Dashiell Hammett’s ground-breaking 1930 detective novel “The Maltese Falcon” is often credited as being the seminal novel in the hard-boiled detective genre. In addition to being a major influence on pulp detective literature, it spawned what is arguably the greatest private eye film ever made in John Huston‘s 1941 Academy Award nominated adaptation of the same name — starring Humphrey Bogart, in his first A-List role for Warner Bros., as Sam Spade; the sardonic, smooth-talking P.I. with his own personal code of ethics. Spade refuses to be the pawn in a dizzying plot involving a trio of criminals (the fat man, the Levantine, and the deceitful femme fatale), the police, a clingy widow, and a priceless black enameled bird statuette. Hammett’s story had been filmed twice before Huston’s 1941 masterpiece; once as a pre-code production in 1931, and again in 1936 as a lighter comedic picture starring Bette Davis called Satan Met A Lady. I will focus on the 1941 Best Picture nominee, since I have not seen the other two versions as of this writing, and their reputations are far from rivaling that of the Bogey film seeing as few people are even aware of their existence.
Hammett’s sharp prose and quick-witted dialogue make reading the novel a breezy adventurous affair, and his writing also works magnificently in the film. It was very wise of John Huston to stick so close to the novel when writing the screenplay, as the book is just about as good as it gets. Everything from the dialogue to the set arrangements are filmed nearly exactly as they are written in the original story. There are some exceptions though. Spade is described as a “blonde satan” with a large hulk-like presence in the novel, which is nearly the complete contrast to Bogart’s appearance in the film. However, because I had seen the film prior to reading the novel, I must admit that I had a difficult time not imagining Bogey as Spade while reading the book. Bogart’s portrayal of Spade is, in a word, iconic. Hammett’s Sam Spade was immeasurably influential in future written detective stories, while Bogart’s portrayal set the benchmark that nearly every gumshoe detective picture made from then on would imitate in some way. Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe (also portrayed by Bogart once in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep) is just one of the many characters in detective fiction that Hammett’s cynical private eye provided inspiration for.
Normally it is simple to decide whether the novel or the film is better. Here, the decision is difficult to make because both works compliment each other so well. The near-perfect casting in the film worked brilliantly in my mind’s eye while reading the novel. Sydney Greenstreet’s turn as the illusive, obsessed 300 lb. fortune-seeking thief is played so well, that it came as a complete shock when I found out that The Maltese Falcon was his motion picture debut. He had quite an illustrious stage career previous to his turn as Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, which certainly helps to explain his Academy Award nominated performance. Peter Lorre was born to play Joel Cairo; the creepy, almost positively homosexual Levantine thief. And who doesn’t love Ward Bond? He’s perfectly cast as the friendly, rational Sergeant Polhaus; countering Barton Maclane’s Lieutenant Dundy.
And as much as the phenomenal casting enhanced the novel; the novel enriches the film experience by fleshing the plot and characters out to a much more substantial degree. While nearly every moment of the film comes directly from Hammett’s novel, everything in the novel is not included in the film. Upon re-watching the film after finishing the book, I felt much more involved than during previous viewings. This was mainly because of my knowledge of certain parts of the novel that were omitted from the film’s script. Some of the motivations and actions of the characters are much more clear having read the novel. I knew what had happened between scenes in which certain parts of the book were cut out. For example, there is a part in the film (and novel) in which Brigid O’Shaughnessy shows up at Spade’s office distraught because someone had broken into her apartment. Spade suggests that it could have been Cairo, and it’s left at that. However, in the novel we learn that it was Spade himself that “broke into” her apartment by taking Brigid’s key while she was asleep and searched her apartment. He then broke a window to make it look like a break-in. Little nuggets like that really enhanced the film for me.
The novel is also much more provocative than the film. While certain sensual aspects are lightly alluded to in the film, the novel is all but explicit in handling sexuality. The Hays Code’s monocle would dislodge at Hammett’s nonchalant allusions to homosexuality, sexual escapades, and erotic unorthodox bathroom strip-searches. There’s even tame suggestions of filthy language, with a helping of unapologetic salty language to boot.
As for which version of the story gives the more fulfilling and complete experience, I’m going to have to side with the novel over the excellent film adaptation. Both are absolutely essential experiences, and monumental masterworks in their respective mediums. Dashiell Hammett’s novel is the smoother, more immersive of the two. His writing style is terse and readable, yet profound and genuinely thought-provoking at times. Some sentences are so well written, that I made audible expressions of approval to myself while reading. The film is incredibly well-made, and a pioneer film in the film noir “genre”. It is impressively true to the source material as well. The striking black-and-white photography and splendid performances are truly something to behold. And the legendary Shakespearean exchange at the end between Polhaus and Spade (not in the novel) is one of the great moments in film. Both versions of the story compliment the other wonderfully, and stand as two of the most influential works of the 20th century.