Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Greed

By Dashiell Hammett


"We believed your two hundred dollars."

"You mean –?" She seemed to not know what he meant.

"I mean you paid us more than if you'd been telling the truth," he explained blandly, "and enough more to make it all right." (4.11)

In Maltese Falcon, most of the characters are motivated by monetary greed, and Spade is no exception. Even though he didn't believe Brigid's story about her missing sister, she paid him enough to keep him quiet. Money talks a lot in this novel.

"Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken" (6.31)

Sam Spade knows that money will get you pretty much anywhere in the world. If you have enough of it, you can buy loyalty, silence, you name it.

"Have you any conception of the extreme, the immeasurable, wealth of the Order at that time?"
"If I remember," Spade said, "they were pretty well fixed."

Gutman smiled indulgently. "Pretty well, sir, is putting it mildly." His whisper became lower and more purring. "They were rolling in wealth, sir. You've no idea. None of us has any idea. For years they had prey on the Saracens, had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivories—the cream of the cream of the East. That is history, sir. We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot." (13.21)

When Gutman narrates the history of the Maltese falcon to Spade, we learn that it is a story of human greed and the ruthless amassing of immeasurable wealth. The Order is described as "rolling in wealth" from all the loot they accumulated during the Holy Wars. This statuette of the Maltese falcon arose out of this history of plundered treasure, and becomes the ultimate symbol of greed.

"One of them [the Carlists] must have brought it [the falcon] with him, but, whoever he was, it's likely he knew nothing about its real value. It had been—no doubt as a precaution during the Carlist trouble in Spain—painted or enameled over to look like nothing more than a fairly interesting black statuette. And in that disguise, sir, it was, you might say, kicked around Paris for seventy years by private owners and dealers too stupid to see what it was under the skin." (13.30)

In Gutman's narrative of the Maltese falcon, we find out that over the centuries, the jewel-encrusted golden bird acquired a layer of black enamel to hide its real value. How is this disguise linked to the theme of lies and deceit? The falcon is a symbol of wealth, but the fact that it becomes disguised is not unlike all the disguises that the different characters put on throughout the novel.

"Charilaos was in no hurry to convert his find into money at once. He knew that—enormous as its intrinsic value was—a far higher, a terrific, price could be obtained for it once its authenticity was established beyond doubt." (13.32)

We see that throughout history, greed has ruled kings and paupers alike. In Paris in 1911, the Greek dealer Chariloas Konstantinides uncovered the real value of the black bird. But instead of rushing out to sell it to the highest bidder, he knew that if he were patient, he could fetch an even better price. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single character in Maltese Falcon who isn't after monetary gain.

"Then the bird doesn't belong to any of you?" Spade asked, "but to a General Kemidov?"

"Belong?" the fat man said jovially. "Well, sir, you might say it belonged to the King of Spain, but I don't see how you can honestly grant anybody else clear title to it—except by right of possession." He clucked. "As article of that value that has passed from hand to hand by such means is clearly the property of whoever can get hold of it." (13.37)

Gutman makes an interesting point here about ownership. He believes that the falcon doesn't really "belong" to anyone, except maybe the King of Spain. Gutman argues that the bird belongs to whoever has it in his possession. Finder's keepers.

Spade asked: "What's your idea of a fair bargain?"

Gutman held his glass up to the light, looked affectionately at it, took another long drink, and said: "I have two proposals to make, sir, and either is fair. Take your choice. I will give you twenty-five thousand dollars when you deliver the falcon to me, and another twenty-five thousand as soon as I get to New York; or I will give you one quarter—twenty-five per cent—of what I realize on the falcon. There you are sir: an almost immediate fifty thousand dollars or a vastly greater sum within, say, a couple of months." (13.59)

Gutman is loaded. With money, that is. He's so desperate to get the falcon in his hands that he just offered Spade fifty grand for the statuette. Will this be enough money to satisfy Spade? Is Spade trying to find the falcon to get money from Gutman, or to help Brigid out, or to keep the police off his back?

Spade laughed. He put a hand down on the bird. His wide-spread fingers had ownership in their curving. He put his other arm around Effie Perine and crushed her body against his. "We've got the damned thing, angel," he said. (16.80)

Spade is pleased as punch in this scene. We're kind of picturing Spade whispering to himself, "Mine… all mine!" Hey, we would be too if we were holding a priceless gem in our hands. Notice how the narrator describes Spade's fingers as expressing "ownership" over the falcon. Does Spade agree with Gutman that the bird belongs to whoever is in possession of it at a given time? Is Spade driven by the same greed as Gutman to possess the black bird?

The contents of the envelope were thousand-dollar bills, smooth and stiff and new. Spade took them out and counted them. There were ten of them. Spade looked up smiling. He said mildly: "We were talking about more money than this."

"Yes, sir, we were," Gutman agreed, "but we were talking then. This is actual money, genuine coin of the realm, sir. With a dollar of this you can buy more than ten dollars of talk." (18.20)

Gutman has changed his tune here and only offers Spade ten grand (instead of the original fifty) for the bird. Does Spade insist that Gutman uphold his original bargain because he's being greedy or because he doesn't want Gutman to go back on his offer?

"There comes a time when you've got to make exceptions, and a wise man just goes ahead and makes them. Well, sir, that's just the way it is in this case and I don't mind telling you that I think you're being paid very well for making an exception." (18.34)

Gutman is trying to pay off Spade here, and as we've said countless times, money talks in this novel. Accepting money to "make an exception" is a sure way of getting yourself off on the wrong path, but will Spade's greed get the better of his sense of honor? Will he accept the ten grand and let Gutman escape scot-free, falcon in hand?

"We haven't done enough talking about the money-end. I ought to have more than ten thousand."

Gutman said: "Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money."

Spade said: "You're quoting me, but it's not all the money in the world."

"No, sir, it's not. I grant you that. But it's a lot of money to be picked up in as few days and as easily as you're getting it."

"You think it's been so damned easy?" Spade asked, and shrugged. (19.109)

Spade comments here that Gutman is mistaken in thinking that it's been easy to earn ten thousand dollars in a few days. Keep in mind that this novel was written during the Great Depression, when most Americans were struggling to find jobs. Organized crime increased at an alarming rate because people needed ways to make money quick. Spade seems to be implying that picking up ten grand in a few days is neither easy, nor the most morally upright way of getting rich.