Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guest Post: On Dashiell Hammett and Hard Boiled Fiction (Part 2)

The Maltese Falcon
More than any other, the Maltese Falcon was the book that would define
the type of detective story that Hammett created, and it would be the
model that his inheritors in the genre would work from. Unlike Red
Harvest and The Glass Key, with their broader canvas and politics,
this is the classic noir detective tale – guns, murder, and a
dangerous dame. This was Sam Spade’s one and only full-length
appearance, but he arrived with sufficient impact to work his way into
the cultural lexicon, the archetype of the classic P.I.

The prime elements of Hammett’s lead men are all present and correct
in Spade. He is a sharp guy in a tough spot, and his only chance to
come out on top is to stay one step ahead of the competition and try
to play them against one another. He doesn’t have the luxury of being
the good guy, but you shouldn’t necessarily buy when he sells himself
as being the bad guy. When he admits to taking on a case that he
knows is crooked because the money was enough for it not to matter,
he’s not lying; likewise when he explains that he has to solve his
partner’s murder just because it’s “bad for business” not to. It’s
the truth, but you’re not convinced it’s the whole truth. Spade likes
to make a show of his cold detachment but he is more sentimental than
he would dare admit, and this becomes the real mystery of the Maltese
Falcon: how much heart is really in that ribcage, and how much ice?
As the story powers to its intense set piece finish, we still can’t be
sure if it is love, money, honour, or simple self-preservation that
will determine how Spade plays his cards.

On celluloid, the third time was a charm. John Huston and Humphrey
Bogart brought Spade to life superbly in Huston’s 1941 adaptation, his
debut feature. Recognizing the strength of the source material, the
screenplay cleaves closely to the narrative and dialogue of the book.
The character is ready-made for Bogart in that era, and where dialogue
changes are made, they serve the quick talking and wisecracking style
that contribute so much to making the movie such a watchable
experience. Huston and Bogart do a great job of using visual cues and
humour to let the viewer know that you can’t always take Spade’s
actions or words at face value, and so perpetuate his mystery.
Subtlety not among his many fine qualities as an actor, Bogart revels
in the opportunity to theatrically sneer playing a character who is
sneering theatrically.

Bogart’s chemistry with female lead Mary Astor doesn’t always fire on
all cylinders. She is perhaps the relative weak point in an otherwise
exceptional cast. She excels when playing the downtrodden damsel to
try to target Spade’s sympathies, but she does not convince as the
devious femme fatale that moves on to try to ensnare his affections.
Their exchanges in general work well, though, even if Bogart is forced
to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and by the final scene,
circumstances have brought the character of Brigid O'Shaughnessy
closer to Astor’s comfort zone, just in time for a powerful finish.
The cast of complimentary characters in the story are Hammett’s most
Runyonesque, and they are a tremendous highlight in the film. Sydney
Greenstreet and Peter Lorre have a field day in their colourful roles,
and the blend works so well that the same players would be reconvened
a year later to accompany Bogart in Casablanca.

The Maltese Falcon is a tremendous success as both book and film. The
story was conceived with a fine balance between light and dark and the
film deftly maintains that balance, and for both this is a key aspect
of their success. Hammett is never more entertaining as a writer and
this is certainly my favourite of his novels. On the screen, this was
the part Bogart was born to play, more so than his more famous turn in
Casablanca, to which he brings an abundance of character but a
shortfall of nuance, and significantly more so than the light role in
The African Queen that bizarrely won him an Oscar, his only one. I
have unsuccessfully tried to watch the two earlier attempts at
Hollywood adaptation, in particular the 1930 original which was
controversial for its lewd references to adultery and homosexuality.
The difficulty is, the classic version is too good, too definitive,
and anything else seems like a travesty. Speaking of which, we should
be forever grateful that the success of Casablanca in 1942 prevented
the planned follow up feature, The Further Adventures of the Maltese

The Thin Man

The Thin Man might be Hammett’s most famous title, by virtue of the
popular six-movie franchise and later television series that grew from
it. Hammett’s first four novels had all appeared in a three year
spell from 1929 to 1931. Another three years would pass before the
publication of this his fifth and final novel. Hammett’s life had
changed somewhat and it is tempting to read those changes into the
different tone of The Thin Man. Notably, in the intervening years,
Hammett had begun the relationship with playwright Lilly Hellman that
would endure for the remainder of his life, and here for the first
time we have a married protagonist, and a leading lady on the right
side of the law. Nick Charles is a drawing room gentleman detective
of the variety that Hammett’s own hard edged PIs had buried. Gone are
the mean existence, cheap rye, and gaudy patter, replace by high
society living, wine, and witty banter. Charles has hung up his
pistol and is trying to move on, although he lets himself get dragged
into one last case. Likewise, this would prove to be one last story
for Hammett following his hiatus. His interests too had moved
elsewhere, to the sphere of political activism that would absorb him
during the 30s, up until he saw service in another world war.

Although not short on Hammett’s characteristically strong plotting and
engaging personalities, the character and tone of The Thin Man is much
removed from that of his previous work. Mostly how the reader feels
about that is a matter of personal preference, but it is undeniable
that some of the features that really separated and elevated Hammett’s
stories are absent. Personally I like the book a great deal but I
would consider it my least favourite of his novels; the movie
adaptation I have less time for.

The film, shot in 12 days and released within just four months of the
book’s publication, was a huge success and scooped an Academy Award
nomination. William Powell scored plaudits for his portrayal of
Charles, but to my taste he gives the character a smugness that
Hammett is able to avoid on the page. Myrna Loy holds up her end as
wife Nora but although the crackle of their alcoholic exchanges is
retained the charm falters somewhat. The film is a jolly Hollywood
romp, very much of its time, and could hardly be more different than
Huston’s Maltese Falcon, just seven years later. Sequel After the
Thin Man, featuring a very young-looking Jimmy Stewart, was also very
well received, and is watchable despite a pervasive sense of its own
pointlessness. I haven’t ventured into the following four movies but
I understand they are a case study in diminishing returns.

In the next 30 years Hammett would campaign against war, serve in a
war, be shamefully treated by the country he served during the
communist witch-hunt, and end up with jail time for taking the fifth.
Although he would not publish a single story more during those years,
up to his death in 1961, he had already bequeathed a lasting legacy in
the books he had written and the films they had inspired.


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