Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Maltese Falcon: Book and Film

I put off reading The Maltese Falcon for years because I was certain it would be too hard-boiled for me. Now that I have read the book and loved it, I think the problem was with my understanding of the definition of hard-boiled. I thought it was primarily about violence, brutality, and very unlikeable characters.

There are many useful references on the definition of hard-boiled fiction on the internet, but I found Gary Lovisi's article titled The Hard-boiled Way very helpful.

He says:
Some may think it’s only fiction about violence, often very brutal violence, but that’s not a necessary ingredient.
And..
Authentic hard-boiled fiction is also about real people trying to live their lives, to make it in the day-to-day and getting smashed down inch by inch, lower and lower. But they still hang in there. They refuse to go down for the count. 
There is a lot more to the article and I highly recommend it.

I am sure some hard-boiled fiction is too brutal, violent, or dark for me, but this book was not. Most people will be familiar with the plot, so I will include just a brief synopsis. The story is set in San Francisco, in the late 1920's. Sam Spade is a private detective hired by a beautiful and mysterious woman to help her find her sister. Very shortly there are two murders, and the police suspect Spade in at least one of those crimes.  Spade gets mixed up with a strange group of people hunting for an elusive statuette of a falcon.

I loved every word of this book. I could have been biased by my love for the film adaptation (the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart). After reading the book, I watched the film again. Feeling that I just cannot do justice to either the book or the film (and especially if I avoid spoilers), I am keeping this short and sweet. Both the film and the book are very, very good.

John Huston's adaptation starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. Two other actors I especially liked were Ward Bond as a police detective and Elisha Cook, Jr. as the gunsel.

Although the Sam Spade of the book is a different physical type than Humphrey Bogart, I put Bogart in the role as I read the book. I only noticed a few scenes in the book that were omitted from the movie. They were no great loss to the film, but they did add more depth to the characterizations and relationships in the book.  Otherwise the film is pretty much a straight adaptation of the book, with the dialog matching Hammett's writing very closely.

Mary Astor played the role of the femme fatale perfectly. From the beginning, Spade is not sure how much he can trust her. In my opinion, Astor kept that suspense going to the very end. Having seen the movie so many times, I cannot remember my reaction the first time I viewed the movie. And every time I see it again, I find new things to love about it.

The book was the basis for two other film versions prior to the 1941 version. The first adaptation, released in 1931, was also titled The Maltese Falcon and starred  Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. The second, released in 1936, was titled Satan Met a Lady, and starred Bette Davis and Warren William. I have seen both earlier films. They do not come close to the level of the 1941 adaptation, but they are still interesting. There is a great post on Satan Met a Lady at Davy Crockett's Almanack.

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Publisher:   Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992 (orig. pub. 1930)
Length:      217 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      San Francisco
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

28 comments:

  1. I don't think I have read any Hammett yet. I ought to try something, but I'm finding it a bit of a struggle to enjoy things written pre-60, definitely pre-War. Maybe its just not my thing.

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    1. Col, if you liked books written pre-60, I would say hard-boiled and noir fiction would be your thing, because it seems like most of your contemporary reading is in that area. Very interesting.

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  2. I haven't read any hardboiled stuff from that era, and this review makes it seem really appealing.

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    1. I haven't read much that is hard-boiled either, Rebecca, but I will be trying more.

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  3. I recently read The Maltese Falcon too and loved it. I kept picturing Humphrey Bogart too. I've only seen parts of the movie, but I've put it on my Netflix list.

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    1. I hope you enjoy the movie when you watch it. It is one of my favorites.

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  4. I'm so glad you took the opportunity to read this one, Tracy. I admit to being a cranky purist about film adaptations, so I'm delighted to agree with you that this one is great. Bogart may not be the same physical type as Spade, but he matches the character, at least for me.

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    1. We agree on all points, Margot. I am glad I finally read this book.

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  5. I like the quotes and your assessment of hard-boiled. My one-word analysis of hard-boiled is this: cynical (i.e., the protagonists and/or the narrators are among the most cynical realists in fiction). Well, that's my view, but I could be wrong. But you remind me that I need to include some hard-boiled authors and titles in my reading list for my new blog venture, Crimes in the Library. I'm open to recommended authors and titles.

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    1. Robert, I look forward to any reviews you write on hard-boiled books. I am new to that sub-genre, but have a lot of books in that area I hope to read soon.

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    2. I've never even heard of the term hard boiled fiction, only hard boiled people, but I love the film and Bogie, I've just never got around to reading the book, obviously I should rectify that.

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    3. If you love the film, Katrina, I think you would like the book.

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  6. Same problem here: put off reading this book - never seen the film
    Due to your recmmendation this looks like a project May or June! Thanks for keeping Crime Ficton fun!

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    1. I found both the book and the film to be very enjoyable, Nancy, but I don't know how I would have liked the book if I had never seen the film ... and so many times.

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  7. Lovely reminder of a great book and a great film - I've seen the famous one of course....

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    1. Thank you, Moira. It is always good to find that I like a book even more than I expected to. So often, it is the other way around.

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  8. So glad you liked this one - for me it's a genuine classic and, with the glass key, one fo the highpoints f hardboiled crime fiction. The 1941 movie adaptation is the best but I really, really like the 1931 edition - it has a tart, gritty, tarnished quality that the more romantic remake lacks.

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    1. I should watch the 1931 and 1936 film versions again, Sergio. When I was working on this post I read a comparison that talked about the differences because the first version was pre-Code and had less restrictions.

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  9. Having become a Bogart fan in my (very!) early teens, I may have seen the film before I finally read the novel. But after having done so and seen the film a number of times, one night (quite probably a school night) when a local channel ran the movie once again and the parent and brother had gone to bed, I watched it with the book open in my lap, following the general narrative and dialogue. As your review points out, Tracy, John Huston of necessity omitted a few sequences (e.g., the Flitcraft chapter) and characters, but retained all of the crucial moments. Along with gems such as Hitchcock's "Psycho" and the 1962 version of "The Manchurian Candidate," the 1941 "Falcon" ranks—for me, anyway—as one of the best-ever book-to-film adaptations of them all.

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    1. That is an interesting approach, Barry, following the book along with the movie. I can't remember when I first watched the movie. My father was a Bogart fan, but when I was in my teens and twenties, it wasn't that easy to see old movies on TV. I also have not read The Manchurian Candidate but have seen the 1962 film many times. I do plan to read the book this year.

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  10. I had seen the movie several times before I read the book. I liked the book. I think of myself as not liking hard-boiled crime fiction, but I was fine with this book.

    Then i rewatched the Bogart movie and got even more out of it. So, then I went on a Bogart film spree and had a great time, especially enjoying the four films he made with Lauren Bacall: The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo and Dark Passage. Such movie classics!

    I went on and read Hammett's The Thin Man, which I liked very much and then resaw that film with William Powell and Myrna Loy, a treasure.

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    1. Kathy, I have watched all of those Bogart and Bacall movies except Dark Passage. For some reason we never get around to watching it. I liked both The Thin Man movie and the book. I read the book twice and will re-read again someday.

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  11. I read the book early on, perhaps before I even had the label "hard boiled" attached to it in my mind. Labels are rarely good things in that way. After reading and loving everything Raymond Chandler wrote, I started in on Hammett, first with Dain Curse, then Red Harvest, then this. I also have read the shorter, tighter version as first published in Black Mask, and like it best of all three (novel, film, novelette). That said, it's a favorite film, along with the The Big Sleep.

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    1. I agree with you on labels, Richard. Labels add more confusion and sometimes mislead. When I first read mysteries when I was (much) younger, I just read what was available and I guess if I ran into an author that wasn't my type of writing, I moved on. At that point it was what was available in the library so I was limited to what they stocked on the shelves.

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  12. Tracy, a fine combo! I enjoy reading hardboiled crime fiction and this famous work by Hammett is very much on my list of books to read. However, I haven't seen any of the film adaptations and, in fact, I have only heard of the Bogart version.

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    1. Prashant, I would not have heard about the two earlier versions or watched them if it was not for my husband, who knows much more about films, old and new, than I do. The Bogart version is the best, of course, but if you have a chance to see the older ones, they are worth a viewing.

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  13. I loved this when I read it--it definitely helped that the Bogart film (which I saw first and loved) takes so much of the dialogue straight from the book. It's one of the few hard boiled stories I really, truly love.

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    1. I agree, Bev, I am sorry I came to this book so late, and I am sure I will reread it.

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