Study Guide

Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon

By Dashiell Hammett

Sam Spade

Name: Sam Spade
Height: 6'0''
Eyes: Yellowish gray
Hair: Pale brown, almost blond
Age: 30s
Clothing: Gray suit, tweed overcoat, green necktie, dark gray fedora

If the cops had a file on Sam Spade, this is how his police report would look. But even though Spade isn't exactly in the police department's good graces, he's still supposed to be on their side. As a private detective, Spade has a professional code of ethics that he follows most of the time (but of course, not all of the time).

What do we mean by a professional code of ethics? Spade's #1 rule is to protect his clients, whether that means putting himself in harm's way or even breaking the law to keep his clients safe. But what about when Spade isn't on the job? Does he have a personal code of ethics that's separate from his professional code?

We'll get to that answer a bit later on, so stay tuned.

A Blond Satan

When we first meet Spade, he's a hard-nosed and cynical tough guy, gruff and untrusting towards almost everyone. He favors Bacardi and prefers Bull Durham cigarettes. We're told in the opening paragraph of the novel that Spade is a "blond satan," and right there we get this mixture of Spade as the hero, but also the devil:

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 in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan. (1.1)

This isn't exactly the most flattering physical portrayal we've ever read. If we didn't know that Spade's the novel's protagonist, we might have mistaken his angular features and yellowish-grey eyes for those of a villain. But there's no denying the cool factor of a blond satan in a fedora, and we'll take the narrator's word that Spade looks "pleasant." At the beginning of the novel, Sam Spade has a questionable set of morals that, on the one hand, allows him to sleep with his partner's wife without feeling much guilt, yet on the other hand, pushes him to seek revenge for his partner when he gets killed.

Good Guy or Bad Guy?

When Brigid walks into Spade's office, asking for his help, we want to warn him to stay away from her. Spade quickly becomes embroiled in a mad pursuit after the Maltese falcon, and we start learning that Spade is someone who will do more than bend a few rules, someone who is capable of practically anything. He's able to outgun the trigger-happy Wilmer, outwit the big boss Casper Gutman, and even outsmart the scheming Brigid.

Spade is always ready for the unexpected, and explains that his "way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery" (86). Throughout most of the novel, Spade's motivations remain private, so does that mean he has a personal moral code (an internal sense of right and wrong), or does he just do whatever suits his fancy?

The tricky thing with Spade is that Hammett doesn't make it easy for us to fully sympathize with him. We want to believe that Spade knows the difference between right and wrong, but at the end of the novel, can we say for certain that he does the "right thing"?

When he is faced with Brigid's tearful doe eyes begging him to save her, he still turns her over to the police, but his reasons for doing so are ambiguous. Although he shows a strong professional ethic by not letting Brigid get away with killing his partner, there's also has an element of self-interest in his decision because Spade knows it's bad for business to let a killer get away. Is Spade only trying to protect his business from getting a bad rep? Does he turn Brigid over to the police to get the cops to leave him alone? Would Spade have saved Brigid if there were more money in it for him, say, another ten grand, give or take a grand?

Hammett never gives us an answer to these very good questions. But maybe that's the whole point. Maybe there's not supposed to be an answer. Hammett's San Francisco is a city so corrupt that the line between right and wrong is blurry and impossible to draw. There's no escaping this level of deceit and corruption. It's everywhere we turn, lurking in every corner, following us around like our own shadows. And in this atmosphere of deception, even our hero (or should we say antihero?) Sam Spade has less-than-honorable motives.

One thing's certain, at least. In the end, Spade's feelings for Brigid were not strong enough to overcome the risks involved with letting her go free. Spade's unapologetic calculation of risk, reward and duty suggests that Hammett is unwilling to provide a clear statement of Spade's morality. We could read this novel a thousand times and never say for sure which side of the law Sam Spade is really on.

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