sent out the same list as I had in 2007.) I even went through the wish lists I have created on and, which was a good technique because it gave me several ideas, most of which my obliging relatives accepted.

The Maltese Falcon 3-DVD set

The relevant suggestion was a new three-DVD set of a remastered The Maltese Falcon, including Warner Brothers’ two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel. Although I had felt its price was a tad steep for a Christmas gift, my niece Rachel went ahead and bought it for me to my surprise and delight. The long bachelor weekend gave me the opportunity to watch all three versions as well as the additional “Making of” video and other specials (I haven’t watched the Bogart version with the expertʼs commentary yet).

It was an interesting experience. I took the movies in chronological order, starting in 1931 with a straight version, very close to the book, that since it’d been a long time since I saw the Bogart version, seemed all right. It was pretty racy, clearly indicating a sexual relationship between Spade and the duplicitous Miss Wonderly, even indicating that they had spent the night together. I especially enjoyed Spadeʼs secretary, as played by Una Merkel in a delightfully spacey turn. The Spade actor was adequate, and Wonderly okay; there was some heat between them. The cops were good, too. The worst element in the movie was a really weak choice to end the film with a prolonged visit by Spade—now “promoted” to an assistant district attorney investigator—to Wonderly in prison. Vapid and sappy,and completely wrongheaded for the novel and for Spadeʼs character.

Satan Met a Lady, 1936 — stinker

The second version, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, was simply odd. First of all, it was a comedy, nearly farcical (with three murders essential to the plot), and Spade (renamed Ted Shane) as a carefree, jovial playboy! I watched it, enjoying some moments, but it wasn’t good (and it had tanked back in the Thirties). It was eerie to hear some of the same lines of dialog (also from the book) in such a different context. I really can’t comment much because it was really just bad.

great flick — but Kubrick’s always afre

That was all Thursday evening. On Friday I decided to watch another black-and-white movie I had never seen and also doubted Janet would enjoy, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. With Vladimir Nabakov himself writing the screenplay, it did a pretty good job of squashing the book into film. Peter Sellers was a hoot as Clare Quilty, and James Mason, always good, was oilily sympathetic as Humbert Humbert. The one who really gripped me, however, was Shelley Winters as Lolita’s mom — annoying dynamite and right on target all the time as that character.

I went back on topic to John Huston’s 1941 classic remake of The Maltese Falcon for Saturday night’s viewing. After the two earlier versions, this one truly was a revelation. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it before, but I had never appreciated or enjoyed it quite like this most recent viewing. Following the first version, Huston’s script is faithful to the book (a Hollywood legend, retold in the “Making of” documentary, says he told his secretary simply to type up the text of the book in script form for him to consider, but Warner execs saw that typescript and asked it to be filmed—not true, I believe). What made it tower above those previous botches reveals the importance of good directing and good acting. Humphrey Bogart really is amazing as Sam Spade, trying to be coolly casual but tormented by his decisions and situations. Mary Astor always has seemed too demure and distant to me for Miss O’Shaughnessy, too apparently nice and sweet, no real hint of the character’s deviousness. I still feel that way; Bebe Daniels got closer in the 1931 film. On the other hand, as I learned from the “Making of” information, Mary Astor’s scandalous personal life colored in the character sufficiently for audiences back in the Forties, so we’ll give her a break.

Huston really understood the story and its themes. The cinematography, evidently the first real film noir, makes the most of strange angles, sharp and dark shadows, interesting shots (like Spade answering the phone at two AM and the camera remaining focused only on the phone), and moody atmosphere. I had always liked how Gutman is frequently shot close from below, making Sidney Greenstreet look even larger than he really was. It also works well for me that Spade’s apartment is lit so flat and harshly at the end (and does, as the documentary indicated as well, feel cramped and small). Visually everything feels tense, raw, like the novel.

But the true mastery is in the meaning of the story in this version. Huston understood the book, especially the character of the first great hardboiled private eye.

Spade slugs Cairo, almost accidentally

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. 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 on a Saturday evening.)

Hammettʼs character defines the tough guy private eye. Spade is an outsider, running his own game alone 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, working 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 perhaps quirky personal morality and dignity.

Sam Spade — going down?

The other characters lack everything Spade has, except for Effie, who is dedicated, self-sacrificing, observant and brave (but also weak in that she never does grasp Brgid OʼShaughnessyʼs true character). 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 reneging 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 pursuing 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 (like 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 getting grilled by the cops

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, and (almost) 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. Spadeʼs morality may not be clear, coherent or even natural to him, but through the events of the story he does come to act nobly and honorably, however difficult that may be for him. In the end, he stands strong and true, if battered and damaged.

The people 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 Gutman (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. Spade himself is tugged by lust and however ineptly or incompletely learns to resist its allure. 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 secretarial stereotype), but like Spade himself she is either sufficiently decent or self-controlled 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 though limited 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, finally, 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  (a story that he has Effie use her connections to investigate)— 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… It becomes just one more piece of evidence for Sam to turn over to the cops, along with Brigid and the crooks, as he walks away free and strong, if not altogether innocent — which may be why the novel ends with angelic Effie not quite sure of her boss any longer:

He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intuition.”

Her voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “You’re Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly “I know — I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now — not now.“

Spade seems heroic, but is he actually? Is his own hardboiled, independent, heroic honor as illusory, as deceptive, as the black bird? 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 the angel comes the closest to trustworthy as his faithful 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 Iva doing the night her husband was killed, the night she lied about? Trailing Miles and looking for Sam, she says to Samʼs lawyer, but even her tale reveals mistrustful and untrustworthy actions. Neither Archer, although important in his life, are genuinely friends, not much closer than the hotel detective or other acquaintances. In fact, Spade has Archerʼs name off the office less than a day after Miles was killed; no more Spade and Archer — now itʼs only 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). Later, having forced Cairo back to his fat boss, Spade actually screws up with Gutman, accepting and drinking the mickeyed booze 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). He had to be sure: she had to strip, to prove that she hadnʼt taken the cash. He canʼt just trust her, in particular after she operated as the ruse to draw him out of town to supposedly rescue her from Gutman. 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) as easily as the fat man. 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 Miss OʼShaughnessy 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 as we observed already, 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 Iva, 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: both 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.

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

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