Recently I sat in a dark auditorium to watch a screening of “The Maltese Falcon” for what must have been the 100th time. Most of the others in the audience were college students, and within minutes they began to titter. By the third scene, the titters turned into belly laughs.

The dialogue was so clichéd and the characters were such stereotypes: the cynical detective who works both sides of the law, his spunky and fiercely loyal secretary, the trench coat-draped gunman who talks out of the side of his mouth, the femme fatale who manipulates men with the promise of sex.

The youthful audience reacted as if they were watching a parody—the sort of thing Mel Brooks might make today if he decided to lampoon noir the way he did westerns in “Blazing Saddles.”

Even to me, John Huston’s masterpiece and the Dashiell Hammett novel it was based on seem vaguely antique now. But to those who saw the movie when it was released in 1941, every line of dialogue was a revelation.

Sam Spade, Effie Perine, Wilmer, and Brigid O’Shaugnessy are archetypes today, but Hammett and Huston were the artists who first gave them breath. “The Maltese Falcon”–both the movie and the novel—were works of astounding originality.

The story of Sam Spade’s tussle with a gang of cutthroats hell-bent on finding a jewel-encrusted black bird first appeared 80 years ago as a five-part serial in the pulp magazine “Black Mask.” A few weeks later it was published between hard covers, and American pop culture would never be the same again.

Before the black bird, there were two kinds of crime stories.

Most were puzzle mysteries in which murders were committed in libraries or drawing rooms and then solved by clever detectives who unmasked the guilty through improbable deductive reasoning.

Such stories, which continue to be written today, portray the world as a just and orderly place. When a crime intrudes, it creates an aura of menace and disorder. Then the detective solves it and restores the natural order of things. These stories reflect a Victorian world view, one of faith in progress and human decency.

After that faith was shattered by the carnage of World War I, a new kind of crime story emerged. In it, Raymond Chandler would later write, the world was a madhouse that had “created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for power and profit. The streets were dark with something more than night.”

At first these stories, mostly sordid and poorly written, appeared in five-cent pulp magazines that men read in bars and barbershops and hid from their wives and children.

The pulps gave Hammett and Chandler their start; but with their mastery of style and storytelling, they soon lifted this new kind of crime story from the five-cent magazines and transformed it into literature.

Hammett was the first to do so; “The Maltese Falcon” appeared nine years before Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”

Hammett’s yarn is hard-boiled even by today’s standards. The narrative is spare and unsentimental. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and heavy on the vernacular. Hammett’s familiarity with San Francisco, where the story is set, infused the story with realism, as did his past life as a newsboy, stevedore, and Pinkerton detective.

But the character of Sam Spade is Hammett’s crowning achievement, defining the American ideal of the private detective for all time.

In his preface to the 1934 edition of “The Maltese Falcon,” Hammett described Spade this way: “He is what most of the detectives I worked with would liked to have been and what quite a few of them, in their cockier moments, thought they approached … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with.”

Self-confident to the point of arrogance and wisecracking in the face of danger, Spade defined the cool style that has been mimicked by scores of fictional detectives from Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and by every oh-so-cool celebrity from Dean Martin to Will Smith.

Spade established the now-stereotypical private detective’s attitude toward authority. (“It’s a long while since I burst out crying because a policeman didn’t like me.”) And he introduced the detective-hero’s invulnerability to the wiles of women. (“You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly in your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.’”)

Through Spade, Hammett also defined the detective’s code of honor—a code those who followed, from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, would need to maintain self-respect in a treacherous world. (“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” Spade said. “It doesn’t matter what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”)

Humphrey Bogart’s screen portrayal embodied Hammett’s creation to perfection, and the dark and brooding look Huston gave his movie established the visual style for nearly every noir movie that followed.

Huston’s movie was a remake. Warner Bros. had already based two dreadful films on the book before Huston selected it for his debut as a director. It is said that Huston, when pressured for a script by the Warners, just had his secretary retype the novel.

The story could well be true because his movie is remarkably faithful to Hammett’s work. Each memorable line of dialogue was lifted directly from the novel.

The black bird’s influence on American pop culture is difficult to exaggerate. You can draw a line from Hammett straight through Chandler and Ross Macdonald to today’s masters of the hard-boiled genre—James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, and so many more. And you can do the same from Huston’s movie through the noir films of the 1950s and 1960s to “Pulp Fiction” and TV crime dramas like “Justified.”

Huston’s movie career was brilliant and prolific, but Hammett wrote just five novels and a handful of short stories. He produced nothing in the last 20 years of life before dying of lung cancer in 1961.

Lillian Hellman, his longtime companion, shed no light on what went wrong. “He was a man who kept his work, and his plans for his work, in angry privacy,” she wrote in a 1965. “Even I would not have been answered if I had ever asked, and maybe because I never asked is why I was with him until the last day of his life.”

A few years ago, finding myself in San Francisco, I sought out the echoes of “The Maltese Falcon” that can still be found in the city’s landscape. I strolled down to Burritt Street and read the plaque that marks the spot where Brigid coldly gunned down Spade’s partner, Miles Archer. Then I dropped into John’s Grill at 63 Ellis Street, where Hammett sometimes dined, and toasted the creator of the black bird with a concoction the barkeeper prepares in his honor.

It’s called the Bloody Brigid.

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BRUCE DESILVA worked as a journalist for 40 years before retiring to write crime novels full time. At the Associated Press, he was the writing coach, responsible for training the wire service's reporters and editors worldwide. Previously he directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal. Stories edited by DeSilva have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice), the ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. His first novel, "Rogue Island," was a Publishers Weekly selection as one of the best debut novels of 2010 and won both the Edgar and the MaCavity Awards. The sequel, "Cliff Walk" will be published in May of 2012.

12 responses to “For Lovers of the Hardboiled Crime Story, Life Began with the Black Bird”

  1. Gloria Harrison says:

    This piece is a great homage to Hammett. I’m sad to hear that The Maltese Falcon makes kids titter, but I get it. I first read it and saw it when I was a first year college student in 1996, and of course it was already dated by then. But I fell in love with it. With the whole class, really. And I think what some people who laugh at the movie may not realize is that Hammett was actually a really great story teller. The Glass Key is a really, really great book, for instance (and I would say maybe less heavy on the cliche dialogue.) I read that book and was gripped from cover to cover.

    Welcome to TNB, Bruce. To detective novels!

  2. Tom Hansen says:

    Personally, I think Jim Thompson has aged better than Hammett. Maybe that’s partly because I grew up after the Bogart era, I dunno. Hammet’s dark vision of society still retained some order to it, whereas Thompson’s was more visceral and scary, chaotic. It would be harder to adapt a Hammett novel into a contemporary movie, but Thompson man, wow, I just read the last chapter of A Hell of a Woman (written in 1954) where the protag descends into madness and drug use and I was stunned that it had been written so long ago. Sounded like the present.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I forgot about Thompson. Yeah, The Grifters is super dark. What a great, horrible book.

      • Bruce DeSilva says:

        Hmm. Maybe I should write something about Thomson one of these days. The author of “A Hell of a Woman” was a hell of a writer. A few years ago, when I was working as a writing coach for The Associated Press, I used a scene from “The Killer Inside Me,” the one where he tortures a store clerk with cliches, to drive home the point that cliches should be kept out of news stories.

        And Gloria, thanks for the welcome. It’s great to be a part of this. If you get a chance, take a look at the website for my crime novel, “Rogue Island,” which is coming out in October, and let me know what you think. The URL is brucedesilva.com

      • Tom Hansen says:

        Well to be fair to Hammett he was a generation before Thompson (I think). When you looks at it that way, if Hammett was a kind of response to WWI and Thompson a response to WWII, what would be the response to Vietnam? Vachss? It’s kind of troubling, actually. I think young people relate more to Thompson than Hammett because Thompson is more nihilistic.

        Welcome Bruce. TNB is a great place

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Bruce! Welcome!

    I’m more of a Chandler man than a Hammett guy — even the quote you use here, about the night and the dark; wow, could that guy write — but your piece puts it in perspective for me. I didn’t realize there was so much space between the two.

    I’m sure when my kids are old enough to watch Goldfinger, they’ll have the same reaction the college kids do to Maltese Falcon — they won’t know that it is the source of so much parody and homage.

    Also: John Huston gets double props for also playing Noah Cross so creepily in that other, later noir detective classic, Chinatown.

    I’m looking forward to our interview, which we’ll time to coincide with the Rogue Island release.

  4. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    When I showed VERTIGO to a group of college students they laughed as well, and I was a little disheartened when all of their commentary afterward focused on Kim Novak’s eyebrows in a “to pluck or not to pluck” debate. I wonder if it’s a general inability to appreciate something within the context of it times?

    Welcome! Really enjoyed this piece.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    ‘Angry privacy’. Jesus, those are two words that spell out a story.

    Like Tom, I was always more about Thompson, and I think he’s probably aged better as well. Which isn’t to say I have anything against Hammett and Chandler, both of them were very good at what they did.

    God, I haven’t watched The Maltese Falcon for years.

    There’s a great story about Peter Lorre, who was, apparently, an inherent practical joker. On set for some film or other, the director was giving everyone a hard time, and it was common knowledge that he was sleeping with one of the extras. So Lorre got some sound equipment and wired up the director’s trailer, and then, during a lunch break, when the director and the extra slipped back to his trailer, Lorre flipped the switch.

    Broadcasting the event all through the studio lot.

    Welcome to TNB, Bruce!

  6. Zara Potts says:

    Great piece! I enjoyed it a lot.. Welcome to TNB!

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Bruce-

    Welcome aboard! I’m sort of mad at you for reminding me that detective novels, when well done, are terrific escapes, even when the years have rendered some of their charm antiquated and perhaps a little awkward. Until reading this, I had entirely forgotten about a period when I was living in Sweden, with limited English language books at my disposal, and somehow I got hooked on a series of Finnish mystery novels, where the translator delivered the story a la Raymond Chandler. I always wondered if it was the original Finnish that mimicked Chandler, or if it was the translator’s view on how it should sound.

    Anyway, thanks for this wonderful piece. I have neither seen nor read The Maltese Falcon, although I have a copy of the book upstairs. It is now on my list.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    I watched “Now, Voyager” in a Women’s Studies class my freshman year of college and it too was subject to derision. It was, we thought, inadvertently hilarious. But when you look deeper, think harder, you realize that the story is something more. A woman hemmed in by society’s conventions.

    Then, it doesn’t seem so funny after all.

  9. […] did his crime novelist life begin?  It all started with a bird.  A falcon, to be precise.  From Malta.  A dog was also prominently involved.  Then, he soaked up knowledge from Thomas H. Cook, who […]

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