75TH ANNIVERSARY Flight of the FALCON
By BRUCE DESILVA
OR LOVERS OF THE HARD-BOILED CRIME story, life began with the black bird.
It was 75 years ago this month that "The Maltese Falcon" first appeared between hard covers, just weeks after it was published as a five-part serial in the pulp magazine Black Mask.
To today's reader, Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece can seem vaguely antique, its characters too stereotypical: the cynical detective who works both sides of the law; his spunky and loyal secretary; the trench coat-draped gunman who talks from the side of his mouth; the wily femme fatale who manipulates men with the promise of sex.
But to 1930s readers, every line was a revelation.
Sam Spade, Effie, Wilmer and Brigid O'Shaugnessy may be archetypes today, but Hammett was the man who first gave them breath. "The Maltese Falcon" is a novel of astounding originality that virtually invented the noir style.
Before the black bird, there were two kinds of crime stories.
Most were puzzle mysteries in which murders were committed in libraries and drawing rooms and solved by bloodless detectives who collected clues and fingered the guilty by employing brilliant (and improbable) deductive reasoning.
In such stories, which continue to be written, the world is portrayed as a just and orderly place. Then a crime intrudes, creating a temporary sense of menace and disorder. The detective, by virtue of his unerring intelligence, solves it and restores the natural order of things. It is a Victorian world view, one of hope and faith in human decency and progress.
When that faith was shaken by the carnage of World War I, a new breed of crime story emerged. In it, Hammett's brilliant contemporary, Raymond Chandler, would later write, the world was portrayed as a madhouse that had "created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.
"The law was something to be manipulated for power and profit. The streets were dark with something more than night."
The first of these stories, mostly sordid and badly written, appeared in five-cent pulp magazines that men bought at newsstands, read in barbershops and hid from their wives and children.
It was the pulps that gave Hammett and Chandler their start. Together, in Chandler's words, they "took the murders out of the drawing rooms and gave them back to the people who actually commit them." And through their mastery of language and storytelling, they raised crime from nickel magazines and turned it into literature.
Committing the crime
Hammett got there first. "The Maltese Falcon" preceded Chandler's "The Big Sleep" by nine years. "The Maltese Falcon" also shows a rich publishing history -- more than 4.5 million copies have been sold in the United States alone, according Random House, and the book has been published in at least 31 countries besides the United States.
The tale of Sam Spade's struggle with a ruthless trio intent on finding a jewel-encrusted black bird is tough even by today's standards. The characters are vividly portrayed, the language is spare and unsentimental, the dialogue crisp and heavy on the vernacular. And the pitch is perfect throughout.
Although the story was purely a work of imagination, Hammett's past life as a newsboy, stevedore and Pinkerton Detective Agency operative, and his familiarity with San Francisco, where he set the tale, infused it with realism.
But the character of Sam Spade is Hammett's grandest achievement, defining the American ideal of the private eye for all time.
In his introduction to the 1934 edition of "The Maltese Falcon," Hammett described Spade this way: "He's a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the detectives I worked with would liked to have been and what quite a few of them, in their cockier moments, thought they approached ... a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with."
Wisecracking in the face of danger and self-confident to the point of arrogance, Spade defined the cool style that has been mimicked by nearly every fictional detective, from Chandler's Philip Marlowe to Robert Parker's Spenser -- and by every I'm-so-cool celebrity from Frank Sinatra to Will Smith.
Spade also personified the now familiar private detective's attitude toward authority. ("It's a long while since I burst out crying because a policeman didn't like me.") Here, too, is the detective hero's invulnerability to the wiles of conniving women. ("You're good. You're very good. It's chiefly in your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, 'Be generous, Mr. Spade."')
Hammett also defined the detective's rigid code of honor, a necessity for surviving and maintaining self-respect in a treacherous and brutal world. ("When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it," Spade said. "It doesn't matter what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.")
As Caspar Gutman, the book's villainous fat man, summed it up, "By Gad, sir, you're a character."
Humphrey Bogart's screen portrayal captured Spade to perfection, and the dark and brooding look John Huston gave his 1941 film set the tone for every noir movie to come.
The movie was a remake. Warner Bros., which paid $8,500 for the rights, had already based two bad movies on it when Huston chose it for his debut as a director. As one story goes, Huston, pressured for a script by the Warners, had his secretary retype the book.
The story may be apocryphal; but then again, the movie is remarkably faithful to Hammett's creation, nearly every memorable line of dialogue lifted directly from its pages. Hammett, it was said, admired the movie.
The influence of both the book and the film on American popular culture are difficult to exaggerate.
Huston's career was long and brilliant, but Hammett wrote only five novels and some short stories. He produced virtually nothing in the last 20 years of life before succumbing, penniless, to lung cancer in 1961.
These days, should you find yourself in San Francisco, you can find echoes of the "The Maltese Falcon."
Stroll over to Burritt Street and read the plaque marking the spot where Brigid gunned down Spade's partner, Miles Archer. Then drop into John's Grill at 63 Ellis Street, where Hammett sometimes dined, and toast the creator of the black bird with a concoction the barkeeper mixes in his honor. Just ask for a "Bloody Brigid."