“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!”

More Criminal Openings …

Going back to the opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as I did in my last post, made me think of the distinctive ways in which other crime books begin. Some, like the Hammett, are short and punchy, grabbing the attention at the same time as having a close to perfect satisfaction of their own … others are longer, a deliberately complex sentence that winds you along its length and so into both the style and the narrative, others are paragraph length that draws you in more carefully and often then stays in the memory, sometimes after the book itself has been read, enjoyed and set aside.

Here is a selection of my favourite single sentence beginnings,some of which will be familiar, others perhaps less so …

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

James M.Cain : The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cain

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

George V. Higgins : The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Higgins

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

James Crumley : The Last Good Kiss

Crumley

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.

James Sallis : Drive

Sallis

When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband that she was leaving him for another man.

Bill James : Roses, Roses

James

And here are two of my favourites of the longer variety, each humorous in its own way; the first is, of course, a well-known classic, the second by Brian Thompson, a writer whose forays into crime writing, Bad to the Bone [Viking, 1991] and Ladder of Angels [Slow Dancer, 1999] deserve to be better known and appreciated than I think they are.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard set rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blu suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Raymond Chandler : The Big Sleep

Chandler

Mrs Evans was teaching me the tango. As it happened, I already knew the rudiments of this exciting dance, but never as interpreted by Mrs Evans, naked save for her high heels and some Mexican silver earrings – a present, she claimed, from Acapulco. The high heels were there to add grace and I suppose authenticity, but even with them on, the lady’s head barely reached my chin. We swooped about the room, exceedingly drunk, to the most famous tango of them all, the Blue one. It was past two in the morning and the rain that had been forecast had arrived as grounded cloud, moping blindly about the streets, tearful and incoherent. But we were okay – we were up on the third floor, looking down on the damned cloud and having a whale of a time. Mrs Evans was warm and sit to the touch and her make-up was beginning to melt. For some reason a piece of Sellotape was stuck to her quivering bottom, and as we danced I tried to solve this small but endearing mystery. It came to me at last; it was her sister’s birthday and earlier in the evening she had parcelled up a head scarf, some knickers and a Joanna Trollope paperback.

Brian Thompson : Ladder of Angels

Thompson

Scott Mitchell Returns!

There’s a feature in the Guardian Saturday Review in which authors describe their working day. Mine, over a period of time, has progressed (regressed?) from starting around 6.30/7.00am and finishing, after appropriate breaks, somewhere between 3.30/4.00pm, to starting at 7.00/7.30am and finishing at 12.30/1.00pm. As a general rule, one thing has become clear: the shorter the day the better the work.

But back in those heady days of yore, somewhere between 1976 and ’77 – and in the midst of co-writing the Herne the Hunter Western series – I wrote four crime books featuring Scott Mitchell. As the cover blurb described him – The toughest Private Eye – and the Best.Well, that’s blurbs for you.

And now, after a number of years during which the original Sphere paperbacks could be bought for surprisingly large sums on the internet, the toughest private eye returns. Mysterious Press in the States, having successfully published the Resnick titles there as Ebooks, have recently brought all four of the Scott Mitchell titles – Amphetamines & Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel & Neon Madmen – out as Ebooks, simultaneously publishing them as dual-title paperbacks, two yarns for the price of one.

harvey_amphetamines-geranium-bundle

Here’s part of the introduction I wrote for the republication of the titles …

American pulp in a clearly English setting, that was the premise. A hero who was a more down-at-heel version of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade; a style that owed a great deal to Chandler and a little, in places, to Mickey Spillane. Forty years earlier, I could have been Peter Cheyney selling his publisher the idea for Lemmy Caution.

‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ – the title borrowed from Bob Dylan – was duly published by Sphere Books in 1976, John Knight’s gloriously pulpy cover design showing a semi-naked stripper reflected in the curved blade of a large and dangerous-looking knife. 144 pages, 50,000 words: £500 advance against royalties: you do the maths.

But, I hear you asking, is it any good?

Well, yes and no. Reading ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ and the other three books again after many years, there were sequences that left me pleasantly surprised and others which set my teeth on edge like chalk being drawn across a blackboard.

Chandler is a dangerous model. So tempting, so difficult to pull off. Once in a while, I managed a simile that works – “The phrases peeled from his lips like dead skin” isn’t too bad, but otherwise they tend to fall flat. What I hope will come across to readers, though, is how much I enjoyed riffing on the familiar tropes of the private eye novel – much as I have done more recently in my Jack Kiley stories – and how much fun it was to pay homage to the books and movies with which I’d grown up and which had been a clear inspiration. An inspiration I would do nothing to disguise: quite the opposite.

As an example, quite early on, there’s this …

What I needed now was a little honest routine. I remember reading in one of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels that he began the day by making coffee in a set and practised way, each morning the same. It also said somewhere that Marlowe liked to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but as far as I can recall it didn’t say how he did that.

What I did was this. I broke two eggs into a small saucepan, added a good-size chunk of butter, poured in a little off the top of a bottle of milk and finally ground in some sea salt and black pepper. Then I just stirred all of this over a medium heat, while I grilled some bacon to go with it.

They say that a sense of achievement is good for a man.

And later, this

I didn’t know whether she was playing at being Mary Astor on purpose, or whether she’d seen ‘The Maltese Falcon’ so many times she said the words unconsciously.

But I had seen it too.

Inter-textuality, isn’t that what they call that kind of thing? Metafiction even?

Much of the success of the book depends on how the reader responds to its hero. In many respects, Scott Mitchell fits the formula: men are always pointing guns at him or sapping him from behind; women either want to slap his face or take him to bed or both. When it comes to handing out the rough stuff, he’s no slouch. Anything but. He is the toughest and the best, after all. But, personally, I find him a little too down on himself and the world in general, too prone to self-pity. On the plus side, he does immediately recognise Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington, as well as knowing the difference between Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt and having a fondness for Bessie Smith.

The scenes in the novel that work best, for me at least, are those in which the attempts to sound and seem American are pulled back, letting the Englishness show through. That only makes sense: it’s what I know, rather than what I only know at second hand. And what I know, of course, London aside, is the city of Nottingham, destined to be the home of the twelve novels featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick.

It had been so long since I last read ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ that I’d forgotten that’s where quite a lot of the book is set. And in the chapter where Mitchell visits the city’s new central police station, there’s a description of urban police work that points the way pretty clearly towards the world Resnick would step into a dozen or so years later.

Men in uniform and out of it moved quietly around the building. Policemen doing their job with as much seeming efficiency as men who are worked too hard and paid too little can muster. From room to room they went, sifting the steadily gathering detritus of the city night: a group of drunken youths with coloured scarves tied to their wrists and plastic-flowered pennants on their coats; the first few of the many prostitutes whose soiled bodies would spend the remainder of their working hours in custody; a couple of lads – not older than fifteen – who had been caught breaking into a tobacconist’s shop and beating up the owner when he discovered them; a sad queen who had announced his desires a little too loudly and obviously in the public lavatories of the city centre; and the car thieves, the junkies, the down-and-outs.

You couldn’t work in the midst of all this without it getting to you. it didn’t matter how clean the building was, how new. The corruption of man was old, old, old.

And down these mean streets … well, you know the rest.

harvey_junkyard-neon-bundle

 

 

Crumley’s Last Good Kiss

Crumley 2

The fact that, not before time, an enterprising publisher – Transworld – had opted to reissue James Crumley’s idiosyncratic and marvellous novel, The Last Good Kiss (and that Waterstones have had the nous to install it as their Thriller of the Month) sent me back to a piece I wrote for Peter Messent’s Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel * in 1997. Here are the opening paragraphs …

I know that the first Crumley novel I read was The Last Good Kiss, but can’t remember too clearest when this was, nor the exact circumstances which resulted in my possession of a RandomHouse, hardcover first edition. But here it is, a little soiled now and ragged, behind Stan Zagorowski’s slightly surreal jacket design – a section of Western town, all brash signs and Hopper colours before a backdrop of towering, featureless mountains and, hanging above Mary’s Bar, a pair of full-blooded red lips that seem to have floated off from a Max Ernst canvas in an outsize offer of sexual promise and threat.

I suspect the year was 1978 or 1979.Not long off a brief series of mawkish, London-based, sub-Chandler private eye novels (James Ellroy was right: follow old Ray down those mean streets and sumptuous sub-clauses at your peril!), and embarked upon a sequence of ten paperback Westerns featuring Hart the Regulator, reading The Last Good Kiss affected me in the same way as listening to Philly Joe Jones when I was trying to be a drummer. All the things I hd wanted to do, plus several I hadn’t thought of, and all with such apparent ease. if I hadn’t already signed the contract, my electric typewriter might well have followed the drum kit into the small ads columns of the local newspaper.

I instinctively knew this was the best private eye novel I’d read since Robert B.Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript, some five years before. I think I knew that Crumley’s book had elements over and above the freshness of Parker’s debut, and that these were something to do with the Western setting and something else I had yet to identify. Whatever the case, having read it once, I immediately set to read it again and have enjoyed reading it every few years since. And even if I still don’t understand the poem it works – or the final playing out of the plot – if there’s a more singular and compelling PI novel to have been written in the past, almost, twenty years, I don’t know what it is.

Crumley 3

  • “The Last Good Place: James Crumley, the West and the Detective Novel” in Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel, edited by Peter Messent, Pluto Press, London & Chicago, 1997
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