Sam Spade is the most famous movie detective, and The Maltese Falcon is the greatest writing by Dashiell Hammett, who created the modern detective story. But there was a long road leading to Sam Spade from Hammett’s stories of the 1920s, when he leveraged his experience as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency into a series of pulp-magazine stories telling what it’s really like on the ground.
The Pinkerton Agency was a big, bureaucratic, nation-wide organization. Its agents were cogs in the machine, drawing on each other for information and assistance to track down criminals. They were more FBI than Private Eye. They worked closely with the local police. Their operatives were the opposite of the lone-wolf detective in the mold of Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who were constantly in trouble with the cops. The road to The Maltese Falcon had to turn allies into antagonists; eventually the PI genre would generate half its plot tension from heavy-handed intrusions by the police.
From the outset, Hammett’s detective is a hard-boiled tough guy, at home with underworld slang, who knows how to give it out and take a beating in a fight. He is laconic and lacking in personality in other respects. This had to change, to arrive at the cynical/romantic detective sparring verbally with glamorous women and sometimes falling for them. Hammett’s Continental Op is essentially sexless as well as emotionless, like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and the like. Spade and Marlowe become a different breed of cat.
The Pinkerton/Continental Detective Agency: a bureaucratic team
When the Continental Op is on a case, he has plenty of backup. When he wants somebody shadowed, he calls on an office-full of agents to watch a home for a week, even renting nearby apartments with good vantage point. (Even today, this would by an expensive stakeout by the FBI, usually reserved for Mafia investigations.) The Continental Op checks out suspects’ alibis and tracks their movements by telegraphing his company’s offices around the country. When he wants to identify someone, he can wire for photographs from the company’s archive. He can even get fingerprints, and have them analyzed for whether they have been altered. (One of Hammett’s early stories hinges on a suspect who created fake fingerprint by coating his fingers with gelatin and pressing them onto an engraving of someone else’s prints.) The Continental Op runs down information by using organizational bureaucracy whoever runs it; when he knows a suspect has taken a taxi, he sends a team of operatives to the taxi company’s office to go through the records and find where the suspect was driven. All the implausible sleuthing done by Sherlock Holmes as an individual working alone-- tracing a cigarette stub through his own private collection of every kind of tobacco, and finding these cigarettes are specially made, by a tobacconist in Holmes’ file, for only three people-- is carried out by the Continental Op’s team. Eventually, these methods of tracing suspects would become standard procedure in police bureaucracies.
Cops as allies
Far from being rivals of the cops, the Pinkerton/Continental Agency works closely with them. The police routinely call them with information and invite them to accompany them to the scene of a crime or a body discovered. The Continental Op drops in on the police to discuss the progress of a case they are both working on. In later films, the viewer assumes that Spade or Marlowe just have personal friends among the police who occasionally tip them off; but the Pinkertons always coordinated with the police. On the whole, their work was less dramatic than the detective-story murders: bank fraud, jewel robberies, embezzlement and blackmail were their chief line of work; and these could involve far-ranging movements of persons or loot around the country, so that the nation-wide range of the Pinkertons provided a larger resource than any local police department. The Pinkertons had the first national fingerprint file, and archives of criminals’ photos and descriptions.* The police looked up to the Pinkertons and welcomed their cooperation. The Continental Op can count on them to lay a police dragnet around all traffic out of Los Angeles, when he is testing the alibi of a suspect. They also accept his request to release a suspect from jail so that shadowing her might lead to other suspects.
*The FBI scientific crime detection laboratory, established in 1932, began to coordinate fingerprint and photo files from police departments around the country.
Cops liked the Pinkertons to do their dirty work for them, roughing up suspects or killing them. Oversight of police methods was weak, but even so what the Pinkertons did was completely off the books. This was especially so in the area of labor struggles, where the Pinkertons had been employed as strike breakers and labor spies, dating back to bloody confrontations in the 1880s. Their action went beyond fighting with union picket lines and escorting strike-breaking workers into a plant. They shadowed labor organizers (especially from radical organizations like the International Workers of the World), beat them up and sometimes crippled or killed them. They posed as union men to stir up disputes, act as agents provocateurs, and finger the militants. In Red Harvest, the Continental Op follows this pattern, drawing on Hammett’s own experience as a strike-breaker, plus reports of a murderous struggle at a copper mining town in Montana in 1917. In a town where everybody is on the take one way or the other, the Op succeeds in making the leaders of different factions suspicious of each other, in effect accomplishing his assignment by instigating (and taking part in) a long series of murders.
The police welcomed the Pinkertons/Continentals for operating outside the law more effectively than they could within the law. Of course, most of their cases were routine-- bank fraud and the like-- where the private agency simply provided more resources. It would be writers like Hammett who spiced up their stories with a dramatic back-and-forth of violence.
The essence of detective work: shadowing, reporting, record-checking
In an early story (1924), the Continental Op says: “Ninety-nine percent of detective work is a patient collecting of details-- and your details must be got as nearly first-hand as possible, regardless of who else has worked the territory before you.” [Op.110] (He means here that he can see things the cops overlook.)
“A good motto for the detective business is, ‘When in doubt, shadow ‘em.’” He goes on to give four rules for shadowing: “Keep behind your suspect as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens; and never meet his eye.” [Op.89-90]
The Continental Op can call on a whole team of accomplished shadowers. One of them has the information down to a laconic formula: “Made him,” he reported. “Thirty or thirty-two. Five, six. Hundred, thirty. Sandy hair, complexion. Blue eye. thin face, some skin off. Rat. Lives dump in Seventh Street.” [Op.405]
The Op does plenty of shadowing of his own; and Dashiell Hammett himself, during his years with the Pinkertons was regarded as an excellent shadower, even though he was over six feet tall (unusual for the time). The shadower also has to report what he sees; a concise description, addresses, times when people were present or went somewhere else. The Op writes up his reports for the local office, and calls on reports by other agents as he builds his investigation.
This is the essence of bureaucracy. In Max Weber’s famous summary of the characteristic of bureaucracy in world history, these elements stand out: a bureaucracy makes written reports, keeps them in files, and uses them as the basis for its actions. Bureaucrats’ reputation as paper-pushers is justified, but Weber underlined its effectiveness: keeping records is the only way to coordinate a large number of people, and to bring rational calculation to bear on figuring out what is a pattern and how to deal with it. The Continental Op glamorizes bureaucracy, when records are created by stealthy surveillance and their subjects are possible murderers.
The Dashiell Hammett brand
Hammett’s years with the Pinkertons were the origins of his writing style. This would become the hallmark of the Hammett brand.
Concise, vivid descriptions and wise-guy comments
At or near the opening of a story, Hammett describes an important character who sets in motion the plot. His descriptions are the kind of things he did in his shadowing reports: giving height, shape of face, coloring, distinctive body carriage-- all the things that enable a shadower to keep tabs on his target, as well as clueing in another agent who would take over surveillance.
“He was a big balloon of a man, in a green plaid suit that didn’t make him look any smaller than he was. His tie was a gaudy thing, mostly of yellow, with a big diamond set in the center of it, and there were more stones on his pudgy hands. Spongy fat blurred his features, making it impossible for his round purplish face to ever hold any other expression than the discontented hoggishness that was habitual to it.” [Op.108]
“I sized up the amateur while he strained his neck peeping at Ledwick. He was small, this sleuth, and scrawny and frail. His most noticeable feature was his nose-- a limp organ that twitched nervously all the time. His clothes were old and shabby, and he himself was somewhere in his fifties.” [Op.92]
Surroundings are significant introductions to their owners:
“While I waited for him I looked around the room, deciding that the dull orange rug under my feet was probably genuinely Oriental and truly ancient, that the carved walnut furniture hadn’t been ground out by machinery, and that the Japanese prints on the walls hadn’t been selected by a puritan.” [Op.631]
Other than when he describing people, Hammett is a minimalist writer, clear and clean, having shaved away all excess verbiage. This is a main reason why his stories move along so rapidly-- and why critics recognized him as a distinctly modern writer, even comparing him to Hemingway. But in his descriptions Hammett is very un-Hemingway. This emphasis comes from his training in writing shadowing reports-- a writing apprenticeship of five years. Hammett no doubt enhanced his descriptions beyond his early practice-- in effect, his first step towards creating his own brand. One gets an initial idea of what kind of person is hiring the detective (quite possibly for hidden motives); the description is the first clue.
They also give a sense of the Continental Op’s character. On the whole, the detective is laconic in his speech; and since he is also the first-person narrator, the same style pervades the entire story. The Op keeps his emotions to himself; better yet, he prefers not to have any emotions, he is just doing his job.* His clipped utterances convey a tinge of cynicism, and this is enhanced by the wise-guy remarks he often smuggles into his personal descriptions. Most writers’ descriptions are bland, just setting the scene before getting into the action (a reason why Hemingway avoids them); but Hammett’s episodic portraits convey a moral judgment, and a sardonic wit. We don’t learn much about the Op as a character, but he is a master of the wise-crack. He doesn’t engage in repartée, but in his mind he looks down on the people he deals with.**
* “This lawyer was bound upon getting me worked up; and I like my jobs to be simply jobs-- emotions are nuisances during business hours.” [Op.98]
** People he likes are usually cops.: “... his freckles climbing up his face, to make room for his grin.” [Op.419]
The Op also conveys his easy familiarity with slang, sprinkling his narrative with underworld expressions. This is part of the hard-boiled character that Hammett is credited with inventing. He didn’t start the literary movement conveying the speech of ordinary people of the lower classes. This had been done previously by writers like Twain, Bret Harte, and Kipling. Such writing could be verbose, showing off, or mocking the speaker. Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1983) is so full of lower-class dialect and phonetic spellings that it is tedious to read. Hammett inserts a mere razor-cut of slang here and there, following his tactic of never impeding the flow of the story.
There is an unintended consequence of Hammett’s word-portraits. Every person has a particular type of nose-- straight, thick, hooked, up-turned; a shape of the head: narrow, broad-cheeked, round, oval-- and Hammett’s training made him sensitive to all the little things that combine to make someone look distinctive. In writing his stories and novels, Hammett was at pains to set off his characters from each other, both by descriptions and by making up unusual names; and his most important characters usually get an over-the-top description. (The Op himself is never described, except we learn that he is short and heavy, reversing Hammett’s own appearance, tall and thin.) This tendency to portray exaggerated, even grotesque persons is one of the things that appealed to Hollywood in filming his novels.
This reaches a climax in The Maltese Falcon, where all the bad guys are extremes: the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet’s character) who resembles the “big balloon of a man” quoted above, except that he wears the pompous morning dress (tail-coat, cravat, spats) of the old-fashioned British upper class. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the dandy with foppish manners, a carnation in his lapel, and a perfumed handkerchief in his wallet. Wilmer, the diminutive gun-man, who talks tough (and shoots people cold-bloodedly) but who barely comes up to Humphrey Bogart’s shoulder. Why have a tiny gun-man instead of a more plausible strong-armed hoodlum? Just breaking the pattern and thereby being memorable. Visually-oriented Hollywood used the same set of actors (Greenstreet, Lorre, Elisha Cook, Bogart) in other classic film noir. It is also a reason why The Maltese Falcon is fun rather than threatening: its bad guys are too grotesque to be real.*
* All the killings happen off screen, and the one real thug in the story, Thursby, is never seen or even described.
Micro-observations and emotional domination
The Op is an excellent observer of other people-- not just what they look like, but the little signals they give off.
“I paused at the door of the Figgs’ room, until my ear told me that they were sleeping. At Mrs. Gallaway’s door I had to wait several minutes before she sighed and turned in bed. Barbra Caywood ws breathing deeply and strongly, with the regularity of a young animal whose sleep is without disturbing dreams. The invalid’s breath came to me with the evenness of slumber and the rasping of the pneumonia convalescent.” [Op.79]
“She talked for five minutes straight, the words fairly sizzling from between her hard lips; but the words themselves didn’t mean anything. She was talking for time-- talking while she tried to hit upon the safest attitude to assume.” [Op.97]
“The Whosis Kid let go of the woman and took three slow steps back from her. His eyes were dead circles without any color you could name-- the dull eyes of a man whose nerves quit functioning in the face of excitement.” [Op.240]
“I was puzzled. The Dummy’s yellowish eyes should have showed the pinpoint pupils of the heroin addict. They didn’t. The pupils were normal. That didn’t mean he was off the stuff-- he had put cocaine into them to distend them to normal. The puzzle was-- why? He wasn’t usually particular enough about his appearance to go to that trouble.” [Op.306]
The detective sees through people’s motives by quickly recognizing the clues they are giving off about what they are trying to accomplish. He is like a Goffman-inspired sociologist, who sees the impressions people are trying to convey and what effort they have to put into the performance. In The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy plays at being naive, nervous, helpless, overwhelmed; but Sam Spade is having none of it. “You’re not going to go around poking at the fire and straightening up the room again, are you?” [Novel.438]
The result is the detective always dominates the interaction. He sets the rhythm, and refuses to let the other side take charge. He listens when he is getting information, but when he is getting nowhere he quickly pulls the plug. He is a skilled practitioner of emotional domination, which micro-sociology characterizes as: taking the initiative, feeling confidence and energy, and imposes one’s timing on the other. * If possible, he pushes the other person into passively going along. If he meets stone-walled resistance, he writes off the encounter for another time. But in Hammett’s narratives, he almost always dominates: generally more verbally than physically. (The Op is a tough fighter, but Hammett realistically shows when he is overmatched and has to take a beating.)
* Research with audio and video recordings shows EDOM is based in the fractional micro-seconds of talking and bodily movements. [Collins 2004]
In this sense, his detective-characters are charismatic, in the small encounters of everyday life. Sam Spade is the most dominant of them, which is why he is the most famous hero/anti-hero.
Never trust first appearances: plot twists and final de-briefing scene
Hammett never rests with a single mystery pursued to its solution. His stories almost always feature an unexpected plot reversal. What the detective’s problem seems to be at first turns out to be covering up something else. And this is not just the conventional whodunnit shifting back and forth among suspects, but the very nature of the crime turns out to be different. A suicide appears to be blackmail but investigation opens a backlog of deceptions and murders; a kidnapping turns out to be a scam; a suspect confesses to a murder he didn’t commit, but that’s not the end of it.
A consequence is that the last part of every story has to give a retrospective explanation of what really happened. These de-briefing scenes tend to be artificial and anticlimactic. Often the captured crook will spill out all the details, even if he is on the way to the electric chair. Or the detective explains his solution to an interested audience. In the Thin Man films, this takes the form of gathering the dramatis personae together while the sleuth explains what everyone did. This concluding letdown is a price of the writer’s clever plot-twists. It would carry over to Raymond Chandler’s similarly constructed mysteries.
Hammett’s steps as a writer
Hammett broke into Black Mask in October 1923, and published a total of 9 stories, all featuring the Continental Op, over the next 9 months. Within another year he had published 6 more. Black Mask was a cheap-paper (“pulp”) magazine published as a pot-boiler by a respectable New York publishing house. Hammett got in on his credentials as an ex-Pinkerton detective, and the magazine played him up as a new kind of detective writer, and soon had him at the top of their stable. Through early 1926 (i.e. a period of two and a half years) he published a total of 21 stories; then his short story production declined, with only 7 more stories as his work in this genre petered out in 1930. Hammett wasn’t slowing down, but shifting to longer works, turning his detective tales into novels. In the transition period, he was publishing his novels in serialized form in Black Mask. “The Cleansing of Poisonville” was serialized in 4 installments over the winter of 1927-8, and published as a novel, Red Harvest, in 1929. Novels paid much better than stories (royalties instead of by-the-word), and generated more fame and critical recognition.
How does one turn short stories into novels? By making them longer, more complex, more characters, more plot twists. The early stories of 1923-4 were very condensed, averaging 6,000 words; then more than doubled to 14,000 words. Hammett also began to link stories together, carrying over into sequels with overlapping characters. An early story was bare-bones. The longer stories added more scenes, more wise-cracks, more clever word-portraits. * Hammett started with the laconic style from his Pinkerton shadowing reports, and built his trademark by expanding. He kept a careful balance; just enough additional wording, without losing the clipped, tight-lipped tone. Hammett was a meticulous rather than an inspired writer, honing his sentences and revising carefully. It was also an instance (perhaps rare enough) where good editors made useful criticism and suggestions. At least at the beginning, there was something of a team quality to Hammett’s creativity.
* We see the same thing a decade later when Raymond Chandler revised his short stories into novels: generally, combining several unrelated stories, and thereby making for a serpentine plot structure. Comparing the original stories with the later novel, we see Chandler revising his word-portraits and wise-cracks, always in the direction of making them longer.
Hammett also began to make his stories more exotic, even far-fetched and fantastic. His best work is known for its San Francisco atmosphere, but Hammett in the mid-1920s also had the Continental Op traveling to a fictional Balkan state to stave off a revolution; to a gambling house in Tijuana complete with an auto chase in the desert; an Arizona cowboy town where rival ranch-hands have a grudge fight and the Op has to prove he can ride a bucking bronco. He experiments with expanding his repertoire by veering into clichés might be considered trial-and-error learning. There are country mansions with plots hinging on rich invalids and inheritances. An especially far-fetched plot (“The Gutting of Couffignal”) involves an island off the California coast inhabited by rich people; a gang using military weapons cuts off the bridge to the mainland and loots the entire town, until the Op (who was called there to guard some pricey wedding presents) shows his own military prowess to overcome an armored car. The twist is that a former Russian general who lives on the island engineered the whole thing.
Even the San Francisco setting was turned fantastic in “The Big Knock-Over” . The Op notices that the city saloons are full of famous criminals from all over the country, and people are murdered for knowing what is going on. It turns out that a huge criminal coalition has been organized to close off the main downtown streets, with gunners at every corner keeping back the cops, while the biggest banks in the city are robbed. Everybody has minute instructions about their part in the operation, logistics, getaway cars and all. The Op can do nothing to stop it; but this is a long story (with a linked sequel), and it transpires that the ad hoc mega-gang has been double-crossed by a mastermind who made off with the loot, and this is where the Op makes his inroads. His word portraits have a workout giving distinguishing features to Itchy Maker, Bluepoint Vance, The Shivering Kid, Alphabet Shorty McCoy, Toby the Lugs et al., leaving the whole thing with the tone of caricature. Hammett’s on-the-job learning must have convinced him there was nothing more to do in this direction, since at this time he was beginning to write serialized novels that stayed closer to his forte as insider to the detective business.
The private eye parts company with the cops
The Continental Op was an organization man working in tandem with the police. Perhaps because some of the Op’s more fantastic adventures had him off on his own, without his usual organizational backup, Hammett began to imagine what he could do if they cops became one of the obstacles. The turning point is a late story, “The Main Death” [June 1927]. A women reports her husband was killed in a home robbery while holding a large amount of cash. The Op tracks the robbers and offers to let them get away without telling the police, if they give him all the money. They think he is shaking them down. But the Op knows there is no murder case against them, since the only person who could testify to the killing won’t do it. Why not? Because he made the wife admit that her husband commited suicide; she made up the story to keep the life insurance from being canceled. The Op is no longer the straight-laced company man; he is breaking its rules and its code of ethics, showing more human sympathy, and keeping his manuevers to himself. He is acquring depth as a character, and even showing some emotions on the job.
The Op’s career to this point has been almost completely sexless. He deals with plenty of women, all of whom he treats with disdain. His rich clients have wives much younger than themselves, beautiful and stylish women whom the Op tacitly regards as bimbos. The Op is impervious to them.
When his editor told him to introduce more sex appeal, Hammett wrote “The Girl with the Silver Eyes”  which has the following in a linked story: “A white face beneath a bobbed mass of red-colored hair. Smoke-gray eyes that were set too far apart for trustworthiness-- though not for beauty-- laughed at me, exposing the edges of little sharp animal-teeth. She was beautiful, as beautiful as the devil, and twice as dangerous... She laughed at me-- a fat man all trussed up with red plush rope, and with the corner of a green cushion in my mouth... Her smoke-gray eyes lost their merriment and became hard and calculating.” [Op.126] She goes through further disguises and plot twists, but the Op was wary from the outset.
Not until Sam Spade do we get a detective who has a sex life. Hammett makes him a lady-killer.
Culminating in The Maltese Falcon
All these trends come together in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett is back in his city of mystery and fog, San Francisco. He has a new detective, tall and handsome-- since there is going to be a sex-centered plot, the Continental Op had to be replaced. The word-portraits are longer and fancier, but their characters are worthy of it. The wise-cracks are no longer in these snippets, but delivered by Sam Spade himself. We no longer have a first-person narrative, and as you will recall, the attitudes of the laconic Op came through his sardonic tags in describing what people looked like. Now the detective’s major characteristic is to talk and act like a wise-guy. He pushes emotional dominance to a main feature of the plot. No one every pushed the Continental Op around, but Spade is a verbal aggressor, keeping his opponents off balance by cutting them off.
“The fat man bunched his lips, raised his eyebrows, and cocked his head a little to the left. “You see,” he said blandly, “I must tell you what I know, but you will not tell me what you know. That is hardly equitable, sir. No, no, I do not think we can do business along those lines.”
Spade’s face became pale and hard. He spoke rapidly in a low furious voice: “Think again and think fast. I told that punk of yours that you’d have to talk to me before you got through. I’ll tell you now that you’ll do your talking today or you are through. What are you wasting my time for? ... God damn you! Maybe you could have got along me if you’d kept clear of me. You can’t now. Not in San Francisco. You’ll come in or you’ll get out-- and you’ll do it today.’
He turned and with angry heedlessness tossed his glass at the table. The glass struck the wood, burst apart, and splashed its contents and glittering fragments over the table and floor...
The fat man said tolerantly: “Well, sir, I must say you have a most violent temper.”
“Temper?” Spade laughed crazily... He held out a long arm that ended in a thick forefinger pointing at the fat man’s belly. His angry voice filled the room. “Think it over and think like hell. You’ve got til five-thirty to do it in. Then you’re either in or out, for keeps.” [Novel.483-4]
Sam Spade is almost the opposite of an organization man. He still has a friend among the cops, Sergeant Tom Polhaus, who helps him from time to time, especially at the outset where he calls Spade to the scene of his partner’s murder. But the cops play another role in the drama, adding to the suspense. A thought-experiment: remove all the scenes where the cops interfere and what have we got left?
-- After Spade gets home from viewing the body, Polhaus and his boss, Lieutenant Dundy, pay a late-night call at his apartment. They inform him that Spade is himself a suspect of killing Thursby, the man who is believed to have killed Spade’s partner Miles Archer. This plot tension of Spade being charged with one murder or another continues to the end of the book.
-- Joel Cairo and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are starting to reveal their past connection and distrust at Spade’s apartment, when the cops arrive again, wanting to interrogate him about his affair with his dead partner’s wife. Spade blocks them from entering, but the noise of Cairo and Brigid fighting inside gives the cops reason to come in. Now they are suspicious of everybody, but Spade palms them off with a ridiculous story that they were only mocking the cops with a make-believe fight, and no one is preferring charges against anyone. The cops pick up Cairo anyway for a grilling, but Brigid comes even more under Spade’s protection as he tells the cops she is one of his operatives.
-- Spade talks to his sleazy lawyer/fixer and gets called in to the District Attorney’s office. The D.A. tells Spade he could be charged as an accomplice for concealing information about a murderer. The police think Thursby’s old enemies are involved because of his role in a welshed gambling debt. Spade gets angry and high-handed again; but he knows the cops are sniffing around the trail that would lead to Brigid who once was involved with Thursby in some caper in the Orient.
-- The final scene, in Spade’s apartment, after the black bird is delivered and turns out to be a fake. The fat man, Cairo and Wilmer all take it on the lam, and Spade calls the cops. Before they arrive, Spades tells Brigid, she had better come clean.
“Spade, face to face with her, very close to her, tall, big-boned and thick-muscled, coldly smiling, hard of jaw and eye, said: “They’ll talk when they’re nailed-- about us. We’re sitting on dynamite. Give me all of it-- fast. Gutman sent you and Cairo to Constantinople?” [Novel.575]
In the over-all plot structure, this is the inevitable debriefing scene, that always features at the end of a Hammett story explaining what really went on-- the back-story that has been covered up by the mystery the detective has been trying to solve. Mostly this de-briefing is an boring anticlimax. But not here: For one thing, there is a twist. Spade gets out of her the truth, that she was the one who killed Miles Archer. And Spade then counts all the reasons why, if he protects her from the police, she would have something on him that would hang over their relationship forever. He sums up:
“And eighth-- but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”
“You know,” she whispered, “whether you love me or not.”...
She put her face up to his face. Her mouth was slightly open with lips a little thrust out. She whispered: “If you loved me you’d need nothing more on that side.”
Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”
She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang. [Novel.582-3]
The film closes even better with a shot of Brigid going down in the elevator with the cops, the sliding grill closing like the bars of a cell.
Remove these scenes, and what remains? Spade with Wonderly/Brigid; Spade with the gunman Wilmer, and bits with Cairo; Spade with Gutman and eventually the whole gang. Hammett would have to contrive some other way of bringing out the back story, and conveying the tension that is driving Spade. This could be done, but most dramatic, confrontational scenes-- the most theatrical-- would be lost.
The Maltese Falcon has much less physical action, and very little on-stage violence, compared to Hammett’s stories and earlier novels. The scene-by-scene drama happens almost entirely in Spade’s verbal tussels over emotional domination. And it is a superior piece of dramatic writing for that. The Maltese Falcon has Hammett’s trademark plot twists. Initial appearances are deceptive; Miss Wonderly’s series of cover stories are quickly seen through. (“Oh, that,” said Spade lightly. “We didn’t exactly believe your story.” ... “We believed your two hundred dollars.”) [Novel.416] It takes a while to unravel that these people are connected together, that they are all looking or waiting for something, and so on.*
* The germ of the plot is in a 1926 story, “Creeping Siamese,” about a couple who had found a treasure of gems in Burma, doubled-crossed their partner when escaping across the Pacific to San Francisco, and then are threatened with murder when the old partner finally reappears. This is the back-story, which the Continental Op learns after investigating their initial cover story for hiring a detective for protection. Two years later Hammett started writing The Maltese Falcon.
The Op gets his twists of revelation by investigation: shadowing, checking records, having violent encounters along the way. The Maltese Falcon moves forward in another way: Sam Spade sits in his office, and someone comes in; a gunman follows him on the street or sits in a hotel lobby. This itself is a reversal: the shadow-methods of the Op and his organization now appear on the side of the enemy. In a sense, Spade cracks the case by happenstance. That is to say, Hammett is pulling the strings of the plot, rather than moving it by the actions of the energetic Op. This might seem contrived if we had a moment to stop and think; but the dramatic scenes are so good -- and the characters are so amusing (such as Cairo/Peter Lorre holding up Spade to search his office)-- that the pace carries us along without a let-up.
A serial, a novel, three film versions: at last a classic
Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon during fall 1928; serialized it in Black Mask during fall and winter 1929; published the novel in February 1930, to excellent sales and star reviews. By June, he had sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. But here the trail wanders off. He had already sold the movie rights to Red Harvest in 1929, and a not-very-good film was released by Warner Brothers in 1930 under the title Roadhouse Nights, which tells us something about the trouble Hollywood would have in figuring out how to present Hammett’s work. By May 1931, the first Maltese Falcon film was released, starring a gangster-type actor, Ricardo Cortez. It did not do well. There was enough interest in Hammett-- who had now become famous, and was doing script work in Hollywood-- to make a second version in 1936. It was now called Satan Met a Lady, and had A-list casting with Bettie Davis in the female lead. This too failed. But Hammett was in demand; his next novel, The Glass Key, was filmed in 1935, and again in 1942 (in a version that launched the careers of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, was released by MGM in 1934, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Hammett’s detective couple, Nick and Nora Charles. It was so popular that five Thin Man sequels followed from 1936 to 1947.
Someone in Warner Brothers finally figured out that Hammett’s best book could make a successful movie. The secret, it turns out, was to not screw around with revising and adapting it. The 1941 The Maltese Falcon follows the book almost exactly-- unusual for Hollywood. If you watch the film with the book in hand, you will see almost every line of dialogue is in the book. There are some cuts; some dialogue is shortened; a few scenes are omitted (mostly the undramatic ones, plus, as we shall see, all the explicit sex scenes). There are of course no word-portraits, but the characters are depicted on screen almost exactly as Hammett described them-- Gutman, Cairo, Wilmer, Brigid. The only exception is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. This seems ironic, since it was the movie that launched Bogart to stardom. The other candidate for Bogart’s best film, Casablanca, [1942, again Warner Brothers] was made on the heels of The Maltese Falcon and using it as a model.
A clue to why Satan Met a Lady was a flop, and the 1941 Maltese Falcon an instant classic, can be found in the opening lines of Hammett’s novel.
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-- from high flat temples-- to a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” [Novel.391]
Satan Met A Lady quite literally takes off from this word-portrait of Sam Spade. The role was given to Warren William, a tall, bony, aquiline actor who played in comedies and musicals. The problem is he is not at all a tough guy, and he plays Sam Spade as a comedy-romantic role, as a supercilious fop and a smiling clown, which is exactly what a Hammett detective hero is not. The physical byplay is close to slapstick, ruining even those spoken lines that come from Hammett. To make matters worse, the scene is shifted away from San Francisco; the black bird becomes Roland’s horn; the Fat Man becomes a matronly Fat Lady; Wilmer the diminutive gunman becomes a slovenly thug; the Peter Lorre part turns into a tall, broad-shouldered Englishman with an “I say, old chap” accent and an umbrella. Bettie Davis is sassy, pulls a gun on people, and makes a defiant speech when pseudo-Spade turns her over to the police. There is even a happy ending as ps.-Spade goes off with his dizzy-dame secretary.
This was Hollywood mix-and-match: since they didn’t want to repeat the 1931 film (which played it closer to the book), they changed as many thing as they could. Where Bogart is super-cool, Mary Astor is fragile/treacherous, Sydney Greenstreet the archetype of the upper-class epicurean, and Peter Lorre uniquely precious-and-sinister, the 1936 rendition manages to turn memorable characters and scenes pedestrian and silly.
Hollywood had some excuse for trying to play up the comedy/romantic side of Hammett. At that time, by far his most successful film was the Nick and Nora Charles combination in the Thin Man, already being remade over at MGM. The gentleman-detective Nick Charles is debonair, childishly playful especially when he is tipsy (a running joke in the films), always good-humored and never very tough, neither physically violent nor verbally contentious. Why not play it this way, and see if any of the William Powell/Myrna Loy halo might rub off on Warren William et al?
The Maltese Falcon was a transitional book for Hammett. If we compare the book (unchanged since 1929) to the 1941 film, we can see where the ambiguities were and how the film-makers created a sharper image by cuts.
Hammett was at a point in his career where he wanted to make his detective a more complicated and emotional character with a libido. Hammett went overboard making Spade emotional, mostly in the direction of being belligerent and angry. The film tones this down. Compare the endings of the scene quoted above, where Spade walks out on Gutman and slams the door. The novel:
“Spade rode down from Gutman’s floor in an elevator. His lips were dry and rough in a face otherwise pale and damp. When he took out his handkerchief to wipe his face he saw his hand trembling. He grinned at it and said, “Whew! so loudly that the elevator operator turned his head over his shoulder and asked: “Sir?” [Novel.488]
In the film, Bogart in the hotel corridor claps his hands and laughs. It had all been a performance to emotionally dominate his opponent. Bogart’s Spade is cool and self-controlled all the time. Hammett’s Spade is more realistic (people in violent confrontations usually have a hang-over period of feeling tense, until the adrenaline wears off), but this undermines his hero image.
Hammett’s Spade is also more brutal to Brigid. In the penultimate scene where the conspirators and Spade are waiting for the black bird to be delivered, Gutman gives Spade an envelope with ten $1000 bills. In the film, Spade counts the money again later and accuses Gutman of having palmed one of the bills. “Do you want to say so or do you want to stand for a frisk?” [Gutman:] “Stand for--?” [Spade:] “You’re going to admit it, or I’m going to search you. There’s no third way.” Gutman takes out a crumpled bill and says, “I must have my little joke every now and then.” These lines are both in the book [Novel.566] and the film. But what precedes this episode in the book has been cut from the film:
In the book, Gutman is the one who points out there are only nine $1000 bills in the envelope, and implies with a gesture that Brigid is the one who stole the missing $1000. Spade takes her into the bathroom and demands that she strip.
“She... whispered: “I did not take that bill, Sam.”
“I didn’t think you did,” he said, “but I’ve got to know. Take your clothes off.”
“Won’t you take my word for it?”
“No. Take your clothes off.”
“All right. We’ll go back in the other room and I’ll have them taken off.”
She stepped back with a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were round and horrified. “You would?” she asked through her fingers.
“I will,” he said. “I’ve got to know what happened to that bill and I’m not going to be held up by anybody’s maidenly modesty.”
“Oh, it isn’t that.” She came close to him and put her hands on his chest again. “I’m not ashamed to be naked before you, but-- can’t you see-- not like this. Can’t you see that if you make me you’ll-- you’ll be killing something?”
He did not raise his voice. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got to know what happened to that bill. Take them off.”
She looked at his unblinking yellow-grey eyes and her face became pink and then white again. She drew herself up tall and began to undress. He sat on the side of the bathtub watching her and the open door.... She removed her clothes swiftly, without fumbling, letting them fall on the floor around her feet. When she was naked she stepped back from her clothing and stood looking at him. In her mien was pride without defiance or embarrassment.
... He picked up each piece and examined it with fingers as well as eyes. He did not find the thousand-dollar bill. When he had finished he stood up holding her clothes out in his hands to her. “Thanks,” he said. “Now I know.” [Novel.565]
Also cut from the film was a segment from the earlier scene when Brigid remains in Spade’s apartment after Cairo and the police have gone. In the film, Spade interrogates her, and she admits to being a liar. Sam: “Was there any truth in that yarn?” Brigid: “Some. Not very much.” Sam: “We’ve got all night. I’ll make some more coffee and we’ll try again.”
What gets cut is what happens next in the book:
“She put her hands up to Spade’s cheeks, put her open mouth hard against his mouth, her body flat against his body. Spade’s arms were around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.” [Novel.467] END OF CHAPTER.
The next chapter begins with Spade waking up with both of them undressed in his bed. He leaves her sleeping, takes her key from her pocket, and goes out to search her apartment. He doesn’t find anything, but besides seeking information, his action (when he conceals from Brigid) has the effect that she finds out when she goes home that someone has broken into her apartment. This scares her into coming back to Spade’s office, where he arranges for her to stay somewhere else to be safe-- and where he can find her. The film leaves out the part where he makes a mess of her apartment, revealing Spade being both manipulative and possessive.
The film censors their having had sex. Also cut are the lines when Spade first visits Brigid’s apartment and she pleads for her help, now that she knows Joel Cairo is also looking for the black bird:
“I’ve thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I’m utterly lost. What else is there?” She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”
Their faces were inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.” [Novel.439]
Other sex scenes were also cut from the film. After Spade acquires the black bird from the dying sea captain, he gets a telephone call purporting to be from Brigid at Gutman’s hotel--in danger. When Spade arrives, neither Brigid nor the fat man is there, but his daughter is: “a small fair-haired girl in a shimmering yellow dressing gown” who appears to have been drugged:
“He caught her as she swayed. Her body arched back over his arm and her head droppped straight back so that her short fair hair hung down her scalp and her slender throat was a firm curve from chin to chest.
She twisted convulsively around in his arms and caught at one of his hands with both of hers. He pulled her hand away quickly and looked at it. Across its back was a thin red scratch an inch and a half or more in length.
“What the hell?” he growled and examined her hands. Her left hand was empty. In her right hand, when he forced it open, lay a three-inch jade-headed steel bouquet-pin. “What the hell?” he growled again and held the pin up in front of her eyes.
When she saw the pin she whimpered and opened her dressing gown. She pushed aside the cream-colored pajama-coat under it and showed him her body below her left breast-- white flesh criss-crossed with thin red lines, dotted with tiny red dots, where the pin had scratched and punctured it.” [Novel.533]
The girl regains consciousness enough to tell him she scratched her chest to keep awake long enough to deliver a message from Brigid when he arrived. This sends Spade on a wild-goose chase to the suburbs; and when he returns and calls the hotel, he finds that no one is in the Gutman suite; a doctor had been called about a sick girl but that must have been a practical joker. This bit of sado-pornography would have been ultra-taboo in a film during the Code era. Cutting it also tones down the impression the book gives that Spade is finding sexual titillation all over the place.
Also omitted in the portrayal of Joel Cairo as a homosexual. In the showdown scene waiting for the black bird, Spade convinces Gutman that they have to offer the police a fall guy to blame the murders on. They finally agree on Wilmer, who gets disarmed of his pistols and knocked out by Spade.
At this point we learn that Wilmer is a boy with long eyelashes. Cairo sits beside Wilmer, stroking and whispering to him:
“Cairo, still muttering in the boy’s ear, had put his arm around the boy’s shoulders again. Suddenly the boy pushed his arm away and turned on the sofa to face the Levantine. The boy’s face held disgust and anger. He made a fist of one small hand and struck Cairo’s mouth with it. Cairo cried out as a woman might have cried and drew back to the very end of the sofa. He took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and put it to his mouth. It came away dashed with blood. He put it to his mouth once more and looked reproachfully at the boy. The boy snarled, “Keep away from me,” and put his face between his hands again... Cairo’s cry had brought Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the door. Spade, grinning at her, jerked a thumb at the sofa and told her: “The course of true love.” [Novel.567-8]
Sexually, the plot revolves around a jealous triangle of three women. All three appear in the beginning and the conclusion, like bookends. First of all we meet Effie, Spade’s secretary. She is described as “a lanky sunburned girl” and we are constantly reminded that her face is boyish. Effie is plainly in love with Sam, who casually calls her “darling” and “angel” and relies on her to man the office through any emergency and do a little sleuthing of her own. Effie is really his office wife. She sits on his desk, rolls his hand-made cigarettes for him. “She licked it, smoothed it, twisted its ends, and placed it betwen Spade’s lips. He said, “Thanks, honey,” put an arm around her slim waist and rested his cheek wearily against her hip, shutting her eyes.” [Novel.411] The very first page, Effie ushers in Miss Wonderly, with the words: “You’ll want to see her anyway. She’s a knockout.”
Effie knows where she stands in Spade’s affections. She isn’t jealous of Wonderly/ O’Shaughnessy, obviously out of her league. Who she doesn’t like is Iva, Miles Archer’s wife, who pushes herself on Spade whenever she has the opportunity. The first thing Spade does after he sees Archer’s dead body is to phone Effie, to break the news to Iva and keep her away from him. Iva is always bursting in, and in fact she admits to calling the police and telling them to go to Spade’s apartment after she sees him enter the building with Brigid. This is how Iva and Sam get along:
“She was a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes. They had an impromptu air... Iva came quickly to him, raising her sad face for his kiss. Her arms were around him before his held her, When they had kissed he made a little movement as if to release her, but she pressed her face to his chest and began sobbing. He stroked her round back, saying “Poor darling.” His voice was tender. His eyes, squinting at the desk that had been his partner’s, across the room from his own, were angry. He drew his lips back over his teeth in an impatient grimace and turned his chin aside to avoid contact with the crown of her hat.” [Novel.409]
But Brigid O’Shaughnessy has the center of attention whenever she appears, and becomes Spade’s obsession (both professionally and otherwise) for the bulk of the story. For Spade, Iva is an unwelcome intrusion; and Effie is his principal ally on this front.
This is Brigid’s entrance:
“A voice said, “Thank you,” so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and a young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes... White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.” [Novel.391]
In the jealous triangle, Effie hates Iva, Iva hates Brigid, and Brigid is oblivious to the other two. Effie’s attitude towards Brigid is unexpected, but at least it balances: a negative of a negative is a positive. And Effie is so loyal to Sam that she roots for him in his love affairs too. This sets up a surprise conclusion-- which is definitely not in the film.
The film, as we know, ends with Brigid descending in the elevator cell on her way to the gallows. The book adds one more brief scene. It is Monday morning, and Effie if reading the newspaper when Spade arrives.
“Is that-- what the papers have-- right?” she asked...
Her girl’s brown eyes were peculiarly enlarged and there was a queer twist to her mouth. She stood beside him, staring down at him.
He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intution.”
Her voice was a queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”
...He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.
She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know-- I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now-- not now.”
Spade’s face became as pale as his collar.
The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went to the outer office, shutting the door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her.
She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”
Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he said and shivered. “Well, show her in.” [Novel.584-5]
Full circle: on the first page of the book, after Effie announces Miss Wonderly, Spade said: “Shoo her in, darling. Shoo her in.” [Novel.391]
Yes, the book is more complicated than the film. More morally complicated too. But that is too much for a movie. There were a number of strategic cuts in the climactic scene between Spade and Brigid. In the book, Spade keeps harping on his strategic concern that there has to be a fall guy, somebody to pin the murders on to satisfy the police. If he’s still worried about the cops suspecting him (an aspect that is much more prominent throughout the book than the movie), he is ready to sacrifice Brigid as the fall guy. He conveys a contagious sense of fear:
“He looked at the watch on his wrist. “The police will be blowing in any minute now and we’re sitting on dynamite. Talk!”
“She put the back of a hand to her forehead. “Oh, why do you accuse me of such a terrible--?”
“Will you stop it?” he demanded in a low impatient voice. “This isn’t the spot for the schoolgirl act. Listen to me. The pair of us are sitting under the gallows.”
Well, not really the pair of them; mainly her. But Spade engages in both moral and physical intimidation: “He took hold of her wrists and made her stand up straight in front of him. “Talk!” [Novel.577]
More cut lines: “You came into my bed to stop me asking questions.”
... She put a hand on his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t help me me then,” she whispered, “but don’t hurt me. Let me go away now.”
“No,” he said. “I’m sunk if I haven’t got you to hand over to the police when they come. That’s the only thing that can keep me from going down with the others.”
“You won’t do that for me?”
“I won’t play the sap for you.” [Novel.580-1]
Only the last line was retained.
The film ending is shorter, cleaner, and more of a romantic tragedy. The limitations of the film medium took Hammett’s overly-ambitious, or not quite manageable piece of complexity, and turned in into an all-time classic.
Hammett’s career arc: frenzied work pace, projects in all directions, declining creativity
Writing The Maltese Falcon in 1928 was the apex of Hammett’s writing career. He had been working at the craft for 5 years and was 34 years old. Before that he had a 5-year stint with the Pinkertons. He started working even earlier, from age 14 as office boy, newspaper hawker, dock worker, and salesman for his father’s failing businesses in Baltimore. His downwardly mobile family was like Dickens’ father being sent to debtors’ prison and the boy to a child-labor factory, giving the unexpected advantage of knowing much more about the underside of the world than merely school-trained authors.
For 4 years, Hammett wrote stories. As he made them longer and more complicated, he began experimenting with novels. Already in 1925 he started one called “The Secret Emperor” which sounds like one of his exotic-locale adventures. By mid-1927 he was making the transition to novels. Things would grow increasingly hectic.
Overlaps: Red Harvest; The Dain Curse; Maltese Falcon
After serializing The Cleansing of Poisonville over the winter of 1927-28, Hammett began working with a literary publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in February 1928, to turn it into a novel. Blanche Knopf, the publisher’s wife, worked closely with the manuscript during the spring, toning down the violence. At the same time, he was working on another series of linked stories, The Dain Curse, which he completed in June. By December, he had completed his third major project of the year, The Maltese Falcon.
The books are all different. Red Harvest is the most violent of Hammett’s works, set in a mining town, where the Op goes far beyond his instructions in breaking the law.
The Dain Curse is a classic San Francisco locale, about a mystical Oriental cult in a labyrinthine building, where spoiled rich youth and trophy wives see occult visions which are really caused by drugs piped into their rooms through ventilation pipes, giving Hammett the opportunity to describe the sensations of drug experience. This remains a typical Op story.
The Maltese Falcon is where Hammett abandons the Op as a lead character for someone both angry and sexy.
The three novels (published in February 1929, July 1929, and February 1930) sold increasingly well, with favorable reviews. By the time The Maltese Falcon came out, Hammett was famous. Movie rights to all three were sold almost immediately.
Overlaps: The Glass Key, The Thin Man, Hollywood and New York
Just before fame hit, Hammett was working on another novel, The Glass Key, which he began in fall 1929 and finished in 1930. Published in 1931, it too had good reviews and sales, and movies rights were quickly signed. Meanwhile Hammett moved to Hollywood. He contracted in early 1931 to write a second Sam Spade film, but his script was rejected. In the summer, he turned to another project, and wrote 65 pages of a novel called The Thin Man, but put the project aside when he moved to New York. By fall 1932, he was working on a new version of The Thin Man, which he finished in May 1933. The book was published in January 1934; MGM had already snapped it up and brought out the film in June, to tremendous success.
Thematically, his work is now all over the map. The Glass Key is about an Eastern city resembling Baltimore, run by a political boss who shakes down contributors for campaign funds, rakes off city contracts, and protects Prohibition-era speakeasies and gambling houses. The plot is the boss decides to back a Reform candidate, because he falls in love with his beautiful daughter. The boss also finds out his own daughter is shacking up with the reformer’s playboy son, and soon afterwards the boy’s corpse is found on the street. All this is seen through the eyes of a political fixer, Ned Beaumont, who tells the boss he is making a big mistake in upsetting a well-functioning racket. Bereft of police protection, gangsters push back, and threaten to pin the boy’s murder on the boss, using publicity from a newspaper that is in hock to the mob. Beaumont isn’t a detective nor a very heroic or ethical person, but he does risk his life while pretending to go in with the gangsters, to find out who is leaking information about the killing. There are some mystery-like twists and surprises in the story, and Beaumont ends up with the girl.
The Glass Key is an offshoot of the Maltese Falcon manner, but even more cynical, except for the romantic ending. But there are no memorably grotesque or exotic characters, no astounding confrontation scenes, and no one is very sympathetic. It did OK as a book and a movie, but Hammett may well have felt there was nothing more for him to do in that direction-- especially since it was looking backwards towards his distant past. But now he was partying with the rich and famous in Hollywood and New York. One can conjecture that Nick Charles is himself, surrounded by reporters wherever he goes, drinking merrily, tossing off urbane remarks to admirers, retired from detective work but still solving (fictional) murders on the side.
Too many distractions: fame, drinking, partying, sex, politics
The Thin Man series of films had a life of its own. Hammett was periodically in Hollywood, working on the sequels, but he was becoming increasingly unreliable, and most of what got filmed was by other writers. Hammett was no longer getting new work done. He failed to deliver a promised new novel to Knopf in 1936; crapped out on another novel contract in 1938, and again in 1939. The titles: “My Brother Felix” and “There Was a Young Man” seem to be off in new directions from anything he had done before;* Hammett had been a meticulous writer, and he probably felt they just weren’t up to the mark. His movie treatments were often tardy and his contracts suspended, his scenarios for Thin Man sequels rejected. In 1939, MGM canceled his writing contract.
* especially compared to his snappy early titles: “Crooked Souls,” “Slippery Fingers,” “Bodies Piled Up,” , “Zigzags of Treachery,” , “The Scorched Face,” “Corkscrew” .
Hammett would to live to 1961, dying at age 66. But his creativity had long since petered out. What happened? Some of it was sheer distraction. By the time he became famous in 1930, he was surrounded by other literary stars. He drank heavily at an endless round of parties on both coasts. He had affairs with numerous women-- among them on-the-make playwright Lillian Hellman, whose plays Hammett revised and collaborated on. He became involved in politics, signing petitions and appearing at Writers Congresses and anti-Fascist rallies in the 1930s, elected president of the League of American Writers, and active in Communist-front organizations.
It would be too easy to say this was just another writer who drank too much. He was pulled in too many directions. His main-- if not too reliable-- source of income was movie treatments for the Thin Man series and whatever else he could convince his admirers to float; but this would have pulled his head in conflicting directions: Nick and Nora were candyland, where nothing very bad or very realistic ever intrudes (even the police don’t threaten to impede their investigations; the criminals are old friends of Nick, who brag about the times he sent them up the river; and their city, at least, has no hint of corruption). This must have grated with his episodic attempts at popularizing Sam Spade (as a radio show, as a comic strip, etc.). And his left-wing political activities must have made his literary and film work seem hypocritical, and vice versa.
Good writing, especially of any great length, requires sustained concentration, a prerequisite for getting the flow that is the personal experience of creativity. Hammett in 1928 and 1929 could devote himself for 3 months at a time to turning out a book. Later he no longer had the uninterrupted time, the energy, or the focus. His five novels are increasingly different from each other. The first two were in a groove, a natural trajectory of his Continental Op materials.* The Maltese Falcon combines hard-boiled with real-life ambiguity about sex and love. The Glass Key drops the exotic facade to reveal ordinary dirty politics. The Thin Man turns the detective genre into pure sugar. Unable to start a new trajectory, and unable to continue with the old ones, Hammett was paralyzed as a creative writer.
* The Dain Curse expands a 1925 story, “The Scorched Face,” about rich young women in a drug cult, which blackmails them with photos taken during their orgies. The blackmail/ pornography idea here became the hook for Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.
Raymond Chandler occupies the Sam Spade niche
But the development was not lost. Hammett’s best techniques were picked up by Raymond Chandler.
Chandler was 6 years older than Hammett (born in 1888 rather than 1894), but he got a later start as a writer. Chandler grew up mostly in England, saw combat in World War I, and worked in Los Angeles in the 1920s as bookeeper, financial auditor, and executive for an oil company. The discovery of oil in Southern California set off a boom of companies drilling wells, a fever of investment and their scandals; Chandler launched his upward career in the company by uncovering embezzlement. By 1930, when Chandler was fired for heavy drinking, he had seen a lot of life in America’s fastest growing city and its revolution in social manners.
Looking around for a way to make a living, Chandler decided on writing. He schooled himself for what would sell. He started studying pulp magazines in 1930, and published his first story in 1933-- also in Black Mask. With his conservative English education, he decided to learn American English as if it were a foreign language. That meant especially its idioms and its slang-- no longer just part of the underworld, but percolating upwards in the American cultural democracy.
Chandler came into detective writing at just the time Hammett stopped. Chandler followed the same early path: short stories, then combining and expanding them into full-length novels. The first was The Big Sleep (1939) when Chandler was 51 years old. Biological age is less important for a writer than experience learning the craft. It took 6 years for Chandler to publish his first novel, the same as Hammett.
Chandler copied the Hammett brand. A hard-boiled detective inured to violence. This is Sam Spade resurrected, with no trace of the old organizational Op. Skilled at sizing up a situation from micro-observations, and a sardonic way of dominating people or at least holding them at bay.
The swift-moving plot, with minimal prose distractions. Vivid word-portraits, enlivened by wise-cracks. Short, punchy titles: Farewell, My Lovely; Trouble is My Business; The High Window; Killer in the Rain.
Plots that twist far from their starting place when a client visits Philip Marlowe’s office-- whether it be a femme fatale, a squeamish female hick from the Midwest, or a moose-sized ex-con. And Chandler has Hammett’s structural weakness, the final reckoning in a scene where the detective has to explain who did what and who killed who and why. (Some of Chandler’s plots are so full of surprising episodes that experts say there are still ends left dangling.)
Cops sticking their nose in, threatening Marlowe, putting him through the third degree and into a holding cell. Fighting through this is a much bigger deal in Chandler than in Hammett, and it underlines a bitterness in his lone-wolf character.
And there is a lot more sex. There are underworld molls now married to millionaires, rich daughters who do drugs, run up gambling debts at illegal casinos, and pose for pornographic pictures. There is more of a good girl/ bad girl contrast, with Marlowe being more of a romantic than Spade; he likes the tough good-girls who venture out into the underworld with him, flirty but self-possessed.
And more corruption. Here Chandler follows the lead of The Glass Key. It is taken for granted that the D.A. does everything with an eye for elections, that the police take payoffs to protect illegal gambling and drugs. Chandler particularly has it in for medical doctors. They run fake clinics that are really fronts for drug-peddling; Marlowe is drugged out and locked up in one of them in Murder, My Sweet. When he goes out checking lists of doctors in search of a lead, he finds doctors who get through the day on doses of heroin, and others who are ready to commit or cover up murder. The whole world is corrupt. And this gives a particular tone to his classic locale, Los Angeles in the 30s and 40s. It is la-la-land, sun-drenched casualness replacing formal clothes, formal manners, and old-fashioned ethics.
Chandler’s writing career stayed on track where Hammett’s spun apart, by sticking to the techniques and settings that worked. He goes on writing novels and stories, at a slow, meticulous pace, through the 1940s and 1950s, a total of 7 novels in 20 years. He has no burn-out, no diffusion of his energies, no confusion about what kind of book he wants to write next.
He even survives Hollywood. Many of the top writers of the time were employed as script writers: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler. Most of these accomplished nothing-- even when they were adapting their own novels, the resulting film was worse or better than the original irrespective of their input. The exception is Chandler. He too hated the work regimen, writing regular hours on the studio lot, aware that everything could be changed by a director, and other writers could rewrite the script, sometimes multiple times. Yet Chandler wrote one of the greatest film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), about a crooked insurance salesman and his boss, the claims investigator (i.e. detective) who sees through everything. A conniving blonde is the bad seed, but the real drama is between the two men, almost an office married couple, building facades and tearing them down across an office desk. In the final scene, when a dying Fred MacMurray tells Edward G. Robinson, “I love you too”, it is reminiscent of the scene where Sam Spade says to his loyal secretary, “You’re a good man, sister.” Heart-breaking moments in the sea of hardboiled operatives.
“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon
Dashiell Hammett. 2017. The Big Book of the Continental Op. Vintage Crime. [page references to this volume thus: Op.xxx]
Dashiell Hammett. 1999. Hammett: Complete Novels. The Library of America. [page references to this volume thus: Novel.xxx]
Raymond Chandler. 1950. Trouble is My Business. (short story collection)
Nathan Ward. 2015. The Lost Detective. Becoming Dashiell Hammett. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Tom Williams. 2012. A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler. Chicago Review Press.
Randall Collins. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton Univ. Press.