Analysis of ‘The Maltese Falcon’

The Maltese Falcon is a 1930 detective novel written by Dashiell Hammett and adapted into film in 1931, 1936 (a comedic version called Satan Met a Lady), the by-far most famous one in 1941, a film noir directed by John Huston, and a 1975 spoof sequel of the 1941 version called The Black Bird. The Huston film, which I’ll be discussing with the novel, starred Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, and Elisha Cook Jr.; it is also considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The 1941 film is largely a faithful adaptation, minus the novel‘s swearing (most of it Sam Spade‘s) and other scenes deemed inappropriate by the prudish Production Code, as well as other scenes that are rather superfluous as far as pacing and plot development are concerned. Apart from these differences, Hammett’s depiction of private detective Sam Spade is larger in build than that of Bogart (Spade in the novel is also blond), and the scene of Spade with the DA happens later in the novel than it does in the film.

A link to quotes from Huston’s film can be found here.

The search for the coveted Maltese falcon, a statuette of a bird of gold covered in valuable jewels, then covered in black enamel to hide its enormous worth, is symbolic of what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire.

The beautiful and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor)–desired by Spade (Bogart) and his partner-detective, Miles Archer (played by Jerome Cowan)–can be seen as a double of the black bird, another objet petit a, for she, too, is a kind of “black bird” (i.e., evil chick). The difference between these two birds is in how the pursuers of the statuette continue in desiring it no matter what obstacles are in the way, while Spade–who doesn’t trust O’Shaughnessy–must resist his desire of the femme fatale to keep her from ruining his life.

She’s been lying to Spade all the way from the beginning of the story. She even lies about her name when she meets him in his San Francisco office. She calls herself “Ruth Wonderly,” and claims that a man named Floyd Thursby has run away with her kid sister from New York, when actually, O’Shaughnessy was with Thursby in Hong Kong trying to get the Maltese falcon before its other pursuers can get their hands on it.

Her whole manner is that of the pouting covert narcissist, the one who plays the role of pitiful victim while secretly scheming to make saps out of her male colleagues. Hence, this beauty is a femme fatale.

There is a sense in this whole story that desire, be it the coveting of a valuable object or the lusting after a beautiful woman, leads to suffering, as the Buddhists understood. People have chased after the elusive falcon for centuries since pirates stole it while it was en route to King Charles V of Spain, only to be frustrated never to capture it decisively and keep it.

Similarly, O’Shaughnessy has played man after man for a fool with her charms–Thursby, Archer, and Spade–only to get them either killed or in danger of being incarcerated. The phoney name she calls herself, “Wonderly,” is reflective of her pathologically narcissistic grandiosity and False Self. She’d have Spade and Archer believe she’s wonderful, when actually she’s a con woman, out to swindle both men out of their lives to pursue her ends.

The love of riches drives those who want to possess the Maltese falcon. The addiction to female beauty drives Archer and Spade to want O’Shaughnessy. It’s clear from early on that Spade is a ladies’ man.

His wholesome but relatively plain receptionist, Effie Perine (Patrick), knows Spade will like O’Shaughnessy, for “she’s a knockout.” Later, we learn that Spade has been having an affair with Iva Archer (played by Gladys George), the soon-to-be widowed wife of Miles, who doesn’t mind looking away from her if he can have O’Shaughnessy.

When two cops, Detective Tom Polhaus (played by Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Dundy (played by Barton MacLane), who suspect that Spade may be responsible for the deaths of Thursby and Archer, hear Spade say he doesn’t know anything about women, Tom says, “Since when?” (In the novel, he says, “The hell you don’t.”–chapter two) Spade has a reputation as a womanizer, and Iva’s frequent visits to his office and elsewhere, her being eager to see him, only intensify the suspicions that he’s killed his partner, hence his wish to keep her away from him.

Soon, Spade comes into contact with Joel Cairo (Lorre), who happens, incidentally, to be the man referred to in the song, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo,” by Jon and Vangelis. Cairo is a stereotypically effeminate homosexual, something largely censored out of Lorre’s performance, for obvious reasons. In the novel, references are made to his use of chypre as a fragrance (in the film, it’s gardenia) and diamonds on a finger of his left hand. When Effie Perrine tells Spade that Cairo wants to meet him in chapter four, she says he’s “queer.” In chapter ten, Spade refers to him as “the fairy,” and O’Shaughnessy refers to a boy Cairo once “had in Constantinople,” the public exposure of his sexuality angering him, in chapter seven.

What’s significant about his effeminacy and extravagance, also seen to an extent in the novel’s characterization of portly Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), is how their decadence is related to their search for the black bird. Their decadence is of a capitalistic sort, a lust after riches and class hegemony, an internationalizing of the “American dream” felt also in Levantine Cairo.

Their decadence is that of the mafia, too, since they use muscle and guns to get what they want. We see this in Gutman’s use of Wilmer Cook (Cook Jr.), a young man shadowing Spade, though the latter is by no means intimidated by the former. Similarly, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, wanting to search his office for the falcon, though Spade manages to get his gun off of him.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, the mafia makes for a poetically resonant symbol of capitalism, its predatory seeking of wealth through questionable practices and use of violence. We see in the fierce quest for the falcon a symbol of the bourgeois search for an elevation to the highest levels of social class.

Cairo offers Spade $5,000 to help him find the black bird. Gutman offers a first payment of $10,000 to get it for him. Both men know, though, that the falcon is worth so much more as to make thousands of dollars seem like pennies in comparison. This disparity in worth is symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of labour, minimal payments to workers to extract a maximum of surplus value.

The second time Spade meets with Gutman, the latter tells the former the history of the Maltese falcon. The Knights Templar (in chapter thirteen of the novel, Gutman calls them “the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later called the Knights of Rhodes and other things”) in 1530 wanted King Charles V of Spain to give them Malta; he would do so in exchange for the tribute of a falcon to be sent to him every year in acknowledgement that Malta was still under Spain. If ever the knights were to leave, Malta would revert to Spain.

The first falcon sent to the king wasn’t to be a real, living one, but a golden statuette encrusted with the finest jewels from head to foot. In general, the falcons were meant, essentially, to be a yearly payment of rent, as a matter of form, to the king for permission for the knights to live in Malta.

The king, as emperor of that part of the Mediterranean at the time, was thus one of the most powerful men of the area during the late feudal period of Europe. Since the knights had access, through their spoils from their conquests in such places as the Middle East, to the finest jewels, metals, silks, gems, ivories, etc., the golden falcon was among the most valuable commodities ever.

The boat meant to deliver the falcon from Malta to Spain was stopped by a pirate attack. The pirates stole the falcon, and it ended up being passed around from place to place around the world over the next several centuries, up until the time of this story. Over this passage of time, history witnessed the change from feudalism to capitalism, while the bird has retained its superlative worth.

And so the Maltese falcon can be seen to symbolize the greatest attainment of class power, that which takes its owner in flight to the highest of financial freedoms. To own it is to be like a king, an emperor, owning property and wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams. To own it is to be better than the capitalist ruling class; to own it is to be like a feudal lord.

Small wonder Gutman, with his gluttony for wealth and power, wants the black bird so badly. He, Cairo, and Wilmer will use any dirty trick they can think of to get it, including drugging the drink Gutman fills and refills for Spade while discussing the history of the falcon, then while he’s unconscious, they can search for the falcon without Spade getting in the way.

Gutman may speak to Spade with cordiality, but he’s no friend to the detective, just as a boss is no friend to his employees. These are relationships of power and subservience. The drugging of Spade, as well as the use of Wilmer to push Spade around (in spite of how ineffectual Wilmer turns out to be), and the pointing of guns at Spade show clearly how unequal Gutman regards Spade as a business partner.

And regardless of how much Gutman offers to pay Spade for getting the falcon–a beginning payment of $10,000, or the full offer of $25,000 or even a quarter of a million–all these payments are microscopic in comparison to the actual, gargantuan worth of the black bird. Hence, payment for Spade’s service of securing the bird is like a small wage paid by an employer gaining a huge profit out of the deal.

Since Wilmer is also in Gutman’s employ, his relationship with Spade is full of the usual tensions between competing labourers, with the attendant alienation. In the novel, Wilmer hates Spade so much that he says, twice in chapter ten, what isn’t actually in print (for reasons that will immediately prove obvious), but what must be inferred as, “Fuck you.”

This mutual alienation among Gutman’s associates intensifies at the climax, when Spade, always trying to bargain (as a trade unionist would) for a better deal, insists on Gutman giving up a fall guy for the murders of Thursby and Archer, in addition to his cut. Spade suggests Wilmer, who naturally resents it, even though he’s surely responsible for at least the deaths of Thursby and Captain Jacobi (played by Huston’s father Walter), who dies having delivered the falcon to Spade’s office with several bullets in him, after the boat he sailed from Hong Kong to San Francisco, La Paloma, was burned down by Gutman’s men.

Gutman is hesitant to give up Wilmer to the police, claiming the boy is like a son to him (when actually, he’s worried Wilmer will squeal on him). Spade then suggests Cairo as the fall guy, or perhaps O’Shaughnessy could be considered; as long as Spade is safe from the cops. These suggestions, and the angry reactions they get, further show the growth of mutual alienation going around, all because of the power of that black enamelled commodity.

Before this climactic scene in the novel is one with Gutman’s drugged daughter, Rhea, whom Spade accidentally meets in the Alexandria Hotel (chapter seventeen). The scene is fairly superfluous to the plot, but it does help give us a more vivid idea of how corrupt and ruthless mafia-man Gutman is…that he’d allow his own daughter to be in such a state.

Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy, Wilmer, and Spade are all waiting for Effie to deliver the bird to Spade’s apartment in the morning. Gutman has given Spade the $10,000 down payment in an envelope, which Spade has given to O’Shaughnessy to watch over. At one point, Gutman takes the envelope back for a moment and looks over the bills: he finds only $9,000.

Has O’Shaughnessy stolen the missing $1,000? In the novel (and in the pre-Production Code 1931 film version), Spade takes her into his bathroom and makes her strip to see if she has the money on her–she doesn’t. Gutman has taken it to see what Spade will do, then he gives it back.

This scene is interesting in how it parallels that of the falcon’s delivery, when Gutman scrapes at the black enamel covering to see the gold and jewels underneath. There are none–it’s a fake! Just as she has had her coverings removed to find nothing of monetary value, so has the black bird. It’s a fake…and so is she.

These scenes underscore my point towards the beginning of this analysis: both O’Shaughnessy and the Maltese falcon are ‘black birds,’ as it were. They both, on the surface, seem to be beautiful and of almost limitless value, yet when the illusions are cast aside, they’re not only of no worth, but are dangerous addictions.

Warren Farrell once said that “female beauty is the world’s most potent drug.” (Farrell, Berkeley mass market edition, October 1996, page 72) I don’t agree: money is far more addictive, though perhaps female beauty is a distant second. Hence, the two black birds of this story. It’s interesting, in this connection, to remember Tony Montana‘s words in Scarface: “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.”

We’ll note, however, that the real climax of the story isn’t the discovery that the falcon is a fake; it’s Spade telling O’Shaughnessy that he’s giving her up to the police for having shot Archer (Wilmer has sneaked out of the building while everyone’s eyes have been on the falcon, so he can no longer be the fall guy).

After Gutman and Cairo leave to resume their search for the bird, Spade bullies her into telling the truth that she shot Archer with Thursby’s gun. Since the police suspect Spade killed him to get Iva, he can’t let O’Shaughnessy’s beauty weaken his resolve to avoid being charged with murder.

It takes all of his emotional strength to look into her manipulatively teary eyes and tell her he “won’t play the sap” for her. Though he, a ladies’ man, is still enticed by her beauty and her claims that she loves him, he’s heard too many lies from her to think she’s any less a phoney than that lead bird she had shipped from Hong Kong.

The tension in Bogart‘s face vividly expresses Spade’s conflict. Still, he stays strong, and when Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy show up, Spade gives her to them. Polhaus asks about the bird, and Spade says it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” a reference to the illusory, theatrical magic in The Tempest. The theatrically presented dream of innumerable amounts of wealth is an illusion.

Indeed, though Spade can resist O’Shaughnessy’s charms as his objet petit a, neither Gutman nor Cairo can resist the lure of the Maltese falcon, their objet petit a, hence their plans to go to Istanbul to see if it’s there. Now, at the end of the novel, Wilmer shoots and kills Gutman; so Spade’s ability to resist his desires saves him, while Gutman’s inability to do so destroys him, as does Archer’s inability vis-à-vis O’Shaughnessy.

It is assumed that the reason Gutman et al received a fake falcon is because the sender, a Russian named Kemidov in Istanbul, cheated them when he found out its real worth, and that he has the real falcon, if not somebody else. But I wonder: is the whole story of the falcon actually a legend that Gutman all too credulously believes, simply because he wants to? In any case, the addiction to endless wealth never dies, though its attainment is surely only an enamelled dream for most of us.

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