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The Maltese Falcon Revisted

This 1941 film, from a 1929 novel by the celebrated writer, Dashiell Hammett, captures the cynical mood of people living between the end of the depression and the start of a world war.

The film's protagonist, an anti-hero, Sam Space, is a tough-minded realist private detective, bent on survival. He has a dash of honor, some maturity, and real toughness. Humphrey Bogart was 42 when he played the role and looked like he had abused his health. He was a hard drinker and a smoker.

John Huston, who directed the film, had seen the two previous versions made by Warner Bros. and didn't like them. He thought they were too focused on plot. He saw Hammett's book as essentially focused on character. So that's what John Huston stressed in this film, his first as a director.

Sam Spade's famous bit of dialogue at the end of the film captures the cynicism of the character. He's talking to Brigid O'Shaughnessy who killed his partner:

''I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. . . . The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.''

That's not a nice way to talk to a woman who said that she loved him. Bogart pulled this off with some style, a style mostly attributed to the direction of John Huston. Before this film Bogart was mostly in B movies. After this film he was ready for Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen.

Sam Spade expressed an exaggeration about love that was common in the U.S. at that time: "All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you." The two had only recently met and Spade was supposed to be a realist. To some of a different culture, especially non-Christian Asian intellectuals that I have known, this kind of talk of love emanating from Hollywood is laughable fiction. (It is commonly believed among Asians that real love between adults develops with prolonged association – a handy belief that suits the acceptance of arranged marriages.)

Spade expressed an attitude toward violence that was common in the early 1900s and in John Wayne movies, a violence that if practiced today would land one with an assault charge. Spade: "People lose their teeth talking like that. If you want to hang around you'll be polite." He also threatened with the words, "Sit down and shut up and behave and you'll last longer" – gangster talk rather than what we can hope is the professionalism of today's private detectives.

In the opening credits, the film mistakingly confused the famed Knights of Malta as Templars. Peter Prictoe from Malta writes that they were in fact the Knights Hospitallers. Prictoe writes,

According to the film, the Knights had procured a statuette of a falcon, stuffed it with treasure and dispatched it in the year 1539 to their landlord who was King Charles I of Spain. The bird had been hijacked by pirates and the theme of the film was of it turning up in San Francisco four hundred years later... a load of Hokum of course but the idea had some basis in fact.

Copyright © 2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved