“The Maltese Falcon” 80 Years On

It seems not just unlikely but a little crazy that after 80 years [Yes, 80. Count ‘em] John Huston’s film version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, re-released by the BFI, should be as absorbing and, in its portrayal of characters caught up in a maelstrom of sex, violence and betrayal, recognisable today. Only the stakes and the levels of betrayal have changed.

Huston wrote the script, sticking very closely to the original, so that much of the dialogue is more or less straight from the novel; one thing that is different, of course, what the film adds, is the fleshing out of the supporting characters – and in Sydney Greenstreet’s Kaspar Gutman, often filmed from below to emphasise his impressive girth, fleshing out is the appropriate term. He and his co-conspirator, Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, seem never to have quite decided if they are playing comedy or something altogether more dangerous and sinister, and its greatly to the benefit of the film that they manage both, simultaneously. 

Sydney Greenstreet & Peter Lorre

Their other function is to offset the stubborn seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who, through it all and despite the temptations of Mary Astor’s femme fatale and a share of the wealth the Falcon represents, stays true to his code. 

“When a man’s partner gets killed you’re 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. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when of your organisation gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organisation, bad for detectives everywhere.”

And Hammett should know: he worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before turning to writing.

The lines above are delivered to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom Spade is convinced was responsible for murdering his partner, Miles Archer, whose body was found in an alley after being shot at close range.

“Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb. …. But he’d have gone up there with you angel … He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

Mary Astor & Humphrey Bogart

When, with increasing desperation, Mary Astor/Brigid attempts to use his feelings for her, his attraction to her, as the means for letting her, literally, get away with murder, he is adamant that whatever those feelings might be, he is neither going to be taken for granted, nor made a fool of.  “I won’t play the sap for you,” he says. “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” And, with macabre humour, “I hope they don’t hang you, angel, by that sweet neck.”

In the film’s final scenes, Brigid is taken into the lift by the police and we move to a close-up of her face behind the bars of the lift’s inner door, before the outer door closes, shutting her deeper inside and as the lift begins to descend – she’s, literally, going down, Bogart/Spade walks past towards the stairs with the Falcon in his arms.

If I do have a problem with the film, it’s quite believing in the Bogart/Astor relationship. David Thomson [no less] says “it’s the love story that is riveting” and refers to a “lovely crisscross of screwball and noir”, whereas it seems to me that description is far more accurate if applied to the other famous Bogart private eye film from the forties, Howard Hawk’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, built as it is around the relationship between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which was first revealed on screen two years earlier in the same director’s To Have and Have Not

Here Bogart’s hero, Philip Marlowe, is as hard-headed and hard-hearted as Sam Spade where necessary – towards the film’s climax, and without compunction, he sends the gambler Eddie Mars off to a certain death at the hands of his own gunmen – but he’s also portrayed as someone who can charm the birds out of the trees and, in the famouses bookstore scene, the glasses from Dorothy Malone’s nose. And the scenes between Bogart and Bacall are brilliant examples of sex by inference and innuendo – each one sparking back and forth against the other. Look, speak but don’t – quite – touch. At least, not until the director has called ‘Cut!”

Daniel Woodrell, Dashiell Hammett and Me

For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.

Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.

Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more  than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.

Dan 4
Daniel Woodrell

I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my   8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!

Dan 1

Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …

I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.

… and …

I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.

Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”

220px-John's_Grill_exterior_2

hammett-s-martini

We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.

Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

JBH G'smith On.IMG_0007
Your author in younger days

burritt-street-113222

Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.

220px-Winters_bone_poster

Dan 2

 

 

Criminal Openings … Dashiell Hammett

Scan

A recent retweet by writer Megan Abbott took me back to the opening sentences of Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, published in 1929 …

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

It’s all there: the directness, the way it buttonholes you instantly, a hand taking hold of the lapel of your jacket while the voice speaks confidently, not over-loudly, into your ear. And the poetry, the poetry of the vernacular, the rhythm of real speech.

The first sentence in his first novel. I wonder how many times he rolled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it through, tossed in over his shoulder, lit another cigarette, set a fresh sheet in place and tried again? I wonder if he’d been testing it in his head at a little after four, four-thirty, those mornings it was impossible to get back to sleep? I wonder if he had it all pat from the start?

Hammett’s first novel, thirty-five years old. He’d been an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private detective working for an vast organisation with government connections. He had twice enlisted in the army, WW1 & WW2, and it was during the first of these periods that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would seriously affect his well-being for years. When he was no longer with the Pinkertons, realising, perhaps, that henceforth he would be physically less active, he enrolled at a Business College and set about learning the business of writing. The timing was right. A new pulp magazine called The Black Mask printed his first story, “The Road Home”, in 1922 and a year later the first of a number of stories featuring his nameless hero, the Continental Op. It is the Op around whom the action centres in Red Harvest and its successor, The Dain Curse, a bluff and largely unforgiving figure who would be to some degree romaticised as Sam Spade in Hammett’s best known novel, The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade, private eye:  shamus, a private dick.

For just twelve years, from 1922 to 1934, he wrote stories set firmly in a world he knew.  Then it was over. Whatever had drawn him, driven him to writing had gone. Perhaps it was simply that there was no longer any financial need. Perhaps, for a while, Hollywood fame following the success of John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, seduced him. Perhaps his on-again, off-again, alcohol-ridden relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, in some creative way, emasculated him. He tried to write ‘straight’ novels, but they faltered into failure,unfinished; he set out to write plays but only succeeded in assisting Hellman in shaping hers. Or was it, more simply, that he had done all he could as a crime writer, all that interested him, and after five novels and over a hundred stories there was no place for him to go?

 

McMinn and Cheese

A chip on my shoulder you can see from space

Salt and Stone Poetry

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

thebluemoment.com

A blog about music by Richard Williams

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

Woody Haut's Blog

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life