Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sustained performance: Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON

No, I hadn't read this before. No, haven't seen the movie.

However, as soon as Sam Spade called someone "Sweetheart," I heard Bogart saying it, and something about the character—really, all the characters—fell into place. Everyone is performing.

You probably know the plot's essentials: Detective Sam Spade is tasked by a woman of questionable backstory to protect her from harm. Her tale is a ruse, and Spade is sucked into a quest for a centuries-old object of great value . . . and even more questionable backstory. There are murders, punches, and many guns drawn. (Oddly, though quite a few people are shot, every time we see a gun produced, it's quickly rendered useless; as in a Greek drama, the murders take place offstage. One man does drop dead at Spade's feet, but he's been shot (half a dozen times, supposedly) elsewhere.)

From the first scene, Spade is performing, not telling us what he truly thinks—either about the new case or about his soon-to-be-late partner. With every person he meets, he adopts a radically different tone. Much of Hammett's description focuses on Spade's changing face as he moves through responses and selects the one most useful for the moment at hand.

The other characters, as well, are performing. Some of this is the narrative's problem: everyone seems to be playing a scripted part, reciting speeches that announce who they are—though, in every case for the main players, who they are is concealed by these words. The leader of the gang in search of the Maltese falcon may be the most honest, but even he manages some late moments in which he alters the expectations of other characters in response to changing circumstances. It's fitting, because the falcon in question is, itself, a performer, a deceiver.

I expected storytelling more along the lines of Chandler, but the writing isn't nearly as good. Most of the time, it's direct and efficient, and when it isn't, it falters. Baroque metaphors and phrases leave the reader puzzled. Phrasing is sloppy, as when Spade checks his watch "on his wrist" (where else might it have gone?) or he rides down from a hotel's upper floors "in an elevator" (as if we hadn't considered that elevators provide rides). Hammett sometimes finds himself at a loss for a bit of interstitial description and usually reverts to the details of Spade's face once again.

It's easy to see why Hollywood thought this would make a great movie. The characters themselves behave cinematically, trying to persuade anyone who is watching, making wild gestures on the story's stage in the hopes that they aren't the next to be dispatched, permanently, to the wings.


Mark Pontin said...

[1] 'Phrasing is sloppy, as when Spade checks his watch "on his wrist" (where else might it have gone?)'

It might have been on a fob chain or ribbon hanging from a jacket or waistcoat pocket, Bill. That's what a lot of men did with their watches back in 1929 when the novel was published.

[2] 'I expected storytelling more along the lines of Chandler, but the writing isn't nearly as good.'

Yeah, Hammett and Chandler are night and day style-wise. From Hammett you won't get any of the "she was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window" metaphors and similes you get from Chandler.

Still, as with the watch business, I think you're bringing your 2017-encoded expectations about what Hammett should be doing and what good writing is, and missing that in THE MALTESE FALCON Hammett pulled off a very interesting stunt – certainly, he managed something that was extremely heterodox in the context of his era‘s pulp/popular writing.

That is, there's absolutely no interiority given to any character in the novel anywhere, IIRC. It's as pure and free of that as a French nouveau roman from the 1950s (though to different ends). Narration in THE MALTESE FALCON tells us only what a external camera and microphone would reveal as the characters talk, posture and act, so the reader can only infer what their motives and feelings might be.

Hammett did this – for whatever reasons – at a time when I don’t think anybody wrote whole books like that, and pulp writers in particular wrote to literally formulaic patterns of -- as I've seen some pulp-era authors actually describe it -- three-step stimulus-reaction units.

The three-step formula ran like this: firstly, there was the motivating stimulus ('a man came through the door, a black revolver clutched in his meaty fist'); secondly, the POV character's emotional response because emotion was what pulp writers understood themselves to be in the business of selling ('Alan stared back at the man, fierce-eyed, feeling anger surging up inside him'); and then, thirdly, the POV character's physical response/reaction ('Then he stuck a lightning blow with his fist, moving so rapidly the crook had hardly blinked before he was down on the ground').

Is what Hammett did in THE MALTESE FALCON a useful trick with applications elsewhere? I'd say so. It resembles what David Mamet does, for instance. It’s a dramatist’s way of organizing and presenting story, in other words. Nothing wrong with that.

Mark Pontin said...

How the hell are you, by the way?

William Preston said...

Holy cow! You live! (We both do, evidently.) I won't get into personal stuff here. Do you still have the same gmail address?

Thanks for that lengthy response to my post. I don't know that I'm bringing a 2017 perspective in my reaction so much as an exhaustion with how that style worked on me, but I take your point(s). Seeing the style as something of a modernist pose can help—though it still became, for me, tedious in its execution, even while, at times, it worked beautifully and with efficiency.

The three-step model you describe reminds me of (though it's not the same as) Eisenstein's approach to film using the Hegelian dialectic: image/reaction/consequence mirroring thesis/antithesis/synthesis. I adore (who doesn't?) Battleship Potemkin, but once you see that structure, the film becomes by turns freshly riveting and (in rare moments) annoying. Eisenstein is a genius, and he finds marvelously creative ways to structure his shots, so the pattern almost never feels repetitive, but there are times you'd like something more fluid to occur in linking various actions, and Eisenstein won't do that. (Of course, he had already advanced the grammar of film in a host of ways, so it's hardly a critique.)

Mark Pontin said...

[1] Yeah. I endure. Same gmail address. I can also be reached at

[2] Yeah, Eisenstein is relevant. I brought up David Mamet and there's a little book of his, ON DIRECTING FILM, wherein he lays out his storytelling methods. So, now you mention Eisenstein, I do recall Mamet repeatedly stressing in his book that he derived much of the approach he lays out there from Eisenstein.

As with Eisenstein, Mamet's approach can get annoyingly constricted or over-constructed and just plain mannered. Nevertheless, Mamet makes a lot of sense

[3] Glad to hear you're writing.