I covered the film version of The Maltese Falcon last August as part of my AFI Countdown Challenge. It’s a good movie worth any fan of cinema’s time. Humphrey Bogart became the face of the film noir detective, and some would argue the noir genre itself was born.
But there was a book first. I mean, that is the whole premise of this series.
Why this one?
Curiousity for the most part, but I also have a scratch-off poster of 100 Great Novels, and The Maltese Falcon is one of them. I consider myself well-read, but somehow had originally only gotten around to about 40 of those 100 books, and I figured I should try to get through as many of the others as I can before I retire from my current job.
Seriously. I think Jenny told me about the poster originally. And as I am an English teacher, well, it’s gotten me a lot of rather positive attention from co-workers and students.
But there is some more to it than that. Sam Spade is probably the guy most people picture when they picture the hard-boiled Private Eye. The hard face that’s seen too much, the trenchcoat, the fedora, standing out in the fog looking for answers, it all probably came from here. There were detective stories before The Maltese Falcon, but those tended to be more of the eternal good guy know-it-all who solves baffling cases that the police just can’t handle. There’s a touch of that to Sam Spade, but he’s not in any way a know-it-all. If anything, he’s more of a seen-it-all.
Besides, it turns out Hammett’s original novel is rather short, clocking in at only a little over 200 pages. This was a guy who didn’t screw around and got right to the point.
So, yeah, the book is short…but it’s also a little weird. That comes down more to Hammett’s writing style. The movie is largely faithful to the novel, so I knew the story as I was reading (always something of a downside for a project like this one), but the sort of things that threw me for a loop were more of how Hammett described body language. Sam Spade, along with many other characters, are constantly moving their hands around, putting them in places that seemed to be me to be a little odd. That or they were more “natural” in a pre-#MeToo age.
That would be another thing: Sam Spade can swear and have sex. True, there seems to be a limit to how much he can swear. One character, the youthful gunsel Wilmer, repeats two words. Hammett says the second one is “you,” implies what the first one is, but all Hammett will say is Wilmer repeats the two words a few times. As far as sex goes, Spade has some between chapters, and he does get love interest Brigid O’Shaughnessy (often referred to by her full name) to do a strip search for him at one point, but that sure as heck wasn’t going to be in any 1940s movie.
Oh, and Hammett describes Spade in the first chapter as a light haired youthful man whose face can be characterized as a series of V’s. And from there? Well, he refers to Spade as a “blonde Satan,” so not much like Humphrey Bogart.
Beyond that, well, there’s a bit more of Iva Archer, the fat man Gutman has a daughter, and some other minor moments, but this is, as I said, a fairly faithful adaptation.
But, well, I’m not sure I liked this one very much. Hammett’s descriptions of body language and how Spade reacts in different conversations never seemed like he was a real person to me. I think it comes down to a personal preference for the more punchy style of Hammett’s contemporary Raymond Chandler. I’m not sorry I read it, and when I finally got its rhythms, it moved pretty well, but I was also pretty glad it was so short. And how weird is it that a noir-ish detective story somehow involved a potentially fictional (within the context of the story) medieval bird statue? Anyway, it didn’t work for me as well as the movie does. Read this if you’re a fan of the genre, but I’d take the movie first.
7.5 out of 10 fall guys.