Friday, September 17, 2004

Book: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Hammett’s classic, making it the ideal time to revisit the book. Anything that can be said about it has already been said, many times over. Like that’s gonna stop me.

1. The 1941 John Huston film is quite possibly the most faithful adaptation of any book. The oft-repeated legend is that Huston simply had his secretary retype Hammett’s novel in screenplay format (INT. SPADE’S OFFICE – DAY), but there are enough deviations from the text to make me think it’s an apocryphal story. The dropped scenes always feel a little off to me when I read them. I can’t tell if it’s because they weren’t in the movie or if they’re inferior to the rest of the book.

2. The characters are extraordinary. Even if you’ve never seen the film, and consequently wouldn’t hear the voices of Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor as you turned the pages, you would remember these people. Their interaction matters far more than what they’re after. It’s a brilliant joke, then, that in the statue of the Falcon Hammett created the most storied McGuffin in crime fiction. It’s an even better joke that the genuine article never surfaces in the story.

3. Hammett never once lets the reader into Sam Spade’s head. We know how he rolls his cigarettes, but we’re never privy to his thoughts. This makes Spade inscrutable at best and unlikable at worst, but never less than compelling. Most contemporary fiction is lousy with psychology. It’s bracing to read a book that asks you to judge its characters on the basis of their actions alone.

4. The best-known omission from the film is the Flitcraft episode. Spade recounts an earlier case to Brigid O’Shaughnessy to pass the time. Flitcraft, a successful Tacoma businessman, disappeared without a trace. Five years later, Spade was hired to investigate a report that the man was living in Spokane. It turned out to be true. Flitcraft had been on his way to an appointment when he was almost killed by a falling girder. As a result, “he felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.” He walked away from his old existence, drifted around for a while, and then settled back into a new one that was virtually identical.

“He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

A shocking sentiment, and one that has even more resonance now. It’s hard to believe Hammett wrote it 75 years ago.