MANY of those familiar with the title The Maltese Falcon may be acquainted with the 1941 film noir rather than Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel published by Alfred A. Knopf.
There is a remarkable synergy between novel and film, perhaps without parallel in such translations.
Writer/ director John Huston wrote the script to closely follow the order of the novel, retained much of the dialogue and then filmed it in sequence.
He even persuaded the censors to let him keep the recurring motif of hard liquor. No objection was raised to the continual prop of hand-rolled cigarettes.
Huston self-censored to remove most of the key homosexual references in the novel but the character of Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre) would have left sophisticated viewers to clearly see the elephant in the room.
Many readers are disconsolate when a favourite novel is translated onto the screen.
In this case, seeing the film enhances the novel as the reader can have the authentic dialogue being voiced in their mind by actors Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Lorre, Mary Astor, Gladys George and Elisha Cook Jnr.
Although neither was a prolific writer, Hammett and Raymond Chandler, after him, were the fathers of the hard-boiled detective novels translated into 1940 film noir.
It may surprise some that both authors have been recognised as great writers, not just as doyens of their genre. I do not believe any of the current crop of superstars of the detective thriller will garner such recognition in the future. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Maltese Falcon 56th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Hammett and Chandler had similar histories which could partly explain their emergence as writers of edgy fiction. As young men in World War 1, both suffered debilitating injuries, the effects of which remained with them for the rest of their lives. They reached the peaks of their writing careers during the Great Depression of the 1930s which followed the decade of post-war licence hailed as the Roaring 20s.
The plot of The Maltese Falcon evolves from the murder of private detective Miles Archer, the business partner of the novel’s protagonist Samuel Spade. The story is written in the third person with virtually no interior monologues yet the reader identifies with the subjectivity of the flawed character of Sam Spade.
What makes this novel good are the spare style and the clipped dialogue – tougher than Chandler’s though not as funny.
What makes the novel great is the extraordinary way the author uses detailed character descriptions and dialogue to render the story without any back-up of interior reflection or self-justification. Spade’s moral ambiguity is a magnificent theme and device upon which to pin suspense.
The reader learns early on that Spade has been having an emotionless sexual affair with his dead partner’s wife, Iva. The shamus grumbles to his loyal secretary, Effie Perine, ‘I never know what to do or say to women except that way.’
Don’t go retro-reading that as some kind of prescient observation by Hammett on the male inability to commit. The author is merely laying the ground to prove Gutman’s assessment of Spade that we never know what he is going to do or say next.
Homosexuality is central to the novel though it does not have as many echoes of homophobia as it often does with Chandler.
Let’s start with the least clear-cut example of secretary, Effie Perine, who lives at home with her mother. Effie appears to have a woman crush on femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who, in the manner of the genre, has to be Spade’s love interest. As I say, the hint at lesbianism is subtle and possibly unintended, but look for the fascinating reactions of Perine in the last pages of the novel.
Joel Cairo is obviously homosexual as delightfully rendered in an exchange with the perhaps promiscuous O’Shaughnessy. (Cairo) ’Exactly, and shall we add the boy outside?’
‘Yes,’ she agreed and laughed. ‘Yes, unless he’s the one you had in Constantinople.’
Sudden blood mottled Cairo’s face. In a shrill enraged voice he cried: ’The one you couldn’t make.’…
The sinister urbane Casper Gutman has a daughter but he appears to be bi-sexual.
In the lengthy and wonderful denouement, at midnight, Spade unwillingly hosts Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy and the seemingly psychotic young gunman, Wilmer Cook, mostly referred to in the novel as “the boy”..
…’That daughter of yours (Gutman’s) has a nice belly,’ he (Spade) said, ‘too nice to be scratched up with pins.’ Gutman’s smile was affable if a bit oily.
The boy in the doorway took a short step forward, raising his pistol as far as his hip. Everybody in the room looked at him. In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed…
Hammett tells us, purely though actions and facial expressions, that O’Shaughnessy, Cairo and probably Gutman are jealous of the boy’s infatuation with Gutman’s daughter Rhea.
Besides killing people, that boy has been busy and mental derangement has not impaired his youthful sexual attractiveness.
If there is one flaw in this almost faultless novel it is the characterysation of Brigid O’Shaughnessy. While this has much to do with the structural imperative of mystery and suspense, O’Shaughnessy lacks the sensuality of Vivian Sternwood in Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
That quibble aside, The Maltese Falcon dispels the ignorant snobbish and vicious myth that a genre novel cannot be counted as great literature.
– Review by Bernie Dowling
Gooseberry Lays and Gunzels
CENSORS and censorship are often good for a laugh.
The Maltese Falcon first appeared serialised in the pulp fiction mag Black Mask.
Magazine editor Joseph Shaw was offended by vulgarity and he took exception to the term “goose-berry lay’’ in The Maltese Falcon.
…Then Spade asked (the boy) pleasantly: ‘How long have you been off the goose-berry lay, son?’
You could hardly blame puritanical editor Shaw; the phrase sounds scatological. However, it was a slang term for stealing clothes from a line to sell them with the culprit perhaps lying among gooseberry bushes before the theft.
One word Shaw had no objection to was gunzel. In fact the editor loved its use in the novel.
…’Keep that gunzel (the boy, again) away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him. I don’t like him. He makes me nervous.’
Shaw thought gunzel meant hired gun and a host of Hammett imitators used it in that sense.
Gunzel actually meant a boy or young man paid or kept for sex, a rent boy.
Both expressions gunzel and goose-berry lay survive in the latest editions of The Maltese Falcon.
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