The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel written in 1929 by Dashiell Hammett and immortalized in film in 1941 by director John Huston. The detective in the novel, Sam Spade, is a hardened man whose characterization becomes a model for many detectives to come. In this novel, Sam Spade is hired by a woman, Miss Wonderly, to follow a man who has supposedly run away with her sister. From here out, Spade encounters a number of intriguing characters, learns that things and people are not whom they seem and ensures, in the end, that justice will be served no matter the cost.
It is my humble opinion that the reputation of this novel and its movie has become greater than it deserves. I am a huge fan of classic films and understand the importance of firsts, of which this novel and movie has many, but I am not sure it would stand up as well against some of the great detective novels and films of today. Now, would those detectives be as clever and biting if it weren’t for the existence of Sam Spade? Probably not.
Sam Spade is a great and complicated character, and I have learned from my research that Hammett, who was himself a detective, described and created Spade as the type of detective that many strive to be. He is the type of detective who can sleep with his clients and yet not let that cloud his judgment nor stray him from his goal. He often works alongside the police, but he never works with the police because their motives are at times not inline with his own. He is an impressive character, but perhaps I am just jaded by the super clever masters of deduction that we encounter more often these days.
The audiobook that I listened to was an actual dramatization of the book. Similarly to the recording of 12 Angry Men, this production had practically a different actor for each character. It was not a performed dramatization, so some of the smaller characters were played by the same actor or actress. There were some big names involved such as Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) playing Sam Spade, Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) playing Miss Wonderly/O’Shaughnessy and Richard Gilmore (Gilmore Girls). I enjoyed listening to the different narrators even though Sandra Oh didn’t sound like her usual snarky self.
One strange thing about the dramatization was that instead of having a narrator each actor read the narrations that were about their character. For example, Sandra Oh would say something like “O’Shaughnessy looked at Sam with those eyes like an innocent deer and said, ‘I am being honest with you.’ “ It felt a little weird but I guess the director felt like it was more effective than having an omnipotent narrator. It seems that this dramatization is about twice as long as the movie but half as long as the original novel, so it appears that it is more of a movie tie-in than the actual novel. I have read that the movie did stick very closely to the source material and that details that were played down or left out, such as Joel Cairo’s femininity and homosexuality, were done so because Warner Brothers wouldn’t allow it.
The film is considered by some, for one the late Roger Ebert, to be one of the greatest movies of all time. The movie was made by first-time director, John Huston, who went on to direct many great movies such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madres, The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen. His style of directing was such that he planned out every minute of filming, every shot was described to the tee, and the schedule for filming was strictly adhered to. The movie, as well, contains many interesting and innovative camera angles that are still emulated and studied in film classrooms today. Another interesting piece of trivia that I learned in researching the film is that the role of “the fat man” or Greenstreet, the mastermind behind retrieving the bird, had such a strong cultural impact that the “Fat Man” atomic bomb that dropped on Nagasaki was named after him. Needless to say, the film has left its mark on our culture and is the inspiration for many films that we know of today (The Maltese Falcon is actually referenced in the Guardians of the Galaxy- a very entertaining film- by the way).
I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys classic films and would appreciate reading the source material for the movie. Even though I liked the narration of the dramatization, I would recommend the actual novel so that the full source could be experienced and not just the movie only read out loud. And, if you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it as well because it serves as a good piece of film history.