Sam Spade, private detective, falls in with three unscrupulous adventurers who have been scouring the globe for a certain Maltese falcon. They need look no further: the bird is being sold by Bonhams. David Thomson investigates

The dying man was clutching a brown-paper parcel, held together by thin rope: "It was an ellipsoid somewhat larger than an American football." It was about a foot high, and heavier than anyone expected. When they were making the movie, Humphrey Bogart fumbled it once and nearly broke a toe. It was about 47lb of lead. When Kasper Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet) scraped at it with a knife, soft peelings of metal came away. It wasn't the real thing, yet in a strange way I wonder if Gutman wasn't relieved. After all, if you've been spending all those years looking for something, dreaming and talking about it, it can be a hard thing to find it.

Dashiell Hammett published The Maltese Falcon in 1930, and it was not long before people were saying, sure, this is a great detective story, but perhaps it's a real novel, too. Two movies were made of it in the 1930s, but neither 'took'. Then a third version came along in 1941, the first film that John Huston had directed, and he was proud that he filmed the book faithfully. I think the book of the Falcon may be tougher and colder than the picture, but that's in the nature of movies with star players at a time when audiences flinched from hard truths.

It is a book about the hunt for a statue of a falcon. It is also a book about two perilous love stories. On the one hand, the private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) – "He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan," says Hammett – meets a new female client (Mary Astor). At first she's Miss Wonderly, with cobalt eyes that are shy yet probing. It turns out she's really called Brigid O'Shaughnessy. But by then Spade's partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered and the lying has begun. There is a seething attraction between Spade and O'Shaughnessy, and at the end of the novel she puts him to a great test, saying she knows he's crazy about her, and he knows the craziness is love and sex and anything else you can think of. She tells him to let her go free. But Spade has a cruel honor; that's where he benefits from Bogart's snarl, and the needling glint in his eye. He knows she is a liar and a killer, and he knows that having sex, let alone love, with that kind of woman is inadvisable. So he sends her down, but you know that losing this love affair has damaged him and made him nastier than he ever was. It was a picture in which Bogart the actor found himself.

The second love story is Gutman's feeling for the falcon. He is a very fat man, but Hammett never suggests this is the result of over-indulgence. Gutman is huge with longing and eloquence, especially when he's talking about the falcon. The book is nearly halfway over before Gutman appears in suite 12C of the Alexandria Hotel. Within moments he and Spade are companions. You feel the mocking rapport of two men who rejoice in words; it isn't that they're on the same side, but talk keeps them together. Gutman pours Spade a drink and Spade lets him fill the glass. "We begin well, sir," says Gutman. "I distrust a man who says 'when'. If he's got to be careful not to drink too much it's because he's not to be trusted when he does."

Spade says nothing, and Gutman wonders if he's close-mouthed. "I like to talk," says Spade. This is chess, with openings and defenses being selected."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. We'll get along, sir, that we will."

I cannot type up these words, and I daresay you cannot read them, without recalling Bogart's untrusting gaze at Sydney Greenstreet, the English actor who made his debut in The Maltese Falcon. Greenstreet was close to 300lb. But he had an adroit, dainty voice, full of innuendo, music and stealth, and was devoted to talk. Bogart knows the man is dangerous and less than the gentleman he makes a fuss of being, but can't bear to have the fat man stop talking; his archaic fluency is nearly Shakespearean. It's a fine and proper thing to think well of Dashiell Hammett, but in truth his characters are all of a type – laconic, hard-bitten, close-mouthed, urban and mean, except for Gutman who is a dreamer in flesh. The reason he's fat is in all his words.

The two love stories are drawn together through the agency of a singularly flightless bird, the falcon. Gutman tells a tall – no, a towering – story about this fabled bird. How in the 16th century the Knights Templar persuaded the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to give them Malta, Gozo and Tripoli in return for one precious falcon a year. In gratitude, the knights made the bird out of gold, encrusted from head to foot in the finest jewels they possessed. "And remember, sir," adds Gutman, "they had fine ones, the finest out of Asia."

Gutman would value Spade's cooperation, and Spade wonders if the former Miss Wonderly has the bird. What's in it for me, asks Spade. Gutman flowers with possibility: it could be $50,000 in cash, or 25 per cent of the eventual proceeds.
"That's going to be greater?" Spade asks.
"Vastly greater," the fat man repeats. "Will you believe me if I name the sum that seems the probable minimum?"
"Why not?" says Spade.
"The fat man smacked his lips and lowered his voice to a purring murmur. 'What would you say, sir, to half a million?'
"Spade narrowed his eyes. 'Then you think the dingus is worth two million?'
"Gutman smiled serenely. 'In your own words, why not?'"

The dingus: it's a word you would not expect to hear out of the mouths of the Knights Templar. It means an object or a device of unknown name and origin. You can say that Spade is simply trying to burst Gutman's balloon, but if you read the novel enough times, the thought occurs that Gutman could be making the whole thing up. All he wants is a pretext for roaming the world with a few shady companions (there is an air of homosexuality here), and being able to talk about the bird. We know nothing about Gutman. Suppose he has no life, no religion, no purpose – nothing but the threat of boredom. In which case the pursuit of the falcon is his excuse for living.

Is that too fanciful or abstract for you? If it is, you have the hard forms of Hammett's prose and the tough outlines of Huston's movie – with Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as Gutman's associate, Joel Cairo. With those advantages, it can stay as a crime story, no questions asked. But Brigid is going to prison, love is in short supply and talk is not to be treated lightly.

"You can be out of San Quentin in 20 years," Spade tells her. "And you can come back to me then." As an afterthought, he adds, "I hope to Christ they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck." Such a bastard.

The movie was a great success: it established Huston as a director; it helped turn Bogart from villain to sour hero; and it made a team out of Greenstreet and Lorre (who went on to do nine films together). It was nominated for three Oscars: for Greenstreet; for Huston's screenplay; and for best picture. Perhaps it helped the tourist trade in Malta, and it means a lot of us know what a falcon is, though the real bird seems less potent than that wicked statuette. If only falcons could talk.

Celebrated writer on cinema, David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.


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