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The year: 1941.
The place: San Francisco.
You're walking down Fillmore Street and pass by the Clay Theatre. Something catches the corner of your eye. It's a poster of a man staring directly at you, pointing a loaded gun right in your face. There's also a beautiful redhead dressed seductively in a crimson gown. Below, you read the caption:
"HE'S A KILLER WHEN HE HATES!"
Your interest is piqued, but you keep walking. A few seconds later, something else grabs your attention. It's another poster of the same man. But this time he's carrying two guns, and the caption says:
"A STORY AS EXPLOSIVE AS HIS BLAZING AUTOMATICS"
This time you can't ignore it. "Who is this guy?" you think to yourself, "A cold-blooded murderer? Someone seeking revenge?" You turn back around and walk inside the Clay Theatre. "One for The Maltese Falcon, please," you tell the woman at the booth. You pocket your ticket stub, find an empty seat in the center row, and settle down to spend the next two hours with the gun-toting mystery man and his red-hot dame.
The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 film featuring Sam Spade, a gritty, hardboiled detective hired by the beautiful Brigid O'Shaughnessy to solve the mystery of the priceless statuette of the Maltese falcon. (Want to see the movie posters for yourself? Check them out here and here.) During his search for the ancient relic, Spade has to contend with the cunning Casper Gutman, the slimy Joel Cairo, and the thuggish young Wilmer, all while sorting through Brigid's dangerous web of lies.
The film was an instant hit (it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture) and became a major example of film noir. Film noir, which is French for "black film," is a genre known for its dark subject matter (think guns and violence), dark cast of characters (from corrupt policemen to illegal bootleggers to gun-toting murderers), and dark cinematography (scenes were literally shot at night with little to no lighting. Flashlight, anyone?).
But before The Maltese Falcon became a famous Hollywood classic, it was an equally famous novel written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929. Hammett based many of his novels on his experiences working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1922. The Pinkertons were the largest private law enforcement agency in America during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. A get-up-and-go kind of guy, Hammett hated sitting behind a desk, so working for the Pinkertons was his ideal job because he had the freedom to travel while also building his skills as a detective and, later, as a writer. Since Hammett was a real-life private eye, his fiction has a distinct feeling of authenticity since his stories were inspired by incidents he himself experienced as a detective. That means that, lucky for us, we're getting the story straight from the horse's mouth.
The Maltese Falcon was first serialized in the Black Mask at the end of the decade known as the "Roaring Twenties," a period of prosperity cut short by the stock market crash in October 1929. Looking for cheap forms of entertainment, readers turned to pulp magazines like Black Mask, and Hammett's tell-it-like-it-is writing style appealed to a country that was struggling through the grim realities of the Great Depression. Hammett exposed the corruption that lurked in every dark corner, and his novels portray a cynical world where the good guy doesn't always get what he wants. Even today, we can still appreciate Hammett's no-nonsense, honest perspective on how life isn't always as fair as we hope it to be. Hammett tells his stories with the sense of a guy who's been there and isn't pussy-footing around.
In short, he keeps it dirty and real. So what's not to love? Get reading.
Despite the high entertainment value of The Maltese Falcon, it isn't just a suspenseful page-turner without any substance. It also tackles The Big Questions. Questions like how to deal with the unpredictability of death. Or what the right thing to do is in a really sticky, complicated situation. Or whether to remain loyal to your best friend if it involves risking your own neck.
Sam Spade is a far cry from the Sherlock Holmes type of detective who never makes any mistakes and always gets the better of the bad guy. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Spade is having an affair with the wife of his partner, Miles Archer. Yes, that's right, Spade is sleeping with his friend's wife behind his back and lying about it. This scenario sounds a bit like high school, doesn't it? We've all heard those rumors about how so-and-so's boyfriend is secretly cheating on her with her best friend. High school can be a treacherous, backstabbing place. Sometimes we make mistakes we regret. Sometimes we develop thick skins to protect ourselves. And sometimes the only way to make it out alive is to put on an act to avoid raising eyebrows.
But how could San Francisco in the 1930s have anything in common with modern-day high school? Spade may not be going to class every day, but he does have to deal with the same kinds of rumors and lying that every teenager faces at school. So Spade puts on a front to get through the day and makes his fair share of mistakes along the way.
All this to say that Spade is far from perfect. He's human, with the same flaws as any normal person. He's someone we can relate to because we've all been in those tough positions when we need to decide if telling a white lie is the same as lying. Hammett doesn't shy away from asking hard questions. And he doesn't give us an easy answer. The Maltese Falcon presents an immoral world, where honest men and women are few and far between, and even the motives of our supposed hero Sam Spade are murky at best.
891 Post Street #401, San Francisco, CA
This is the address billed as both the home of Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, and the building is still standing today. Up for a visit?
Touring The Maltese Falcon
Did you know that you can visit the actual setting of The Maltese Falcon? In a small alleyway called Burritt Street, there's even a plaque that reads: "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy." So next time you're in San Francisco, book a tour
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
This early film adaptation of the novel stars Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and contains certain "pre-code" aspects since it was released before the Hays Code was enforced in 1934. The Hays Code was a set of moral censorship guidelines that the film industry was required to follow, until the code was finally abandoned in 1968.
When Satan Met a Lady (1936)
This second film adaptation of the novel was released during the period of the Hays Code, so it has a much lighter, comedic tone. Sam Spade's name is changed to Ted Shane, who is played by Warren William. And a very young Bette Davis gets her feet wet as the dangerous femme-fatale Valerie Purvis.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Yes, there were three adaptations of Hammett's novel made within the span of ten years, we told you it was a popular book. The 1941 version is by far the most well-known and most successful. Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade is spot-on, and the ground-breaking cinematography of Arthur Edeson makes the film a visual masterpiece. What are you waiting for? Put this one at the top of your Netflix queue STAT.
Interview with Dashiell Himself
If you can manage to zoom-in close enough to read, the article, "House Burglary Poor Trade," features an interview with Dashiell Hammett, who talks about sleuthing and the impact it had on his writing.
Honoring Dashiell Hammett
January Magazine celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon in this article on Hammett's influence on the genre of hardboiled detective fiction.
Dashiell Hammett's Legacy
The San Francisco Chronicle reflects on Hammett's legacy in this in-depth look into not only his writing, but also his rough, wild, and edgy lifestyle.
About Dashiell's Background
Here's some handy dandy background info about Hammett that also serves as the basis for a PBS episodes on Hammett in the "American Masters" series.
Trailer for the 1941 adaption of The Maltese Falcon "
"He makes crime a career—and ladies a hobby!" Need we say more?
The Fall Guy
Check out this film clip from the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. The acting might seem a bit outdated, but the dialogue is straight out of the novel itself!
Satan Met a Lady Trailer
In this adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, the spotlight is on the dangerous femme-fatale played by Bette Davis. Our favorite Bette Davis line: "Would you mind taking off your hat in the presence of a lady… with a gun."
The Big Read Talks About the Black Bird
Want to know even more Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon? Well, look no further than this audio guide which features interviews with really cool people, like Joe Gores, a former San Francisco private investigator, and Julie Rivett, the granddaughter of Hammett himself.
Tune in to Old Radio World's series of shows based on Sam Spade.
NPR's take on The Maltese Falcon
Listen in as NPR discusses the impact that The Maltese Falcon still has 75 years after its publication.
Check out this rather risqué (at last for back then) poster of the 1931 adaptation feature a scantily-clad Brigid in bed pointing a gun right at Sam Spade.
We can't tell who has the upper hand in this 1931 poster… Brigid or Sam?
Check out the cool contrasting colors in these two movie posters of Satan Met A Lady. Here's the first one.
And here's the second.
Okay, last one, we promise. For this 1941 movie poster, Brigid is wearing a sexy red dress that would make every head in the room turn.