Each year I teach an upper-level undergraduate course on U.S. Cultural History. One my favorite parts of the course is discussing Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The novel allows me to make any number of observations that develop the larger themes of the course. It enables me to push the students on their formal analysis because I get to introduce a new genre: the hard-boiled detective novel. The process of formal analysis also allows me to point out that the novel offers a striking example of a MacGuffin–a plot device that catches the reader’s and the characters’ attention but is unimportant in itself except as a means of driving the plot forward. And finally I get to situate the formal analysis in a wider context–the novel appeared in 1930 shortly after the start of the Great Depression–which usually generates some befuddled conversation about why such a genre would be developed at that point in time and what that does for our understanding of the novel. And the students just love the book.
Here’s what I don’t do: I don’t make them watch the brilliant 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston. How can I justify this? I really can’t.
The film is a tightly constructed, perfect example of film noir, possibly the first film noir. Humphrey Bogart stepped into the role of Sam Spade as though the character were a tailored suit. Spade, a seemingly amoral private detective who nevertheless still abides by some kind of code, becomes even more of an enigma in Bogart’s performance. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it,” Spade says. “It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” That Spade detested his partner makes this statement of principle all the more striking. He seems not to live by so many of the wider society’s principles, but he has some kind of internal code, though what it amounts to is unclear. In Bogart’s movie rendition, Spade’s enigma is never explained. He stays ambiguous to the end.
By contrast, in the book Dashiell Hammett makes a point of departing from the tight storyline by offering one key window into Spade’s psyche and motivation: the Flitcraft parable. Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are laying in bad after making love when Spade tells her the story. When he was much younger he had been hired to track down a guy, Flitcraft, that had survived a near fatal accident. A heavy beam fell from the sky as he is walking by a construction sight, narrowly missing what would surely have been his early, accidental death. He walked away from the construction site but then never came home to his wife and child for lunch, as he had always done up to that point. He simply disappeared: “He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”
About five years later Spade was working as a private investigator when he heard something about a guy working up in Spokane who matched Flitcraft’s description, though he is living under the name of Charles Pierce. He went up, found out it was him, and realized that Flitcraft had left town only to settle down, find another wife, start another family, and basically recreate his old life. Having no specific instructions, Spade decided to sit down with Flitcraft to ask him why he had done it. Flitcraft told him that he had been rattled by the beam nearly killing him. Spade explains of Flitcraft, “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” This made Flitcraft feel as though an orderly life was much beside the point, given the wild improbability of the world and the chaos of existence. To follow an orderly life, Flitcraft realized, was to get “out of step, and not in step, with life.” So he took off to Spokane but then slowly adjusted and fell back into old patterns. “That’s the part of it I always liked,” Spade explains. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
Students find this story even more of an enigma, but it allows me to make my essential contextualizing move. Some people read Flitcraft’s assumed name, Charles Pierce, as a sly reference to Charles Sanders Peirce, who incorporated probability into his wider theory of pragmatic truth. And the story seems to suggest the wider issue of the meaning of the universe, to the extent that there can be any meaning in a wildly improbably event. The parable reveals humans to be creatures of habit who follow convention in wider conformity with their perceptions of existence. But it also suggests an existential terror that humans cover with their conventional rules. Given the utter conventionality of these rules, Spade’s ethic seems as good as anyone else’s, and his rules might be closer to being “in step with life.” It’s a dark vision, but one that makes sense in the wider Depression era (or so I suggest to my students), when the normal rules that governed society seemed to be breaking down and as the war in Europe loomed.
But the film version lacks that Flitcraft parable, which makes Spade, and the film itself, like a smooth glass sphere. I can’t get anywhere to grip. My contextualizing powers fail. Why would film noir emerge at that time? Ben Alper’s post yesterday pointed out that the idea of film noir (as a coherent genre) was French before it was appropriated into the United States, but even without the name, it certainly became a style of film-making in the United States before there was a word for it. That alone makes the question even more pressing. Why would filmmakers, working without a coherent theory of film noir, turn to this style of film-making when they did? And maybe more importantly, is that even an interesting question? Because even seventy years later, The Maltese Falcon is still an amazing movie.