The Maltese Falcon (1941) is widely regarded as the original film noir. It is based on the novel of the same name written by Dashiell Hammett who is, of course, the father of the hard-boiled private detective story. Hammett's novel was brought to the screen by John Houston, who both wrote the script and directed the film. The film centers on the pursuit of an icon (a statue of a falcon rumored to be of amazing wealth) by three competing parties. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is at the center of the pursuit. He's playing each side against the other and trying to figure out who killed his partner, Miles Archer. Spade is described as a "blonde Satan" in Hammett's novel to keep his moral character constantly in doubt. Although Bogart doesn't physically resemble Hammett's Spade, his previous film work in various gangster parts keeps Spade's moral character perpetually in question.
Each of the characters in the film represent a different sin. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) is gluttony personified. He's overweight, wealthy, and has an insatiable appetite for the Falcon. His bodyguard, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), represents hate. Although described as "a kid" in the film, one gets the impression that he's killed numerous times. He also shows great hatred for Spade, who antagonizes Wilmer at every opportunity. Next is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who is vain. He takes great pride in his dress, looks and taste. His vanity seems to translate into homosexuality as well. And finally there is Brigid O'Shaunnesy (Mary Astor). She represents avarice. For the Falcon and the wealth that it represents she cheats, lies, and as we learn at the end of the film, kills.
Spade, devilish character that he is, manipulates these characteristics at every chance he gets. He goads Wilmer by taking his guns away from him, only to give them back to his boss Gutman, increasing Wilmer's hate. He uses Gutman's appetite for the Maltese Falcon to make an offer for it that includes Spade in the deal. This increases Gutman's appetite for the item. Spade antagonizes Joel Cairo by "messing him up" and taking away his gun.
Brigid he treats differently. He offers her a chance to tell the truth. Several in fact. Is it only because of the detective/client relationship that they share? Or is there some physical attraction? Some characteristics he admires? Certainly all three must play a role in his interest in her. The fact is he doesn't profit from her avarice. In fact, despite his perceived lack of ethics Spade is the most moral of all the characters that take part in this little drama.
Certainly it is not a Judeo-Christian code that Spade follows. He has an affair with Ava Archer, his partner's wife, and then gives her the brush-off after Miles' death. The police constantly suspect him of murder throughout the story. But at the end of the story, after all the parties have learned the Maltese Falcon is a fake and are planning to leave town, Spade calls the police and tells them where they can most probably find Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer. He gives the thousand dollar bill Gutman bribes him with to the police when they arrive, which he certainly doesn't have to do.
Spade's ethics are his own. He tells Brigid that when something happens to your partner "you're supposed to do something about it." This is why he can't let her get away with Miles' murder, even though he loves her. In fact, he could easily pin the death on Wilmer, who was responsible for the other two deaths that take place in the film. He chooses not to, however, and his choice places Brigid in police custody and Sam with an empty victory.
This would be a blueprint for all other private detectives (and film noir heroes) that follow Sam Spade. They often make moral choices that result in moral victories and personal tragedies. They will all have their own brand of ethics, their own personal code of conduct. Which leads us directly to Philip Marlowe and The Big Sleep.
Text (c) LCB 2000
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