There's Only One Maltese Falcon

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 25, 2008 @

With most adaptations, either the literary work or the film is better than its relative, but in the case of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and John Huston's version, each is a classic. Hammett's is the prototypical private eye fiction, and Huston's is the prototypical private eye movie.

They are different, but they share a lot in common. Both feature Sam Spade as an anti-hero. Hammett calls Spade a "blond satan" (1). He has a grin "as lewd as a satyr's" (201); he is no knight like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. In Humphrey Bogart, Huston found an ideal representation of Spade; he has a touch of the demonic. weary and volatile. Be he is also honorable and human. He is not a blond satan; he is more a pleasant gargoyle.

If one of Hammett's basic themes is the fall of man, Huston picks up on it nicely. When Spade's partner Miles Archer is shot, he falls down an incline. And the descent at the end is beautifully staged by Huston. The elevator door closes caging Brigid O'Shaughnessy. And then the elevator descends as Spade, carrying the black bird, goes from right to left and down the stairs.

One of the motifs that comes from the Eden theme is Huston's emphasis on flowers. Flowers proliferate -- on Effie's desk, in Archer's lapel, in the hotel lobby. Even Joel Cairo smells of gardenias. When Spade is drugged in Gutman's hotel room, he topples into a table with flowers on it, knocking the table and the flowers over. And when Spade bends over Brigid to kiss her in her apartment, a large flower is prominent pinned to her dress. After they spend the night together, she no longer wears a flower.

One sequence that is changed from the book is when Spade has Brigid strip naked (Eve-like) to find out whether she has taken $1,000 from the money Gutman gave Spade and Brigid held for him. On the 1941 movie, this is not appropriate. in the movie, a nod from Brigid suffices.

Although Huston sometimes has been accused of being a misogynist, the film does not have as much misogyny as the book. Both have battles of the sexes, but the book's is more extreme. The last scene of the book is left pout of the film. The book ends with Effie siding with Brigid against Spade, leaving him alone, to face Iva. His initial confidence in the scene is gone, and Spade is left Dispirited. The film concludes with Spade's walking past the elevator and down the stairs. In the film,. the last time Effie appears is when she dutifully brings the falcon to Spade when he is with Gutman et al. She leaves with a smile.

The last line of dialogue does not come from the novel, but it one of those lines that embody the whole spirit of the work. When Detective Tom Polhaus asks Spade what the falcon is, Spade answers. "The stuff that dreams are made of." This line captures the cynical romanticism that is so much a part of Huston's vision.

In Huston, the quest after the Maltese Falcon, the black grail, is one of the bases for human endeavor. Huston's characters dream, are obsessed, and are thwarted by fate and their own fallability. Gold, Power, Revenge are the elusive birds of prey that elude or entrap is in so many of his films. The quest gives life its meaning, as corruptible as it may be.

In the face of a corrupt world, Huston's characters often play games, which is very true of Hammett's characters in The Maltese Falcon. Spade is a good player, and he especially admires Brigid O'Shaughnessy's prowess. That seems to be what most attracts him to her. "You're good. You're very good," he says laughing. And he evaluates her performance with adoration. Some characters, like the cops, have rigid roles, but Gutman, O'Shaughnessy, and Spade are imaginative and creative. After leaving Gutman's room after staging a scene of mock anger, Spade grins in the hallway, relishing his performance. But Spade too is susceptible such as his wild goose chase in the cab to an empty lot in search of Brigid. And, in the end, Brigid's performance fails. Integrity is, after all, important.

Auteurist Andrew Sarris has debunked Huston for not having a personal style, but The Maltese Falcon is filled with John Huston's signature and personality. The style is lively. And there are nice flourishes, such as when Wilmer wakes up and looks around after being designated the fall guy. Huston uses deft montage: Gutman/ Wilmer/ Cairo/ Wilmer/ Spade/ Wilmer/ and O'Shaughnessy. Not a word need be spoken.

Like so many of Huston's heroes, Spade is alienated. Huston visualizes this with film noir effects and lighting: the splinters of light flung from the venetian blinds and the world dark around Archer just before he is shot.

The dialogue is crisp; most of it is effective almost fifty years later. It comes mainly from Hammett. The staging is also very effective, with the camera moving naturally, stopping to record the characters from angles which give them added emphasis. But the film's most remarkable feature is its acting. It is difficult to imagine the major actors being improved upon. Mary Astor may be an exception, but when one realizes that her artifice is very much a part of her character, she too becomes particularly apt. Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr. make a priceless nefarious crew of thieves: Casper Gutman waddling like an angry bird; fey Joel Cairo with his cane softly touching his lips; and Wilmer Cook with his puerile gangster pose. They exude personality.

Huston did not make a signature appearance to signal his auteurism (little did Hitchcock know how much his appearance would mean), but Huston had his father, actor Walter Huston, appear in an uncredited bit as Capt. Jacobi, the man who brings the falcon to Spade and then drops dead.

If The Maltese Falcon is not stylistically undeniably personal, the tone and themes are. The tone is witty, laconic, and accessible. The Maltese Falcon is one of many Huston quest films -- among them The Man Who Would Be King, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, and others. The mad laughter that rungs from some of Huston's major protagonists come from Spade's lips. And underneath the laughter is a fierceness that is manifested in the look he gives when he unwraps the falcon and hurts Effie's arm in his fervid excitement. And he has a fiendish look when he knocks out Joel Cairo. Spade's fierceness reaches a climax in his confrontation at the end with Brigid, when he accosts her. He is driven to find out the truth, no matter what its cost.

In The Maltese Falcon, the world is a dark place with corruptible dreams. Dashiell Hammett and John Huston share a vision. It is a very personal one.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin