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The Maltese Falcon vs The Maltese Falcon

Given that I’m fresh out of Raymond Chandler books to read, I thought I should give Dashiell Hammett a try. I’ve had a copy of his novel The Maltese Falcon sitting around for some time, but I hadn’t got around to reading it until I picked up a copy of the film on DVD the other day. Well, the film is just fabulous. I was astounded by the quality of Bogart’s acting and the pure malevolence of the character of Sam Spade. He is such a jerk in a way that Philip Marlowe never was: he bullies, extorts, slaps a man around and tells him that he’ll like it, betrays his clients to the police, and more. The Maltese Falcon is an amazing film and one that I’ll want to watch again soon. I liked it so much that I’ve started hunting down DVD copies of other Bogart films: so far, Casablanca, The Big Sleep and Beat the Devil.

Anyway, the novel is similar in terms of storyline, except that, if anything, Spade is even more of a jerk in the book. There’s a scene, depicted on the novel’s cover above, in which Spade forces a woman to strip naked to prove that she hasn’t stolen money from him. Needless to say, the scene didn’t make it into the 1941 film. The dialogue is much the same as in the film – surely this is the novel’s greatest asset. The storyline, in which various nefarious characters try to get their hands on a priceless ‘maltese falcon’, does seem a little contrived, but not overly so. It’s the prose itself which I found a little wanting. It isn’t, I don’t think, up to the standard of Raymond Chandler’s best work. Chandler said so himself in one of his letters (I’m reading The Raymond Chandler Papers currently). Chandler’s other allegation against Hammett in general is that his books ‘lack heart’ and that ‘he never cared for his characters.’

Having read The Maltese Falcon, but none of Hammett’s other work, I’m inclined to agree. Sam Spade is NOT a sympathetic character in the slightest, but nor are any other characters either. There’s nothing of Philip Marlowe’s humanity in Sam Spade. Marlowe is forever refusing to take money from clients, refusing to sleep with various dames, getting himself beaten up unnecessarily and charting the movements of various tiny insects living in his office. I find most of this very endearing. Whereas there’s little positive to say about Sam Spade in this regard. Watching the film, I was astounded at how nasty Spade was, but it’s all there in the book, and then some. I also noticed in the novel that there’s absolutely no interior monologue from Spade’s perspective. We know what he does, and what he says, but not why. To me, this works better in film than on the page.

So there it is. I’m not saying that Hammett is a bad writer. His novel was published in 1930 after all, and it reads pretty well today. For all I know, the prose may be better in his other works. But I’m yet to be convinced that he is anything like as good as my beloved Chandler. Bogart the actor, however…

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