There is a plaque that stands in an alley in San Francisco: "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy." And it’s true — if you go to Burrit Street, you can see the spot where Brigid, that woman who told Spade that she was "bad, worse than you could know", knocked off a man with ten thousand insurance, no children, and a wife that didn’t like him. The Maltese Falcon was filmed by John Huston, a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, who had been offered the chance to direct a movie of his choice. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon had been adapted twice before, once as The Maltese Falcon and once as Satan Met a Lady (featuring a reluctant Bette Davis in the Sydney Greenstreet role). Huston, adapting the novel himself, thought he could do better. The signs weren’t promising: Peter Lorre was a B-movie actor in America, best known as the Japanese detective in the Mr. Moto series; Greenstreet had never made a movie; Mary Astor was the second choice to play Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Perhaps with that in mind, George Raft turned down the lead role, and a character actor named Humphrey Bogart — who had burst into prominence in another role Raft rejected — was selected to play private investigator Sam Spade. Bogart mostly played heavies, the hood gunned down in the second reel. His friendship with Huston got him the lead (alongside Falcon costars Lorre and Greenstreet) in Huston’s Casablanca, the best movie of the twentieth century according to the AFI — "Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us," wrote Umberto Eco. Bogie became an icon because The Maltese Falcon showed he could play a hero. But how heroic was Sam Spade? The Maltese Falcon is, by consensus, the greatest detective movie ever made; its only real rival, The Big Sleep, is sharply directed by the great Howard Hawks, has crackling chemistry between Bogart and female lead Lauren Bacall, and features magnificent dialogue written by William Faulkner. On the other hand, the movie is famously complicated. A number of scenes were shot after the original production to play up Bogie and Bacall, who got married between the end of production and the film’s release in 1946; to make room, enough plot was excised that reportedly neither screenwriter Faulkner nor original novelist Raymond Chandler could figure out who committed one of the murders. But Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is a knight errant, a world-weary honest man in a Los Angeles ruled by the powerful and the corrupt. Chandler had been raised in England, attending the same boarding school as P.G. Wodehouse, but his work is much more firmly rooted in place than Hammett’s. Dashiell Hammett was born in Maryland; he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency — "We Never Sleep" — in San Francisco; he contracted tuberculosis overseas in the Army during World War I; he moved to Hollywood to write; he spent his gin-soaked final days in New York writing, teaching, and serving a prison sentence rather than give information about the Marxist friends he and his wife, blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman, entertained and lent money to. He never really put down roots.
What he developed instead was an eye for human character, an ear for language, and a sense of nihilistic violence around which a whole tough guy persona, transcending race and class and nationality, could be built; Hammett’s second novel, Red Harvest, featuring the nameless Continental Op travelling to a corrupt little mining town and playing both sides against the middle in a gang war, required very few changes to be adapted into the timeless Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s film was later adapted into Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and still later into Bruce Willis’ pointless gangster film Last Man Standing; nihilistic violence travels well. Hammett wasn’t interested, as Chandler was, in the literary forefathers of his characters; he wasn’t capable of writing as showily as Chandler, although his spare prose has been compared to Hemingway’s. (And from his years as a Pinkerton man, Hammett had the language cold; when he slipped the word gunsel as a synonym for "gunman", he knew full well that it was slang for something closer to "wife" or "rent boy"; Hammett’s prank on a prudish editor has actually caused the usage to shift.) But Chandler — no slouch as a critic — got it right when he said that Hammett’s scenes "seemed never to have been written before". Chandler was interested in psychological realism; Hammett, in existentialist truth. Chandler’s Marlowe ages throughout his books, becoming wearier and wearier from the world’s inequities; Hammett’s characters seem born old, cynical and hard-drinking from the moment they set foot on earth.
John Huston’s Oscar-winning screenplay for The Maltese Falcon is a fairly faithful adaption, and it set the standard for the noir P.I.: Spade is tough, wisecracking, cynical, maybe a little corrupt but with a heart of gold somewhere in there peeking out. Who could disagree with Spade’s claim that "[w]hen a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it"? Huston didn’t film the novel’s final scene, however, in which the only completely selfless character, Spade’s love-struck secretary, issues her final judgment on him. He’s a heel. The cynical mask protecting the soft heart isn’t a mask at all. We may be thankful, at least, that Warner Brothers never made a sequel. Mickey Spillane’s sadistic Mike Hammer series might pack more sex and blood, but nobody did drunkenness like Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man films starring William Powell and the ravishing Myrna Loy understate how much Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles drink; the two spend Prohibition drinking a pitcher of martinis (and fooling around on the side) seemingly on every other page, but the later films cut back on the booze thanks to the Hays Code, severing Hollywood’s connection to a book that begins in a bar and ends with the hero noting that "this excitement has put us behind in our drinking."
Nick Charles was a detective who married rich and, finding himself with nothing else to do, became a drunk; Dashiell Hammett was a detective who made himself rich, and he seems to have remained a drunk throughout. The Charleses are one of the great cinematic marriages, and there’s surely some of Hammett and how he perceived his relationship to Hellman in Nick and Nora. But there’s also a sadness that I see in Nick Charles; he’s wasted himself, and he knows it. When World War II broke out, the forty-something Hammett reenlisted as a sergeant and, despite his ruined liver and lungs, served another three years. He got out of the army to find himself and his wife witchhunted for their Communist leanings. In his final years, he was virtually a recluse, working out of a cabin in upstate New York and pursued through the courts on spurious tax charges. In 1961, Hammett died, and J. Edgar Hoover attempted to block his burial at Arlington National Cemetary. His marker there says nothing about him being one of twentieth century’s great writers, hovering between high and low culture like all the other lively arts. It says nothing about whether he felt his political beliefs were an outgrowth of his sense of a venal humanity, or were a response to it. It says nothing about how he felt about Hoover and Hellman and Hitler or whether the Continental Op really had a name. It says "Samuel D. Hammett", notes his dates of birth and death, the unit and the wars in which it served.
As Nora Charles said, "That may be, but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory." And then, I’m sure, she’d pour herself a slug and toast his memory.