“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett, a highly recognized American mystery writer of the late 20’s and 30’s, was made into a highly celebrated film, starring Humphrey Bogart, almost a decade later. Hammett worked from life experience as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency and as an alcoholic and loner who was forced to set himself apart from society because of tuberculosis. He understood how to take his life experience and create a truly American version of the British and continental detective stories such as Sherlock Holmes, which had preceded his work. Whereas the British detective was primarily cerebral and upper class, Hammett’s Sam Spade is working class, rough, physical, yet still brainy. Most importantly, however, Spade is a man who makes himself through his own sense of justice and the code of conduct he creates for himself in his business life, which walks the line between the formal justice system and a personal code of honor.
Spade may be honorable or he may be evil in his way of doing business for his clients and himself. In this way, forming and operating by a personal code, he is the true American hero—a loner, working against or at the edges of the very system he is said to represent. His honor is his own. He may sleep with his partner’s wife and his female clients, take advantage of the good will of his secretary and the greed and lust of others, but, somehow, he knows who he is and how he values that. What he does and says in the process of solving the primary case at hand may not be pretty in the process, but he gets his job done.
In a world that operates by greed, he appears not to be greedy. In a world where the justice system manipulates itself through graft, corruption and violence, his use of violence is inherent to his own code of honor. Those around him may try intimidation, violence and he may do the same, but seemingly, his intention is different. The others may be foreigners, imposters pretending to be someone they are not, or hired gunslingers, quick on the draw. They all have one goal--to find the missing Maltese falcon and win fortune for themselves. Their intense greed overrides loyalty, causes deceitfulness, and cheapens life to death at close range. When a symbol is as powerful as the falcon, its distant history and recent past are both important. Strong symbols are an important part of contemporary literature and film. The 20th century is extremely visual, and a symbol such as a falcon comes to stand for itself and more.
The city of San Francisco also has an important role in the novel and the film. Its topography is graphically followed, hill by hill of the downtown and surrounding area. What the city represents, being a port with questionable policing and perhaps a more questionable moral history, often wrapped in fog, makes it the ideal urban landscape for this story. People gather here from around the globe. People and goods are brought together here from Europe, American itself, and the Orient. Yet, what is not American, can, at times, be questioned for its background as well as its ethics. What is foreign makes up America, but for Spade, there is a new amalgamation of the American spirit in him that transcends what the others believe and intend. It is this personal code which makes him a modern American anti-hero who created the mold for so many film, novel and television detectives who follow in his footsteps.
The female characters here are to be closely viewed, as well. They represent aspects of the contemporary American woman in the 20th century--sometimes boyish, sometimes coquetish and deceitful, always stylish and self-centered. The combination of the wife, the secretary and the client show us these aspects in sharply defined portraits. They move in a universe with Spade at the center. All desire his approval, his support, and all attempt to find ways to become closer to him. In turn, he uses the women to achieve his own ends. This is not the chivalry of the 19th century, guarding the virtue of women characters. This is the pragmatism of the 20th century, somewhat hard-hearted in its battle of the sexes. So many of the romantic comedies, as well as the crime novels and contemporary film of intrigue take their model and their cues from Hammett in this regard.
Read carefully and read again. The physical descriptions of characters in the novel may differ from their personification on the screen. What are we to learn from Hammett's character descriptions? Read carefully and read again. In the end, the voyagers are off on the search again and Spade is alone one more, having dispatched everyone. Has he won? What did he intend to do and has he done it? And more importantly, what lessons did he teach us by his methodology?
Week 1 - The Maltese Falcon
|Research and Writing Assignments: Write your bio and submit|
Bedford Guide to Research Process: Read Chapters 1 & 2
|Movie: The Maltese Falcon|
Literary Reading: The Maltese Falcon, 1 - 54