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Literature / The Maltese Falcon

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"He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove... But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."
Sam Spade

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett's third novel, introduced the world to prototypical private eye Sam Spade, and is perhaps his single most famous work, though many people know it only via the 1941 film version starring Humphrey Bogart, which is one of the defining examples of Film Noir.

The story concerns a private detective's dealings with three unscrupulous adventurers who compete to obtain a fabulous jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon.

The novel was adapted for film twice before the famous 1941 version. A pre-Hays Code version, also titled The Maltese Falcon, was released in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez. It was far less ambiguous about Joel Cairo than the later films. It also suffered from a decidedly Out of Character portrayal of Sam Spade as The Dandy. The novel was adapted again in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady; this version also changed Sam Spade's name, to "Ted Shane", and featured Bette Davis in the femme fatale role.

The Maltese Falcon provides examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The book has a scene that wasn't translated to any movie adaptation, where Spade talks to Brigid O'Shaughnessy about The Flitcraft Parable (see Let Me Tell You a Story) just before Cairo and Gutman arrive with the bird. This seemingly pointless tale (the plot stops for several pages, and the story is never referred to again) could be interpreted at Sam's attempt to convince O'Shaughnessy of the pointlessness of her own task: Once the four will get the bird, her Chronic Backstabbing Disorder means O'Shaughnessy will betray everyone to get the bird to herself. Or a statement of Spade's philosophy, or an offer to Let Off by the Detective See Twenty Writers: Dashiell Hammett, The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)
  • Anti-Hero: Sam Spade
  • Censor Decoy: Hammett calls gunman Wilmer Cook "that gunsel," assuming his editors wouldn't know the other meaning of the word. They didn't.
  • The Chessmaster: The plot features two opposing chessmasters who manipulate Sam Spade and an entire cast of minor characters in order to obtain the Maltese Falcon for themselves. Spade himself is this to some degree, as well.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: every character lies, distrusts, double-crosses and cheats each other at every opportunity
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Sam Spade, despite owning several.
  • Femme Fatale / The Vamp: Brigid O'Shaughnessy
  • Frame-Up: This is ultimately revealed to have been Brigid's motive for killing Archer. Her hope was to frame Thursby so that the SFPD would take him into custody. With Thursby out of the way, she could then pick up the Falcon from Captain Jacobi once the Paloma arrives and then blow town. The plan ultimately fails, however, because Thursby winds up getting shot hours after she kills Archer. Brigid correctly concludes this means Gutman has tracked her to San Francisco, upsetting all her plans.
  • Friend on the Force: Sam Spade is friends with detective Tom Polhaus. His relationship with Lieutenant Dundy is much more antagonistic.
  • Gayngster: The baddies, Joel Cairo in particular.
  • Gem-Encrusted: The eponymous Macguffin is a gem-covered statue of a falcon that was later covered with black enamel to hide its value.
  • Girl Friday: Effie Perrine, Spade's assistant
  • Harbinger of Impending Doom / I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: The shot and badly wounded Captain Jacobi manages to stumble into Sam Spade's office and press the MacGuffin into Sam's hands before expiring on the office floor. Trouble quickly follows.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Sam Spade
  • Idiot Ball: A plot point. This is how Spade deduces Thursby didn't lure Archer into that alley and shoot him. Archer had his faults, but Spade also knows his partner had too many years of experience as a Detective to fall for such an obvious trap; he was dumb, but not that dumb. But, he would've grabbed the Idiot Ball with someone he trusted or was sexually interested in — someone like Brigid.
  • Inspector Javert: Lieutenant Dundy. His enmity with Spade and attempts to arrest him for any part in the events of the story are a Running Gag (and one of Spade's demands when he is giving the Falcon to Gutman is that the latter provides a fall guy, otherwise Dundy will just keep hounding Spade).
  • Let Me Tell You a Story: The Flitcraft Parable, about Flitcraft, a married salesman who once disappeared from his old town, and years later his wife discovered that he was living in another city with another name and a new family. Flitcraft's old wife hired Sam to discover what happened to him and to avoid a scandal. Spade narrates how Flitcraft was a normal man who once had a nearly fatal accident with a falling beam, and then he realized life is random, We Are as Mayflies and he had to Became Their Own Antithesis to live his new life. What Flitcraft never realized, and Spade immediately noticed, is that he never did that - or at least, went back. Flitcraft eventually moved to a city very similar to his old city, got a new job doing exactly the same and got a new family very much like his old, and he sincerely never realized he was living an Ignored Epiphany. That story is often like "The Grand Inquisitor" or "Before the Law" exported from this book and printed separately.
    "...He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."
  • MacGuffin: The Falcon is one of the most iconic examples in popular culture; the entire plot is driven by characters trying to get it, and in the end it turns out to be either completely worthless, or a MockGuffin.
  • Meaningful Name: Gutman is very fat.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter:
    The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second 'you.'
  • Red Right Hand: Gutman's morbid obesity, making him physically disgusting. The narrator can barely go a paragraph without describing the movements of his fat.
  • Sassy Secretary: Effie Perrine
  • Slipping a Mickey: Used on Sam Spade.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Sam Spade is constantly rolling cigarettes, often using it as a means of exacerbating a pregnant pause. Hammett describes Sam's actions in such loving detail that the books doubles as a classic murder mystery and an instruction manual for hand-rolling cigarettes.
  • Stolen MacGuffin Reveal: This is one of the interpretations. The other is that the Falcon was a MockGuffin since the very beginning. Notice that Gutman, Cairo and O'Shaugenessy immediately bought the first version, such is the power of the falcon over them.
  • Terrible Trio: Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Wilmer Cook seem to be a more-competent-than-usual version of this team.

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.... I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing.