Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

The Maltese Falcon reexamined


“And when you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” Sam Spade to Joel Cairo.

With apologies to Robert B. Parker, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and a few others, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is the quintessential murder story. Although Sam Spade appeared in only one novel, the cynical, hardboiled detective who bends the rules but still lives by a code, set the standard for all the gumshoes who would follow in the 85 years hence. “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” he tells the comely and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy.Bogie-&-Elisha-Cook

Although Spade is such a well-defined and described character, it is difficult for me to separate him from Humphrey Bogart, the actor who portrayed Spade in the 1941 noir film of the same name. Bogart’s height and general appearance don’t match Hammett’s description, but by every other measure, Bogart is Sam Spade.

Recently I reread the novel and, for perhaps the 10th time, watched the film. The similarities and the few differences are worth examining. In fact, there are at least two mysteries within the mystery. And at this point, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, do so. Then come back and read the rest of this article.

John Houston wrote the screenplay. If he’d had today’s word processing programs he could have finished after an hour’s worth of copying and pasting. Certainly he had to condense, but verbatim dialog from the book is featured in nearly every scene, a testament to Hammett’s skill.

Here is one example, out of many, of dialog that can be found in the book and movie: Spade meets Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) for the first time.   They’re sitting in Gutman’s hotel room.

Gutman: “You’re a close-mouthed man?”

Spade: “I like to talk.

Gutman: “Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice.”

The book’s story, complications, settings, characters are all present in the film.   Casting was generally spot on. I can’t think of actors alive at the time who would have been better than Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. Although Maltese-Falcon-posterHammett described Gutman as being more flabby and fleshy than Greenstreet appeared, the actor weighed nearly 300 pounds at the time and his delivery matched what you would have imagined by reading the book.   Mary Astor appeared as Hammet described O’Shaughnessy and actor Elisha Cook, Jr. fit the shoes of Gutman’s gunsel even to his name: Wilmer Cook.

So much for the similarities—and there are more—but some of the differences are more intriguing. Jack DeWitt, a mystery writer friend, alerted me to one area of divergence. “The one piece of The Maltese Falcon that is missing from the film is the story of Flitcraft that Sam tells Bridget,” De Witt told me. “I have always felt it was the key to the novel and to Spade.”

Early in the book, Spade tells O’Shaughnessy a story about a missing persons case he handled in Seattle some years before.   A man named Flitcraft narrowly missed death when a beam from a construction site fell 10 stories and landed next to him. As a result, Flitcraft decided to disappeared. His wife never heard from him. Years later, he turned up in Spokane with a different wife and family. Spade’s story has nothing to do with the falcon or any other element of the novel. He tells the story, then never mentions it again.

When I read the novel, I wasn’t sure of the reason for the story. After a little online research, however, I discovered there’s an ongoing debate about the purpose of Spade’s story, dubbed the Flitcraft parable by those who have studied it.   It’s complicated and involves a 19th century philosopher and lots of speculation. For a detailed discussion, see the link at the end of this article. One theory is that Spade was telling O’Shaughnessy, via this example, that he didn’t believe her from the beginning and whether he did, of course, is one of the main puzzles in the book.   More than once Spade says he doesn’t believe her. And in the end we find out why.

The book ends rather routinely with Spade back at his desk talking with his secretary, Effie Perine. The movie ends more dramatically. One of the cops asks Spade about the black bird. Screenwriter Houston adapted a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and has Spade say, “That’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

A far more vexing story, if true, revolves around a real-life LA PI who, at least one person suggests, was the model for Spade—in more ways than one.   But that story will have to wait until next time.


Jim Nelson’s speculation on the purpose of the Flitcraft story.

IMDB cast list and other details

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