Learning from The Maltese Falcon

by James Scott Bell

Read on to the end of this post, for you will get one of the greatest trivia questions of all time. Use it to flummox your film snob friends (and isn’t that what life is all about?)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is one of the great American novels. In fact, I think it should replace The Great Gatsby on high school reading lists (that is, if they still have high school reading lists that look at quality fiction for no other reason than that it has quality). The book is more exciting and true to human life than Gatsby, and has all sorts of characters and themes running through it.

I mean, come on! Greed, sex, money, murder, mystery, and the hero’s code. Gatsby teaches kids (who can get through the book) that you don’t always get what you want. The Maltese Falcon teaches a much better lesson: don’t trust somebody just because you think they’re hot like Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

And do the right thing, even if it tears your heart out.

The novel has been made into a movie three times. The first version starred Ricardo Cortez, an actor with a handsome smile and all the acting range from A to B. He had “Latin features” which was a big deal at the time (late 20s, early 30s) because of Rudolph Valentino’s popularity. But Ricardo Cortez was no more Latin than a plate of gefilte fish. He was born Jacob Krantz, son of Morris and Sarah Lefkovitz Krantz, in the Bronx. But the studio heads saw a chance to turn him into a talkies version of Valentino. Thus, the new name.

In this 1931 film, Cortez plays Sam Spade as a kind of laughing Lothario, always giving ladies’ legs a creepy once over. A strange choice, given the tone of the novel, which was captured most brilliantly by the John Huston version starring Humphrey Bogart, made in 1941. (The other version was a loose one, Satan Met a Lady (1936) starring Bette Davis and Warren William. This “light-hearted” rendition was not met with critical acclaim. The leading film critic of the day, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, said of it, “So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody.”)

Dwight Frye as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon (1931)

But I will give the Cortez Falcon props for one great casting decision. In the book there’s a “gunsel” named Wilmer Cook. He’s the henchman and catamite for the fat man, Casper Gutman. While nicely played by Elisha Cook, Jr. in the Bogart film, Dwight Frye makes an unforgettable Wilmer in the 1931 version.

Frye is best known for his portrayal of Renfield in the Bela Lugosi Dracula. Man, you can’t forget his crazy laugh and his desire to eat flies. And those eyes! He was dubbed “the man with the thousand-watt stare,” and that’s what he brings to Wilmer.

More interesting things you should know about The Maltese Falcon:

  • There are three prop falcon statuettes still in existence from the 1941 movie. Each is valued at around $1 million.
  • In the novel, the fat man is Casper Gutman. In the shooting script for the 1941 version, for some unknown reason, he is listed as “Kasper Gutman.”
  • In the Bogart version, the fat man was famously played by English actor Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut. At 357 pounds, he certainly embodied the character. The Warner Bros. wardrobe department had to make special clothes to fit Greenstreet. Interestingly, Bogart wore his own clothes for the part of Sam Spade.
  • Mary Astor, who plays Brigid O’Shaughnessy, won an Oscar that same year for her role in The Great Lie. She wasn’t pleased. Why? Because she thought she should have been put up for Brigid! She is brilliant in both movies.
  • Bogart, of course, was a noted onscreen smoker (only Bette Davis rivaled him). But the studio didn’t want him to! Why not? Because they thought that audience members seeing Bogie light up might be tempted to step into the lobby for a quick smoke during the movie. In fact, the studio almost fired John Huston over this issue. But Huston convinced them that Sam Spade’s cig was an indelible part of his character, and the cancer nails remained. (Bogart died of cancer at the age of 57. His widow, Lauren Bacall, later admitted, “Cigarettes killed Bogie.”)

Tips for writers from The Maltese Falcon:

  • It may be the greatest “show, don’t tell” novel ever written. It is in what is called Cinematic-Omniscient POV. That’s because there is no dipping into the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters. It’s like watching a movie on the screen. You see the scene and hear the dialogue.
  • The orchestration of characters is brilliant. You should always create your cast to not only be different from one another, but also in such a way that conflict may arise between any of them at any time. Spade, Brigid, Joel Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer, Effie (Spade’s secretary), Iva (Spade’s mistress), and Detective Tom Polhaus are all unique and have various mini-conflicts with each other throughout the book.
  • Hammett was a master of dialogue, too. The characters all speak with unique voices. One of my favorite examples, from both book and movie, is this exchange between Spade and Joel Cairo, coming some time after Spade knocked Cairo out in Spade’s office.

Spade said: “Let’s go some place where we can talk.”

Cairo raised his chin. “Please excuse me,” he said. “Our conversations in private have not been such that I am anxious to continue them.”

Or this between Gutman and Spade:

“Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”

“Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?”

The fat man laughed and his bulbs rode up and down on his laughter. “Will we? We will,” he replied. His pink face was shiny with delight. “You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ We will. I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business. Let us talk about the black bird by all means, but first, sir, answer me a question, please, though maybe it’s an unnecessary one, so we’ll understand each other from the beginning. You’re here as Miss O’Shaughnessy’s representative?”

And now, friends, the great trivia question. Keep this in your back pocket for the next time you get into a film discussion with a know-it-all.

What is the final line in the 1941 movie version of The Maltese Falcon?

You’ll no doubt get the answer that it’s from Bogart: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Ah, but there is one more line after that! It’s from Ward Bond, playing Spades’ cop friend Tom Polhaus. He responds, “Huh?”

Have a look!

 You are now the most interesting person in the room. Congrats!

Have you seen or read The Maltese Falcon? (If your answer is no to either, correct that gross mistake ASAP!) What’s your favorite classic detective novel or movie? What can we learn from it?

35 thoughts on “Learning from The Maltese Falcon

  1. Jim, thanks for this terrific post. I will probably spend today watching a detective movie or two and pulling a mystery to read cover to cover.

    I disagree with you on the proposition of substituting The Great Gatsby with The Maltese Falcon on high school reading lists. Both should be included. I suppose the point is moot at this point because the high school booklists I have seen over the past several years seem to be designed to create future ex-readers.

    My favorite classic detective novel is The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The lesson I learned from it at a young age is that nobility isn’t always pretty. My favorite classic movie is Chinatown. It isn’t a “classic” in the sense that I think you mean. It was intended as an homage to that genre and, in my mind, has over time become what it meant to emulate. The lesson here? Endings aren’t always neat and justice is a concept that only exists in theology school.

    Thanks again, Jim. Enjoy your day.

    • Two great choices there, Joe. You can’t go wrong with anything by Chandler. And Chinatown holds up. Los Angeles! My town is the greatest noir city of all time.

  2. I love The Maltese Falcon. Every time I see it I notice something new.

    We had something similar happen in our family. My great-grandfather was a cousin of the King of Spain and had some beautiful things that he brought with him. The family treasured these things. Somewhere along the line an evil 2nd wife started funneling these treasures out of our family to hers. My mother was gifted a truly hideous piece of furniture which she accepted because she loved who gave it to her. When I was little she had it reupholstered to see if the ugly duckling could become a swan. The upholstery guy said “You have got to come see this.” Beneath coats and coats of plain black paint was intricately carved mahogany. Beneath the gaudy cheap fabric was beautiful damask. It’s gorgeous now, at my brother’s house.

    Never judge a bird or ugly furniture by its appearance. Look beneath.

    • Your story has everything, Cynthia, including an evil second wife!

      I, too, seem to get something new each time I see or read The Maltese Falcon. The last time I read it was in the original installment version that appeared in Black Mask. Fun to see how Hammett ended each in a way that made you want to read on.

  3. Timely, timely post, Jim. “Cinematic-Omniscient POV” – you gave me the tip of the year with this – it anchors a new WIP I’m incubating. Thank you and thank you again!

    I have to admit I’m a literary schmuck who hasn’t read The Maltese Falcon, but you’ll forgive me when I say that about three weeks ago I was in a used book store and, prepping for the about-to-be WIP, I bought a barely used copy of The Great Masters Library, Dashiell Hammett – Five Complete Novels containing Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man.

    One more thank you for “Cinematic-Omniscient POV” and, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do. Happy Sunday, TKZ folks!

    • I’m envious, Garry! You get to read Hammett for the first time. Lots of pleasure coming your way.

      The Thin Man–which of course was the basis of the popular film series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (also must-sees)–has a fun tone to it. As I recall, there is not one chapter where Nick and Nora don’t have a martini.

    • Garry, it seems to me that for today’s readers, cinematic-omniscient POV could be a risky move. Seems like most contemporary novels are written in close third-person POV or deep POV, more preferable to modern readers, who want to get up close and personal with the characters without the author interfering. I just bought The Maltese Falcon novel and, although I’m definitely enjoying the plot, I find the omniscient POV and all that overly detailed external description irritating.

  4. This and for sure The Big Sleep are masterpieces. The Maltese Falcon has some more suprising elements in my opinion. These novel stand the test of time very well, because there is not unnecessary fat or description and at the same time they are very lyrical and well written.

    • That’s a perfect definition of a classic, Sven—stand the test of time. I have read and re-read all of Chandler and Hammett, and it’s a pleasure every time.

  5. I’ve seen the movie The Maltese Falcon, but never read the book. Correcting that mistake now — just put it on hold at the library.

    Favorite classic detective novel? I’ll go with The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. What can we learn from it? The first page sets the tone for Philip Marlowe that forces the reader to turn the page. Even now I chuckle at the thought of that stained glass window.

    • The nice thing, Kay, is that the 1941 movie is absolutely true to the book. Much of the dialogue is verbatim. It’s one of the few movies that isn’t worse than the source material.

  6. The Maltese Falcon is a classic. I’ve seen the 1941 a few times, and am probably due to watch it again. I’m also intrigued by the 1931 version–Frye was riveting as Renfield in Lugosi’s Dracula, so I’d love to see him as Wilmer.

    Your observations about what we can learn from The Maltese Falcon are spot-on, and in fact why another Hammett novel, Red Harvest, is my favorite classic detective novel. When I read it many years ago, I was struck by the sleekness of the narrative, it felt very cinematic to me. I tried writing in that fashion, and it’s a lot harder than it looks, at least for me. Having only the omniscient camera-eye and dialogue means showing everything, as you noted about The Maltese Falcon. Red Harvest also hit the ground running, story wise, and didn’t let up until the end.

    I need to re-read Red Harvest, too. While I haven’t pulled off cinematic-omniscient, certainly that approach has influenced my own writing.

    Thanks for another terrific post and a very fun read. Happy Sunday!

    • “Sleekness” is a good word to describe Hammett’s style, Dale. You’ve got me wanting to re-read Red Harvest and all the rest yet again!

      There has always been scholarly opinion that Hammett influenced Hemingway. I tend to believe it. They certainly knew of each others’ work, and Hammett was slightly ahead of Hemingway in getting published.

  7. Thanks for another great post and a literature lesson, complete with a reading assignment. I have not read The Maltese Falcon, and like Kay, I just put a hold on it at our local library.

    I really enjoyed your Patreon flash fiction. It reminded me of the movie, The Red Violin, especially the part of the film that involved the Chinese Communist Revolution.

    Have a great weekend.

    • Thanks as always, Steve. Again, as with Garry, I envy you getting to read The Maltese Falcon for the first time. I should have mentioned in the post that my wife and kids got me a Falcon replica for my office. I believe there were four of them cast for the 1941 film…and each now worth in excess of $1 million to collectors.

  8. I’m hanging my head in shame, Jim. I’ve never read The Maltese Falcon, nor seen the movie. Mea culpa! I plan to rectify that dismal situation forthwith.

    My favorite classic detective story: Murder On The Orient Express. Love A.C. 🙂

  9. I’ve never read THE MALTESE FALCON, but I watched the film for the first time (!) last year. It is certainly an admirable movie, but I think it might have suffered from too much of a buildup by others over the years. I appreciate the cutting edge cinematography and the snappy dialogue, but not a lot happens, and there aren’t any likable characters. Juxtapose “TMF” against “Casablanca”, for example, and in my mind, there’s no comparison. In fact, I put “Casablanca” on the list of five best-written films in history. (Actually, I think I might put it at the top, but that would take some more analysis.)

    I’m not sure what qualifies a story as “classic”–or as a “mystery”, for that matter–but Frederick Forsythe’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a storytelling masterpiece. The movie, not so much. Edward Fox was horribly miscast as the Jackal. (I wanted Michael Caine to play the role, but no one asked me.)

    Best mystery film? That’s tough because I’m a bit of a junkie for the genre. So, here’s my best mystery film nominee: “In The Heat Of The Night.” I cannot look away from that movie.

    • The Maltese Falcon will grow on you, John. You do need to read it then see the film again. We can chat about the characters sometime.

      Re: Day of the Jackal, indeed a masterful book (I liked the film version, too). And In the Heat of the Night is an all-timer. Who will ever forget the slapping scene in the greenhouse? It was not only fitting for the movie, but for the cultural moment during which it was filmed.

  10. I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon movie but have never read the book. Adding it to my ever-growing TBR. Thanks, Jim! Hope you’re enjoying your Sunday!

    • There’s a legend that John Huston tossed the novel to his secretary and said, “Turn this into a screenplay” and went off to Mexico or someplace to gamble. So the sec just copied the dialogue. I haven’t been able to confirm that, but the film is very close to the novel.

  11. The movie is close enough to the book to be a perfect tutorial of the noir detective novel of the period, and the Bogie version is filmed in the noir style. A win all around.

    The noir detective novel has gained new life in the urban fantasy market. The through-plot in urban fantasy is a mystery, any type of mystery, set in a world that includes magic and magical creatures. Master urban fantasy writer Jim Butcher wrote his first “Dresden Files” novels as noir detective mysteries set in the mean and magical streets of Chicago.

    I taught a writing seminar on Butcher’s first novel, STORM FRONT, where I explained the inner workings of the noir detective novel and the worldbuilding which combined that and the contemporary fantasy novel. The course in now posted on my writing blog. If anyone is interested in some lazy research on how to write a noir detective novel, click on my name here then on “Jim Butcher” in my label navigation bar. If you are interested in reading urban fantasy the “Dresden Files” is a good gateway into the subgenre.

    • It is also a way to “double” the mystery…we have to try to guess what’s going on inside Spade, and we get clues solely from his actions. It’s only at the end, when he attempts to explain to Brigid why he has to send her over, that he slightly opens up.

  12. JSB: Perhaps I don’t go back as far as some of your fans on this platform, but this TMF article is among the top 5 posts of the numerous fine posts you’ve contributed over time for interesting topic, interesting factoids, interesting words (catamite is a term I had to look up) and bonus wisdom on writing. The commenters/writers also contribute interesting revelations and observations. Anyway, glad I opened the email today. Good community you’ve got happening at KZ, and, again, killer article.

    • We at TKZ are so glad to hear that, H.! You are so right about our community here. The comments are always a substantive addition to the posts. Thanks for your contributions, and please visit us often!

      • I downloaded TMF from Apple onto my iPad. I know there’s nothing like the tactile heft of a printed edition, but the words onscreen resonate just the same.

  13. Great post! I saw the movie many years ago but never read the book. I just bought it for my Kindle. Can’t wait to get started on it! Then your post will mean even more. Thanks. I always love your Sunday columns. 🙂

    • Hi Jodie! Thanks for stopping by. Great reading pleasure ahead. And you will greatly appreciate Hammett’s style. Indeed, you can use any chunk of it to help clients understand show v. tell.

  14. Don’t listen to the audio version of the book. I stopped after less than an hour as I thought the dialogue and characters were silly. Perhaps you need the cinematic backdrop of the movie to put you in the mood to enjoy TMF.

    • I’ve never heard an audio version, Alec. I know there’s one with a cast, like a play. And so much depends on the narrator. You’ve saved me some time. Instead, I’ll just read it again.

      I do, however, have a set of the radio show SAM SPADE, played by Howard Duff. Without Hammett, though, it’s just a run-of-the-mill PI show.

  15. Great article, Jim. Thanks for sharing it.
    I’ve read and watched the (1941) Maltese Falcon many times, it’s one of my favorite stories and one of the books that originally inspired me to try my hand at writing.
    I have to agree that Dwight Fry would have been a great choice in the Bogart version. That guy was so creepy it was amazing. Not sure if you’re aware of it, but Fry was so sinister Alice Cooper wrote a song inspired by him called The Ballad of Dwight Fry.

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