CINEMA: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Investigating private investigators:
Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon
, February 15, 2014
Symeon J. Thompson reviews the 1941 Warner Bros. classic, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon is one sharp motion picture. Well written, well shot, well acted — it defines the private eye genre. It’s adapted from the 1930 detective novel of the same name, written by Dashiell Hammett, that itself defines its genre.
And it provides definitive proof that a popular work of art can be one of the highest quality, and that the modern city, and modern life, can be just as romantic and fantastical as that of the medieval countryside.
Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a private investigator. He and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), are hired by a “Ruth Wonderly” (Mary Astor) to shadow Floyd Thursby, who’s apparently involved with Miss Wonderly’s sister.
While on the case, Archer is shot dead. The police later find that Thursby has also been murdered. They try to grill Spade at his apartment, suspecting him of Thursby’s death, but get nowhere. When Spade calls “Miss Wonderly”, he discovers that she has checked out at speed.
Archer’s widow Iva (Gladys George) suspects that Spade killed Miles so that he could have her — a suggestion Sam savagely rebuffs. And Sam’s loyal secretary Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) who went to break the news to her, reports that Iva had not been home long, but wanted to make it seem as if she had.
Miss Wonderly is found and, after being grilled by Sam, gives her name as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She claims that Thursby killed Miles, but that she and Thursby were partners, and that she doesn’t know who killed Thursby.
The plot keeps moving, introducing even more colourful characters, such as the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the “Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet); his hired gun Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr); and more twists and turns and snappy one-liners, as it piles on the deception and intrigue.
The Maltese Falcon itself is revealed on a title card after the opening credits to be a golden falcon encrusted with jewels that the Knights of Malta made as a tribute to the Holy Roman Emperor, and it’s been missing for a few centuries. It’s what is known in movies as a MacGuffin, an object that acts as the motivation for the characters and the action, even though the story itself is much more.
The story is an exploration of honour and deception, greed and cruelty, obsession and justice. The novel on which it is based is a defining example of a writing style more associated with such Americans as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, with its emphasis on simple sentences, plain speech and colourful “realistic” dialogue. The hardboiled style that Hammett pioneered is different from that of the so-called “cosy” English detective story.
The English style, by the likes of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, tends to be a bit more of an upper-class puzzle, a sort of Cluedo in book form. When well handled, such stories present a compelling picture of the best of erudite Englishness. When poorly handled, they can be little more than a snobbish crossword puzzle.
The American style, by contrast, is more a series of interlinked events, with a detective who sojourns through seeking the truth. Its emphasis is on action and the pen portraits of interesting characters. At its worse, it gives the reader or viewer a brutal alcoholic detective, for whom the path to truth involves beatings and deaths, and where the only takeaway message is one of violence. At its best, however, there are the fast-moving private-eye novels that are as much social commentaries and poetic expressions as they are thrillers.
Dashiell Hammett pioneered this approach with his Continental Op stories. Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective and knew what the life was like and drew on that for his writing.
The next big name, Raymond Chandler, not only took the genre further, he was also its most perceptive commentator. His essay, The Simple Art of Murder, echoes G.K. Chesterton’s In Defence of Detective Stories, in drawing the parallels between the private eye and the knight-errant, and a romantic artistic depiction of urban landscapes.
Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, is similar to Spade, but more interesting. He’s a tough guy, but a sensitive one. He’s a smooth talker and happy to get into a fight; but he also smokes a pipe, plays chess and reads poetry. Humphrey Bogart went on to play Marlowe in The Big Sleep not long after The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon depicts a world with corruption, but also one with honour. The detective story, be it hard-boiled or cosy, shows that truth matters, that honour matters, that justice matters; and it points out that that these things don’t necessarily matter to the powers at large as much as they should.
In the wrong hands such works encourage despair; but in the right ones they show that good can triumph, no matter how bad the world is.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).