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.”)
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?