Private Investigations: The Birth of the Hard-boiled Detective in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart, right) uses his very own investigative methods on the sneaky Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre, left).

Nowadays, devious investigators must be considered an integral part of the Hollywood repertoire. That wasn’t always the case. Their archetype is a guy named Sam Spade, who first appeared on the big screen in 1941. At the time, the character created by writer Dashiell Hammett had already been immensely popular as the hero of the crime novel The Maltese Falcon.

The sinister adaptation by then-unknown director John Huston, however, established him as the forefather of a whole series of cynical detectives up to this day and made the legendary Humphrey Bogart a star. Virtually all contemporary thrillers and works with private investigators are geared to Sam Spade’s hunt for the valuable statue of a bird in one way or other.

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) run a detective agency in San Francisco. The two men are partners, but Spade doesn’t like his associate too much. One day, a blonde stunner who calls herself Miss Wanderly walks into their office. Later that night, Archer is killed. So is a man named Floyd Thursby. It seems that the mysterious lady is a damsel in distress surrounded by dangerous men. Her only hope is Sam, who has some trouble of his own with the police. They suspect him of a murder or two, but there are more killings to come – all because of a precious statuette.

John Huston’s debut as a director excels because of its sinister atmosphere. The San Francisco of The Maltese Falcon resembles a shark tank. All the characters populating the city are rather shady people. Each of them looks after number one first and foremost and tries to survive in such a constantly threatening environment. That’s why nobody can trust anyone else in this microcosm. The same goes for the private eye played by Humphrey Bogart. Never before has an investigator on the big screen been as unscrupulous and cunning as Sam Spade. On the one hand, he emerges as the protector of the weak and the poor. On the other hand, he’s as much an antihero as everybody else in his surroundings.

He flat-out lies and betrays and has no trouble hoodwinking others or sending them to their doom as long as these actions serve his own interests. Such conduct is the only reason why he, unlike many others, hasn’t become a victim yet. Sam Spade is pragmatic and shoots in the dark instead of using his (non-existing) razor-sharp intellect. That makes him the complete opposite of master sleuths in the Sherlock Holmes vein. At the same time, he’s a lot more human than the British egghead and the likes.

The thriller by John Huston is wonderfully immoral. Our hero is an old stray dog of sorts. His world is that of the nightclubs and gambling joints. He’s driven by the same desires and weaknesses as everyone else. Sam Spade is a lone wolf who likes to drink and smoke, has a soft spot for the fair sex, and would probably sell his soul for the right price. He despises the police as representatives of law and order and doesn’t even shy away from sending others to the slaughter. Deaths in his proximity hardly disturb him, either.

Behind the back of his partner Miles Archer, Sam Spade has sex with his associate’s wife. When his colleague is murdered from behind not much later, the private investigator immediately has the nameplates of the agency replaced. That the attractive, but mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), whom he soon starts messing around with, shows all signs of a blonde bombshell, doesn’t stop him from getting involved with her, either. Yet as soon as she becomes a potential threat to him, Spade drops her like a hot potato.

The Maltese Falcon marks the beginning of classic film noir that would impact Hollywood in the two decades to come. The aesthetics of the concrete jungle were influenced by early gangster flicks such as Howard Hawks’s Scarface from 1932, just that the protagonist was one of the good guys at first glance. In reality, he’s nothing but a textbook example of a mercenary, or rather an egoist with an instinct of self-preservation. Our hero only cares for the precious Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade isn’t the only one on the hunt for the golden bird. He’s joined by Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the sneaky Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), as well as the sinister crime boss Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). At the end of the day, the search for the fabulous figurine is a vain one, and that’s exactly what John Huston’s movie is all about. It depicts the hopelessness of the characters. None of them can escape the urban jungle that is San Francisco.

The final sentence by Sam Spade then sums up the film perfectly. He describes the statue as the ‘stuff that dreams are made of.’ Too bad that these very phantasmagoria burst like bubbles, for the promised land is completely out of reach for the characters from The Maltese Falcon as it would be for the dramatis personae in Carol Reed’s The Third Man a few years later. There’s no salvation for them. The conclusion of their stories only marks a worse new beginning, if anything.

John Huston’s debut feature focuses on its star Humphrey Bogart and his onscreen presence. Despite the excellent performances by the remaining cast, there’s only a single scene in the entire movie that doesn’t show his Sam Spade. Because of the camera angles, we get the impression that we see everything through his eyes. Up to The Maltese Falcon, the actor only appeared in supporting roles in gangster films. After the thriller’s success, he advanced to Hollywood’s upper echelons and remained there until his untimely death in 1957.

Initially, the cynical private eye seems to be totally unlikable. He hates his partner and the police and is constantly playing with fire. Yet when he gets entangled in a web of lies and schemes in the course of the movie, he suddenly becomes more agreeable to us. By means of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, The Maltese Falcon further established the femme fatale, the often blonde bombshell, in Hollywood. We can still frequently find her in modern mysteries and thrillers. Likewise, the hard-boiled detective created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler booms in the American dream factory to date.

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