The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, 1941)
The Maltese Falcon was John Huston’s first directorial effort and is recognised as being an early Film Noir classic. It also provided Humphrey Bogart with his first significant Hollywood role as a leading man, a role or ‘type’ he establishes as the quintessential hard-boiled Private Eye Sam Spade.
The film is closely adapted from the Dashiel Hammett novel of the same name and is in fact the third film version (the first, released in 1931 as The Maltese Falcon, starred Ricardo Cortez; while the second, titled Satan Met a Lady, was released in 1936 and starred Bette Davis). Huston’s film was not seen by author Hammett until some six months after its original cinema release, and his response was not at all positive, indeed he claimed to find the film boring (allegedly he was drunk at the time). Hammett saw it again when sober some years later and told people that it was probably the best version of the work ever put onto film.
The story revolves around the intrigue provoked by the search for the mysterious and priceless figurine of the Maltese Falcon. The story explores the grand themes of greed and avarice, betrayal and desire, truth and illusion. At the heart of the story is the central character of the private eye Sam Spade – the wry, witty and world-weary antihero who drinks his bourbon “neat”. The character is said to be based on Hammett himself, who for many years was employed as a private detective for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco. Hammett invests Spade with characteristics drawn from his own life which are complex and fascinating. Spade is honourable and greedy, world-weary and cynical yet ready for new adventure, and still capable of deep love and of acting with a surprising degree of honour. Spade was Bogart’s most significant role to that date (he obviously went from strength to strength after this film, e.g. The Big Sleep, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, Casablanca, The African Queen and the late masterpiece In A Lonely Place). Bogart perfectly conveys the ambivalence of Spade, his avarice and honour, his sexuality and fear, and his performance provided a completely new dimension to the detective genre and the genre of film noir in Hollywood.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell writes of how after The Maltese Falcon, we know a new star, only distantly a person. What we subsequently know as ‘Bogart’ means ‘the figure created in a given set of films’. His presence in these subsequent films is who he is ‘…in the sense that if those films did not exist, ‘Bogart’ would not exist, the name ‘Bogart’ would not mean what it does.’ The Maltese Falcon thus gives birth to the star we call ‘Bogart’. Every subsequent film in which Humphrey Bogart is present, and not just this first significant one, participate in making ‘Bogart’ who he is on the screen, participate in his creation as a figure capable of repeated incarnations. ‘Bogart’ is born, or reborn, in every film that participates in his creation:
‘Humphrey Bogart was both an accomplished actor and a vivid subject for the camera. Some people are, just as some people are both good pitchers and good hitters; but there are so few that it is surprising that the word ‘actor’ keeps on being used in place of the more beautiful and accurate word ‘star’; the stars are only to gaze at, after the fact, and their actions divine our projects. The creation of a (screen) performer is also the creation of a character – not the kind of character an author creates, but the kind that certain real people are: a type.’ (S. Cavell, The World Viewed, p. 28)
For Cavell the ‘star’ is ‘only distantly a person’, but still remains a person. The particular ‘human something’ present in ‘Bogart’ films is not a mere discursive construct – what might be called a ‘star image’ or ‘persona’ – but a person, however distant. However transformed or transfigured by the medium of film, ‘Bogart’ cannot be separated from who Humphrey Bogart is. ‘Bogart’ has Humphrey Bogart’s body, his face, and his voice. What other person could he possibly be? Cavell argues that ‘Bogart’ has no existence apart from the films in which the ‘human something’ Bogart is present. ‘Bogart’ also does not exist apart from the person Humphrey Bogart, although that person does – or did – have an existence apart from ‘Bogart’ films. Humphrey Bogart and ‘Bogart’, the human being and the ‘human something’ who is distantly that human being, have and have not separate beings, separate existences, separate identities.
For Cavell Bogart invests the role of Sam Spade with elements of a specific ‘type’ that he calls ‘The Dandy’. For Cavell the ‘Dandy’ is fundamentally marked by a ‘hidden fire’:
‘Our conviction in the strength of the hero depends upon our conviction in the strength and purity of character he has formed to keep his fires banked…He does not know he will succeed; what he knows is himself, his readiness.’ (S.Cavell, The World Viewed, p. 56)
There are moments in The Maltese Falcon where Spade’s emotions ‘blaze’, where something happens as if ‘over fire’. For Cavell this is the true significance of ‘Bogart’s’ familiar mannerisms (on view here for the first time as Spade) – the lips pulled back, the distracted pull at the ear lobe, the metallic intonation. ‘Bogart’ also has the fixed attribute that indicates the depth of his type as ‘Dandy’, namely the ability to laugh at himself when alone. Such a moment occurs after his first meeting with the ‘Fat Man’ Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet) where Spade affects a fit of petulant rage. He storms out of Gutman’s room and then his demeanour changes and he laughs, as if laughing at himself and at Gutman, at all ‘types’, putting himself and all other ‘types’ into perspective.
In movies the ‘Villain’ is always presented in some way as the double of ‘The Dandy’, and in The Maltese Falcon that double is the woman Brigid O’Shaughnessy (played by Mary Astor). Cavell claims she is both brutish (a ‘fake’ man) and so enmeshed within the realm of appearances that she is no longer able to tell a dandy from a brute. Spade loves her, but tells her at the end of the movie that despite his love for her that she is ‘going over’ for what she has done (ostensibly the murder of Spade’s partner Archer). He tells her:
‘When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective, everywhere.’
However, in ‘sending her over’ he does not cease loving her, and this makes him true to his ‘type’ as ‘Dandy’ – ‘his feeling is not dead, but banked’. For Cavell this remarkable final act of Spade demonstrates the true extent of his strength and exhibits the fact that he is one of the greatest instances of the ‘type’.