Learning from The Maltese Falcon

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?

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Write Awesomely

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Grand Canyon

In last week’s post I mentioned I would be driving all day, and that was quite true. Mrs. B and I needed to get out, get away, do something different. Cindy suggested we motor to the Grand Canyon, just to spend a day looking at something big, majestic, unsullied and quiet.

Turns out my wife’s instinct was right on the money. Scientific research suggests that several benefits flow from the experience of awe—“from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.”

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams emphasizes the need to get away from anthrophone. This refers to the soundscapes created by things like cities, cars, planes, machines, lawn mowers, sirens, neighbors with a teenager who is taking up the drums, and such like. The thing is, that noise goes into our brains and triggers our “fight or flight” receptors. Over time this can create chronic stress, a very real danger to our collective health and well-being.

On the other hand, natural sounds like a gentle breeze, flowing water, and singing birds are interpreted by our brains as relaxing and rejuvenating. In this state we are more creative and less hostile toward other human beings (hmmm…maybe people should only be allowed to tweet when in a forest).

Photo by JSB

The Grand Canyon is something to behold. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list. Plan to spend at least four hours just looking at it. You can drive to various viewpoints, or take a shuttle bus tour, a helicopter flight, or even ride a mule for an overnight stay at the bottom. We opted for the viewpoints.

Grand Canyon = Awesome. Good for the soul.

Writing awesomely = Good for the reader.

What does it mean to write awesomely? At the very least, it means giving your readers more than a by-the-numbers story. Help them feel something beyond numbers. Tap into the inspirational. After all, that’s what the great myths were for. A hero overcomes tremendous odds so that we, the audience, might exhibit the same courage on our own journey through life.

Heracles kills the Hydra. He does so with a mixture of courage, strength and thought. Since cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads means two more heads replace it, Heracles has his nephew, Iolas, put a torch to each cut to cauterize it. And thus he dispatches the monster. Hey, maybe you can do the same when it seems your bills are like Hydra’s heads.

Or maybe you face a seemingly insoluble problem. If you approach it wisely, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, you can kill your personal Minotaur and find a way back to the world.

In our modern storytelling, we have mythic heroes of various stripes teaching us valuable lessons. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager, shows us that inner strength and beauty can be developed even under the worst of circumstances. Atticus Finch teaches us that sometimes a losing battle is morally imperative. Heck, even Dirty Harry Callahan shows us that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to save the innocent—especially a busload of children in the grip of a mad killer. Do you believe that? “Well do ya, punk?”

Driving home with Elixir in the trunk.

So one of the ways to be awesome is to be intentional about the meaning of your story. In my book, The Last Fifty Pages, I talk about the idea of a “life lesson learned.” My friend Chris Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, calls this the “Return With the Elixir.” It’s what takes a story from tale to myth, from entertainment to exaltation. Why not go for it, every time out?

To prepare, take a little time each day to get away from the anthrophone. There are abundant apps and sites with nature sights and sounds. A fifteen-minute break every now and then seems almost a health mandate these days. So get quiet, forget about Twitter, and maybe the boys in the basement will mix you some elixir.

What is awesome to you? What natural sites have lifted your soul? 

What works of fiction have elevated you, given you a takeaway that is more than entertainment?

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Giving Characters the Courage to Change

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Zachary Scott and Eve Arden

The other day I turned on TCM and caught the last half hour of a film I’d seen before, The Unfaithful (1947). I was pleased because it has one of my favorite actors of that period, Zachary Scott. (This fine actor really needs to be remembered for his body of work, especially in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner). The other lead was the “Oomph Girl,” Ann Sheridan.

The plot: Bob Hunter (Scott) and Chris Hunter (Sheridan) are a happily married couple. One night, when Bob is away on business, Chris kills an intruder in their home. Self-defense, right?

What no one knows (at first) is that the intruder was a man with whom Chris had a one-night tryst during the war. She and Bob had been married only a short while before Bob went off to fight. Lonely and anxious, without letters from Bob, Chris found solace in this man’s arms. She felt guilty about it ever since.

Well, the truth comes out, and Bob is stunned, hurt, outraged. He demands a divorce. Chris pours out her heart to him, admitting the wrong, needing him to understand, wanting to stay married. But Bob remains resolute. Chris accepts the inevitable.

With the secret out that Chris knew the victim, she is tried for murder. But through the fine job done by family friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayers), she is acquitted. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!)

Bob is still firm about the divorce. He goes to see another family friend, Paula (Eve Arden, who made a career out of playing the good-hearted pal). Paula delivers some plain talk to Bob. Almost like a slap in the face. She tells him about women during the war, how frightening and lonely it all was, especially when no letters came. And aren’t we all human? Don’t we all make mistakes? And are you going to hold on to this bitterness forever?

Bob goes back to his house as Chris is coming down the stairs, her bag packed. Bob asks her what her rush is. Maybe they could talk awhile. Discuss how to split up the property (he’s clearly wanting her to stay so they can reconcile.)

Chris, however, has accepted the divorce and closed off her emotions.

Now it’s time for family friend and lawyer Hannaford to be the voice of reason. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!) He makes a plea for the two of them not to throw away what they have. He leaves telling them this is one case he won’t mind not getting.

Bob sits next to Chris on the sofa and, in a typical 1940s gesture of impending reconciliation, offers his wife a cigarette. She takes it.

Fade out.

And I thought, Nicely done. Because the film utilizes a very helpful tool of the craft—the courage to change motivator.

When a character has to go into pitched battle—physically or professionally or psychologically—he is taking a step that requires courage. We need to see what it is that helps the character overcome the natural fear that occurs when facing such a challenge.

In Bob Hunter’s case, his step is psychological. He has to be willing to put aside the blow to his male ego, admit he’s been wrong in his vindictiveness, forgive his wife, and work at saving the marriage. If he suddenly changed at the end, without any preparation for it, we’d feel a bit cheated. We need to know why he’s taking this step.

So the screenwriters (one of whom was the famous noir novelist David Goodis) gave Bob a “voice of conscience.” That was Eve Arden’s character. By giving Bob a good, old-fashioned talking-to, we are set up to accept his change of heart.

This voice of conscience needs to be someone who is credible, wise, trustworthy. In many movies—mostly from the 30s and 40s—this is a voice from the past (which is set up in Act 1). At a crucial point in Act 3, the Lead hears that voice in his head as he’s walking down the street in torment, e.g., his mothers’ voice saying, Johnny, don’t do it! Once you do it, you’ll do it again, and then you’ll be bad. Don’t break my heart, Johnny!

Then Johnny hears the voice of his parish priest (Irish accent, of course): Don’t do it, Johnny! You’ll break your poor mother’s heart!

Finally, the voice of Johnny’s brother who was gunned down by mobsters in Act 2: You’re nothing but a crumb, Johnny. That’s all you’ll ever be, you hear me? A stinkin’ lousy crumb!

Shortly after this sequence, Johnny will take the courageous step to do the right thing. And we accept it, because we know what motivated the change.

The motivation must be strong: coming from a source the Lead trusts and loves.

The motivation must be clear: there is no doubt about the source (to the Lead and to the audience).

The motivation can be a voice of conscience, or it can be invested in a physical item.

An example of the latter comes from the great Bette Davis film, Now, Voyager (1942). Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the withdrawn, unattractive daughter of a steely, upper-crust matriarch. This mother has dominated Charlotte all her life, convincing her she has nothing to offer the world.

After a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is sent to a sanitarium run by the good Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). Charlotte reaches a point where she is ready to take a major step—going on an ocean cruise. This will require her mixing with people socially for the first time.

On the cruise she meets a man named Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is traveling alone (he is unhappily married). Jerry sees the “real” Charlotte, and the two fall in love. Ah, but they know they must part. Jerry gives Charlotte a bunch of camellias before they do.

Charlotte finally comes home to face her domineering mother. And boy, does the mother (the great character actress, Gladys Cooper) try to smash Charlotte right back to where she was before.

This is the key moment (the “mirror moment”) for Charlotte. She is thinking, can I possibly stand up to my mother? She’s too powerful! Will I go back to being the old Charlotte again?

If only there was something to give her the courage to … well, have a look:

Camellias! This emotional association is enough to give Charlotte the courage to stand up to her mother.

So …

… when you get to a point in your manuscript where your protagonist must take a major step, one that requires courage, provide a boost via a voice of conscience, or an item of emotional significance. This boost is most helpful sometime after—or simultaneously with—the mirror moment. Or during the final battle at the end of the book.

Characters exercising strength of will, to confront challenges and transform as a result. That’s what a novel is really all about.

Give them the courage to change.

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