The Maltese Legacy: Spade, the Bird, and Beyond

Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett and Sam Spade

Born in 1894, Samuel Dashiell Hammett lived until 1961. As a young man he worked as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, an experience that provided him with plenty of material for his future work as a writer of detective fiction. He served briefly in the U.S. Army during WWI, suffered the flu during the 1918 influenza pandemic, contracted TB, and tried his hand at advertising before, in 1922, he began writing full time. He stopped writing fiction in 1934. However, in that short, productive time he wrote more than 80 short stories and 5 novels, including several that are now considered classics of the genre as well as among the great American novels.

After his short, but prolific writing career, Hammett was active in leftist causes and became an avowed Communist. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Aleutian Islands as a newspaper editor. Later, in the 1950s, he was subpoenaed to testify about the activities of some members of an organization he was active in that had been designated a communist front; rather than testify, he was found guilty of contempt and served time in a federal penitentiary. He was later blacklisted. His drinking got worse, as did his health. He was hounded by the IRS and ended his days as a virtual hermit, dying penniless in 1961. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery despite the objections of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

During his short career, Hammett created many memorable characters including the Continental Op, a private detective who appeared in 36 short stories, including several that made up the novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse; and Nick and Nora Charles, the often inebriated, high society, crime-solving duo from The Thin Man (and the highly successful series of movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy).

But Hammett’s most memorable creation, Sam Spade, the private detective from The Maltese Falcon, set the template for the entire archetype of the hard-boiled private dick: tough, cold, independent, cynical, capable and self-sufficient, determined, of questionable morality, a quick study with a wry and acerbic wit, brutal, brutish, even sadistic, yet irresistible to women.

Without Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe would never have been realized. Ross MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, and many other writers of crime fiction have openly acknowledged their considerable debt to Hammett and his creation.

As a character, Spade is always one or more steps ahead of everyone else, including the reader. Does he have a master plan or is he winging it? He always seems to know what he is doing and has enough confidence and conviction to convince us that he does. At times it doesn’t even seem like a fair fight. While Spade’s enemies are many, they ultimately are no match for him.

And his motivations are not always apparent. Is he working for his clients or looking out for himself? When his client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, offers him $200 to find her (nonexistent) sister, he later tells her that “we didn’t exactly believe your story . . . we believed your two hundred dollars.” And when the criminal Gutman questions Spade regarding whose interests he’s looking out for if it isn’t O’Shaughnessy or Cairo, Spade points his cigar at his own chest. “There’s me.” Spade’s amorality is certainly part of the appeal.

But Spade also has a code and he feels obligated to live up to it, even if it means turning in O’Shaughnessy to the authorities:

“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. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Black Mask: The Maltese FalconOriginally serialized in five parts in the popular pulp magazine Black Mask, The Maltese Falcon first appeared in the September 1929 issue and was an instant success. On Valentine’s Day, 1930, Knopf collected the parts and published them together as a novel for the first time. It has since been adapted for the silver screen, for radio, and for comics. There have been sequels, spinoffs, and parodies. Hammett wrote three more Sam Spade stories which were originally published in The American Magazine and Colliers and later published as A Man Called Spade and Other Stories in 1944 (and later included in the Hammett collection of short stories, Nightmare Town, published in 2000), and Spade was featured in several long-running radio series.

The Maltese Falcon, Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, are hired by a mysterious woman to follow a man named Thursby. When Archer is killed on the job, Spade, a suspect in his partner’s death and in Thursby’s, gets mixed up in a convoluted plot to find the elusive, eponymous bird, a jewel-encrusted statue reportedly worth a fortune. We are carried along by the rapid pace and the various wheelings and dealings as Spade plays the players against each other in his efforts to get a hold of the falcon.

A Man Called Spade

However it is more than plot that makes The Maltese Falcon great. Hammett created many vivid, memorable characters. In addition to our courageous hero, colorful villains abound, including the leader of the gang, the gregarious and substantial Casper Gutman; the effeminate, sinister, and perfumed Joel Cairo; the inept and unpolished gunsel, Wilmer Cook; and the beautiful, but deadly femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Not to mention his secretary Effie Perine; his partner, Miles Archer; Archer’s widow, Iva; and the police detectives, Tom Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy. These characters are now much copied and have spawned an entire industry of femme fatales and cheap gunsels.

In addition to the great characters in The Maltese Falcon, Hammett also had a way with words and littered the novel with abundant colorful descriptions and witty, street-smart dialogue. Spade is described as a “blond satan.” He refers to women as “sweetheart,” “angel,” “precious,” and “my own true love.” Today it comes off as dated and sexist, but more than a little cool.

When Joel Cairo says to Spade: “You always have a very smooth explanation ready,” Spade replies, “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

Referring to Wilmer Cook: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

And Gutman’s line: “I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but—well, by Gad!—if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another—and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

And when he’s going to turn Brigid over to the police for murder:

“I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

Also, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”

And, of course, “I won’t play the sap for you.”

Films

While The Maltese Falcon was not the first Hammett story to be turned into a motion picture (that honor, uncredited, goes to the Ben Hecht-scripted 1930 musical comedy/gangster melodrama, Roadhouse Nights, based on his first novel, the 1929 Red Harvest), John Huston’s first film as director, released in 1941 and starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, stands as the definitive and most famous film based on his writing. Some even consider it to be one of the greatest films of all times as well as the first film noir.

Interestingly, Huston’s 1941 classic was not the first time The Maltese Falcon had been filmed. It was, in fact, the third time that Warner Brothers had tackled the property, although it was the first time they had any success with it.

The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe DanielsRoy Del Ruth was the first to film The Maltese Falcon in 1931. Starring Ricardo Cortez (a New Yorker of Austrian parents who changed his name to cash in on the Valentino craze) as Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (not Brigid O’Shaughnessy), it is, on the whole, pretty loyal to the book and contains a lot of the dialogue from the novel (as does the 1941 version). As a pre-Code film, it had none of the restrictions of the later versions, and is, at times, rather racy. The film opens with an unidentified lover leaving Spade’s office, hiking up her stockings. Spade’s adulterous affair with his partner’s wife could be depicted and the homosexual relationship between Gutman and the gunsel is strongly implied. Wonderly (not O’Shaughnessy) is nearly naked in a scene where she takes a bath. And when Gutman accuses Wonderly of stealing $1,000, Spade has her strip down so that he can search her.

Cortez’s Spade is a toothy, smiling, cold-hearted gumshoe. He is a lady’s man and more than a bit sleazy. In one scene he inexplicably speaks Chinese to a Chinese witness to a murder. The only time he shows any emotion is when he turns in Miss Wonderly and, in a scene not in the book, when he visits her in prison. When Warner attempted to re-release the film in 1936, they were unable to do so due to the imposition of the restrictive Hays Code. Later it was renamed Dangerous Female for television to avoid anyone confusing it for the far superior version from 1941. Not a great film, though somewhat enjoyable, it fails to capture the magic of the book.

Played for laughs: Satan Met a Lady

Played for laughs: Satan Met a Lady

This prompted Warner to hire William Dieterle to try it again under the title Satan Met a Lady in 1936, starring Warren William (as Ted Shane instead of Sam Spade) and Bette Davis (as Valerie Purvis). Lots of liberties were taken with the original story. Not only did Spade become Shane and O’Shaughnessy, Purvis, but Gutman’s gender was changed to female, becoming Madame Barabas, and the falcon became the horn of Roland from 9th century France. Played for laughs, the film was met with jeers by the critics and Bette Davis, riding on the accolades from the success of her previous film, The Petrified Forest, initially refused to report to the set, feeling insultingly demeaned by the assignment.

In 1941, John Huston, the son of famed actor Walter Huston, after working as a screenwriter for Warners and winning praise for his script of Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York and for Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (the film that made Humphrey Bogart a star), was given the opportunity to write and direct The Maltese Falcon. Huston, in what is no doubt an apocryphal tale, is said to have given the novel to a secretary to transcribe the dialogue exactly as Hammett wrote it, and while the script is loyal to the book (albeit with less sex and cursing—and more smoking), it is very similar to the 1931 script. In addition, Huston blocked out each scene including camera angles, close-ups, and other details so was unusually prepared for the production of his first film as director.

Huston is also responsible for Spade’s immortal response to Detective Polhaus, lifting the falcon and asking, “Heavy. What is it?”

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon also benefited from its extraordinary cast. Not only did it feature Bogart in a star-turning role, but it also starred Mary Astor, whose personal affairs had recently been tabloid fodder following a public custody battle, as Brigid O’Shaughnessy; the Austrian-born Peter Lorre, famous as the child molester in Fritz Lang’s M, playing Joel Cairo; the formidable Sydney Greenstreet in his first screen appearance as the Fat Man, Kasper (here with a K for some reason) Gutman; and the great Elisha Cook, Jr. as the hotheaded gunsel, Wilmer Cook.

When George Raft turned down the role of Spade (he had the contractual authority to reject being in remakes), Huston offered it to his drinking buddy, Bogart, who was certainly no “blond Satan.” Bogart had been acting for 20 years on Broadway and in Hollywood. After playing a gangster in The Petrified Forest, first on the stage and then, in 1936, on the screen, he was typecast as a heavy in numerous Warner’s pictures including Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces. But being cast as Spade changed everything. Bogart’s iconic and archetypal performance in the film, with his nervous tics and wise patter, is now practically inseparable from Spade and you can see similar traits in Bogart’s future roles in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep, in which he plays Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, as well as in many other actors tackling the role of the cynical, world-weary detective.

The Maltese FalconA nice 3 DVD set of the three versions of The Maltese Falcon is available from Warner Home Video, and includes the 3 radio adaptations and a blooper reel.

In 1969, the famed King of the B’s, Roger Corman, directed Target: Harry, a film starring Vic Morrow and Suzanne Pleshette. Set in Monaco, Turkey, and Greece, it borrows much from the plot of The Maltese Falcon. Various baddies are after valuable British engraving plates that are in the possession of Harry, a charter pilot. Apparently Corman was aware of how bad it was so he used the pseudonym Harry Neill. These days, it is practically impossible to find.

The Black BirdIn 1975, George Segal was tapped to played Sam Spade, Jr., in The Black Bird, a film directed by David Giler, in what is generally considered to be a weak comedy/sequel. In the film, Junior inherits his father’s agency, including his father’s secretary, Effie Perine, played by Lee Patrick who also portrayed the same character 34 years earlier. Elisha Cook, Jr. also reprises his role as Wilmer Cook.

The next year, TV’s Colombo, Peter Falk, portrayed Sam Diamond in the star-studded comic mystery, Murder by Death. Directed by Robert Moore and written by Neil Simon, this film, set in a country house, plays more as an Agatha Christie-type whodunit than a hard-boiled film noir. It features a lot of well-known British and American performers playing famous fictional sleuths, including David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston (based on Hammett’s other renowned creation, Nick and Nora Charles). Eileen Brennan plays Tess Skeffington, Diamond’s secretary.

Parodies

Captain Picard, Private Eye

Captain Picard, Private Eye

The Maltese Falcon has been ripe for parody and homage in many places, including Abbott and Costello’s recurring character on radio, Sam Shovel; Sam Diamond in The Addams Family; Sydney Street in The Avengers; Rowan and Martin’s horrible film, The Maltese Bippy; Sam Spayed in Garfield’s Babes and Bullets in which a beautiful dame asks the cat private eye “Are you Spayed?” and the voiceover narrator replies “I never know how to answer that question”; Star Trek: The Next Generation featured an episode called “The Big Goodbye,” in which Captain Picard gets trapped in a holodeck malfunction while playing the part of Dixon Hill, private eye, in a program re-creating the milieu of a Maltese Falcon-like novel; there is also the character Samantha Spade in Without a Trace; and, of course, Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir.

Radio

Sam Spade had a long and fruitful life on the radio, first in several adaptations of the novel and then from 1946 through 1951 in the long-running Adventures of Sam Spade.

In 1943, in episode 172 of Lux Radio Theatre on CBS radio, The Maltese Falcon was adapted for radio in an hour-long version. Edward G. Robinson, one of the biggest movie stars at Warner Brothers, was enlisted to provide the voice of Samuel Spade. Laird Cregar, an actor who weighed more than 300 pounds, played Gutman. Later that same year, in episode 162 of CBS’ The Screen Guild Theater, the original cast from Huston’s film was reunited for a condensed, half-hour version of the story. And in 1946, episode 15 of CBS’ Academy Award Theater brought Bogart, Astor, and Greenstreet together again for another condensed radio production.

Howard Duff as Spade and Lurene Tuttle as Effie Perrine

Duff as Spade and Tuttle as Perrine

Due to the popularity of Sam Spade, ABC began broadcasting The Adventures of Sam Spade in 1946 for 13 30-minute episodes starring Howard Duff as Spade and Lurene Tuttle as Effie Perrine. Its scriptwriters, Jason James and Bob Tallman, won an Edgar Award for Best Radio Drama in 1947. Duff appeared as Spade in more than 200 episodes, even as the program moved from ABC to CBS and then to NBC. After being named in Red Channels: The Report of the Communist Influence in Radio and Television, Duff was replaced by Steve Dunn who performed in 24 more episodes from 1950 through 1951. Duff also played Spade in a few episodes of Suspense, including, in 1948, a 60-minute episode called “The Khandi Tooth Caper,” which is billed as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon in which Gutman is back (from the dead) as is Cairo, but with a new gunsel. It also includes a cameo by Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery who hosted Suspense also played Marlowe in film and on radio). Later in Duff’s career, from 1966 through 1969, he played Detective Sam Stone on television in ABC’s Felony Squad, a character influenced by Spade

Audiobooks

The Maltese Falcon audiobook

In 2008, Blackstone Audio’s Hollywood’s Theater of the Ear released a 3.3 hour audiobook featuring the voices of Michael Madsen as Spade, Sandra Oh as O’Shaughnessy, and Edward Herrmann as Gutman. (Booklist‘s Joyce Sarick’s gave it a starred review.) It was nominated for a Grammy and won an Audie Award for Best Audiobook Adaptation. William Dufris read The Maltese Falcon in an unabridged version, available from Blackstone. Eric Meyers reads it for Naxos. In 2009, Tom Wilkinson portrayed Spade in a BBC Radio 7 production. Jane Lapotaire played O’Shaughnessy, Peter Vaughan (Game of Thrones) as Gutman, and Nikolas Grace as Joel Cairo.

Comics

The Maltese Falcon comic bookIn 1946, a 47-page adaptation of The Maltese Falcon appeared in comic-book form in Feature Books #48, by the David McKay Company. It was drawn by Rodlow Willard. While the comic book is incredibly rare and fairly valuable, it didn’t leave much of an impression on those who have seen it with artwork described as “wooden” and “underwhelming.” The cover isn’t bad, though.

Can your scalp pass the fingernail test?Spade also frequently appeared in a single-page newspaper comic strip/advertisement trumpeting the benefits of Wildroot Cream-Oil, for grooming and dandruff prevention. The artwork was attribute to Golden Age comic artist, Lou Fine. 

In addition, Hammett had some success launching a comic strip for King Features called Secret Agent X-9, originally drawn by Alex Raymond, who was famous for drawing Flash Gordon. It ran until 1996 and was spun off in film and on radio.

Literary Legacy

In the May 1, 2008 issue of Booklist, Keir Graff looked at Hammett’s literary legacy in an “Another Look at The Maltese Falcon.” In it, he connects its use of a priceless, historic artifact to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and its imitators. He also lists Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder in All the Flowers Are Dying, Andrew Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop trilogy, Martin Cruz Smith’s hard-boiled Gorky Park set in Russia, and Jim Nisbet’s San Francisco-based wrong-man thriller, The Syracuse Code, as direct descendants of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon.

Spade & Archer, by Joe GoresAdd to that the three-time Edgar Award winning Joe Gore’s Spade & Archer from 2009, which, as the subtitle indicates is The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. (Bill Ott gave it a starred review in Booklist.) In 1975, Gores wrote the novel Hammett which Wim Wenders filmed in the 1982 Francis Ford Coppola production, starring Frederic Forrest as Hammett (with Elisha Cook, Jr. as Eli the Taxi Driver). The screenplay was co-written by Ross Thomas.

You can see that Hammett and the Falcon’s influence is still very much with us and will no doubt be with us for a long time to come.

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