The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Places Discussed

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*San Francisco

*San Francisco. California port city in which the novel is set. San Francisco is depicted as a dark and corrupt place, one in which protagonist and unsentimental private detective Sam Spade says that most things in San Francisco “can be bought or taken.” To emphasize the connection between the characters, particularly Spade, and the corrupt city setting, Spade refers to San Francisco as his “burg.” The fact that most of the story’s action occurs at night further emphasizes the dark side of society and human nature.

Spade’s apartment

Spade’s apartment. Home of Sam Spade on San Francisco’s Post Street, a well-appointed bachelor’s apartment with a sitting room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a separate entry foyer. Many significant scenes are set in the apartment. For example, Spade is there when he learns of his partner’s death through a late-night phone call and is later visited there by the police.

Spade appears to be comfortable and at ease when he is in his apartment, but it cannot be considered a completely safe haven. The police repeatedly appear there to harass him, and in one scene, a fight breaks out there between Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo. It is also the apartment in which Spade turns in Brigid, the woman he says he loves, to the police.

Spade’s office

Spade’s office. Private detective office on San Francisco’s Sutter Street in which many of the novel’s daytime scenes take place. Setting daylight scenes in the office suggests that Spade’s professional headquarters may be more above board, perhaps more moral, than his apartment or the hotel rooms of other characters. Effie Perine, Spade’s secretary and the most consistently upright character in the story, is also always seen at the office. The office contains an outer room, in which Effie’s desk is located, and an inner room that Spade shared with his partner, Miles Archer, until the latter is killed at the beginning of the novel.

Coronet Hotel

Coronet Hotel. Hotel on San Francisco’s California Street at which Brigid O’Shaughnessy stays after she leaves the St. Mark’s Hotel, where someone has searched her room. Later, her room at the Coronet is searched—another indication of the difficulty of finding safety in Hammett’s San Francisco.

Archer’s murder spot

Archer’s murder spot. Bush Street location at which Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is gunned down. The murder occurs at night while Archer is tailing Floyd Thursby while working for Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Dark and lonely, the murder scene borders Chinatown, which Hammett often depicts as a frightening, duplicitous place. The nighttime setting intensifies the dread and danger of this spot.

Alexandria Hotel

Alexandria Hotel. San Francisco hotel in which Casper Gutman, the leader of those seeking the falcon statue that gives the novel its title, is staying. Spade visits the Alexandria twice. On his first visit, Gutman drugs him. The Alexandria is another location filled with both danger and lies.

Historical Context

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Prohibition and Gangsters
Sale of alcohol had been illegal in the United States since 1920, when the 18th Amendment was ratified and signed into law. Congress passed the National Prohibition act, also referred to as the Volstead Act, to provide law enforcement agencies with the means to enforce the ban. While the intent of the amendment was to hinder the use and abuse of alcohol, it ended up having the unintended effect of creating a profitable industry for criminals to rise to power.

As federal agents struggled to control the production, sale, and...

(This entire section contains 536 words.)

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transportation of alcohol, those who were willing to take chances and oppose the law saw great profits. As a result, criminals found it in their best interests to organize their distribution networks to regional chains. Although illegal, liquor became easily available, most notably in “speakeasies,” which were underground nightclubs. Profits were high enough to absorb the costs incurred when federal agents raided speakeasies and confiscated or destroyed liquor supplies, and local law enforcement agencies were bribed to make sure that such raids were infrequent.

Each town had its criminal empire. Chicago, for instance, spawned the most famous gangster of the time, Al Capone, who rose to power in 1925. In the next two years, he made 60 million dollars through the sale of liquor alone. Criminal syndicates like Capone’s, and dozens of others like it across the land, were manned by low-level foot soldiers and those who patterned themselves after the gangsters. By the late twenties the gangster image was well known in American popular culture. Hammett gives Floyd Thursby, murdered early in The Maltese Falcon, the background of a typical gang member of the time. Wilmer Cook, the young henchman for Casper Gutman, clearly patterns his menacing stance after pop culture images of hoodlums of the time, an image that Sam Spade openly mocks.

The Great DepressionThe Maltese Falcon was published at a time when America needed escapist literature to deal with the harsh economic realities that had suddenly come crashing down, first on the nation and then on the whole world. During the 1920s, the economy had sailed along at a comfortable rate, with stock prices climbing year by year. In the absence of any major international conflict, the overall mood was one of peace and prosperity. That changed on October 29, 1929, just months before this novel was printed. On that day, known as Black Tuesday, the stock market lost about 12 percent of its value, which, combined with massive losses the day before, started a downward trend that continued for the next three years. By the end of November, investors had lost 100 billion dollars; by mid-1932 the stock market was worth only 11 percent of its value before the crash.

The instability in the market drove America into one of the worst depressions it has ever experienced. Banks and businesses closed, causing ordinary people to lose both their jobs and their savings. Unemployment went from around 6 percent before the crash to nearly 25 percent in the 1930s. The government tried policies meant to stimulate the economy, but real economic growth was stalled until the start of World War II, in 1939, when America provided munitions for the warring countries before being drawn into the conflict itself.

Literary Style

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While a traditional hero might be counted on to do the right thing for the common good, the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, responds to every situation by examining what he himself stands to gain from it. Spade is willing to betray his friends, and he has an affair with his business partner’s wife. He does not work within the law, but checks in with his lawyer regularly to see how far outside of the law he can go. And he is an untrusting lover, accusing Brigid O’Shaughnessy of duplicity the moment that the falcon is discovered to be fake. Hammett establishes his questionable moral position in the novel’s first paragraph, describing him as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

In the end, Spade explains to Brigid O’Shaughnessy that his seemingly amoral behavior is just a ruse that he uses to draw criminals to him, which is good for the detective business. He behaves heroically, forsaking the money and the girl who is begging for his support, in favor of a higher ideal. The novel successfully mocks traditional heroic values and at the same time reinforces them.

The Maltese falcon that is at the center of this story is described as being made of gold and jewel encrusted, making it very valuable, with a unique history that makes its value inestimable. Readers never see the real Maltese falcon in the story, but its importance drives the plot ahead. It is a metaphor for Gutman’s obsession, Cairo’s greed, O’Shaughnessy’s duplicity, and Spade’s curiosity.

Film director Alfred Hitchcock is said to have coined the phrase “the MacGuffin” to represent the object in a film or novel that all of the characters are seeking. The object can be something of monetary value, like the Maltese falcon, or of strategic value, such as top-secret government documents. Sometimes, novels never even tell readers what is in the briefcase or vial or envelope that is being hunted. The reason that an otherwise irrelevant term like “MacGuffin” is used is that the desired object usually is irrelevant, in and of itself, becoming important only when it is interpreted as a metaphor for the characters’ motives and desires.

Social Concerns

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In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett shifts locale from Red Harvest's (1929) small Western mining town to the cosmopolitan city of San Francisco. Once more, though, it can be argued that the setting represents Hammett's view of American society. The comparatively smaller cast of characters concentrates and sharpens his view. Effie Perrine is the only decent person in the book, and she is shown as a hopeless romantic idealist, incapable of distinguishing between reality and illusion, between good and evil. The rest of the city is full of misfits, crooks, adulterers, thieves, deviants, and murderers. Until readers are persuaded to the contrary at the end of the novel, even Sam Spade is less than a desirable character, the prime suspect in the recent murder of his partner in detection, Miles Archer. The single-minded quest for the jewel-encrusted statuette known as the Maltese Falcon might be Hammett's way of propounding his Marxist ideology of American acquisitive greed and the selfishness of capitalist theories of private ownership. For the most part, though, the social criticism of Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (1929) has been exchanged for a more universal, existential perspective on contemporary American life.

Compare and Contrast

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1930: It is considered acceptable and even friendly for an employer like Sam Spade to address an employee like Effie Perine with terms of affection such as “angel” and “precious.”

Today: The use of such terms, usually associated with romance, is socially and legally forbidden, as they might be used to pressure an employee into an unwanted relationship.

1930: Steamship passage from Hong Kong to San Francisco can take weeks but is the most common way of travel.

Today: The trip from Hong Kong to San Francisco can be done by jet plane in a matter of hours.

1930: Hotels have house detectives who keep an eye on the guests to make sure that they are not bringing illegal activities into the hotel. Usually, house detectives are retired policemen.

Today: Computerized information systems make it easier for ordinary desk clerks to check background information more thoroughly than house detectives were ever able to do.

1930: Americans think of private detectives as being on the border between legal and illegal activities.

Today: The private eye mythos still appears sometimes on television, but people generally do not believe the job to be as glamorous as it once was presented to be.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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The Maltese Falcon is considered by most critics to be Hammett's best detective novel, although some literary experts prefer The Glass Key (1931). The novel shows the writer at his most original, having abandoned the idolatrous first-person narration of a minor character found in the classic detective story for the more sober, objective third-person perspective. The novel is also more homogeneous, due in part to the fact that it is not nearly as much a product of the amalgamation of several short stories. Abandoning the often gratuitous and numbing violence of Red Harvest, Hammett here focuses on deceit and illusion as the dominant factors in modern life.

Stylistically, The Maltese Falcon and the next novel The Glass Key bear great similarities to the novels and stories of Ernest Hemingway. The terse, short declarative sentences, the lack of authorial and narrative commentary are equal to the best of Hemingway's, and there is still much debate as to who was influenced by whom. It is deplorable that Hammett, due to his need for money to finance his expensive binges, never did write the mainstream novels and stories he had intended to write before the demands of Hollywood and his publishers limited his literary production to detective fiction.


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Many of Hammett's works were adapted as radio plays in the 1930s and 1940s; particularly popular were the series based on The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon, as well as two series called The Fat Man (1946-1950) and The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946-1951).

Additionally, most of Hammett's novels were made into films. Roadhouse Nights, filmed by Paramount in 1930, is based on Red Harvest. Warner Brothers filmed The Maltese Falcon three times between the years 1931 and 1941. The first version, carrying the same title as the novel, starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and was directed by Roy Del Ruth. The second version appeared in 1936 under the name Satan Met a Lady and was the least successful version. Directed by William Dieterle, it starred Warren William and Bette Davis. The novel was filmed once more, in 1941, as The Maltese Falcon. This version was the most successful, both critically and popularly. Director John Huston's first film, it featured Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. The Glass Key also was adapted by Paramount into two films of the same title, once in 1935 and again in 1942 with Stuart Heisler directing Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake.

Several versions and spin-offs of The Thin Man have made it to the screen. The first version was adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacket in the 1934 film directed by W. S. Van Dyke, featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy; most recently, a 1975 Universal "Movie of the Week" production was made for television. In 1978, The Dain Curse was made into a three-part television film by CBS.

Media Adaptations

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The first screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was the film Dangerous Female (1931). It was directed by Roy Del Ruth and stars Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as “Ruth Wonderly.”

Another adaptation was made in 1936, as Satan Met a Lady. Starring Bette Davis and Warren William, this version gives Dashiell Hammett credit for his novel but alters the characters and situations: In it, detective Ted Shayne is hired by Valerie Purvis to locate a ram’s horn covered with precious jewels. It was directed by William Dieterle and is available on videocassette from Warner Home Video.

The 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon is one of the most influential Hollywood movies ever made, defining the detective picture for generations to come. It is noted for its close adherence to Hammett’s original dialogue, its near-perfect casting, and for being the first film in legendary director John Houston’s long and distinguished career. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr., the film is available on DVD and VHS from Warner.

The 1974 film The Black Bird parodied the The Maltese Falcon, presenting the son of Sam Spade, who has inherited his father’s detective agency and set out on his own quest for the Maltese falcon. The film stars George Segal, Lee Patrick, and Elisha Cook Jr. (from the 1941 version), and was directed by David Giler. It is available on videocassette from Columbia/ Tristar.

In the 1982 film Hammett, directed by Wim Wenders and produced by Francis Ford Copella, the author becomes involved in investigating the disappearance of a cabaret singer. This fictional story is based in fact and recreates the world in which Hammett lived and traveled. Frederick Forrest plays Hammett. It is available on VHS from Warner.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cuppy, Will, “Mystery and Adventure,” in New York Herald Tribune, February 23, 1930, p. 17.

Curtis, William, “Some Recent Books,” in Town & Country, February 15, 1930.

“Judging the Books,” in Judge, March 1, 1930.

MacDonald, Ross, Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, Capra Press, 1981, p. 112.

Further Reading
Gregory, Sinda, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Coming from outside of the small, specific world of detective fiction, Gregory examines Hammett’s novels with the same critical eye that one might apply to the works of Dostoyevsky or John Updike.

Layman, Richard, Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979. This book gives a comprehensive, painstakingly assembled survey of Hammett’s many novels and stories, with the detailed publication history of each.

Marling, William, “Dashiell Hammett, Copywriter,” in The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, University of Georgia Press, 1995, pp. 93–147. Marling’s analysis of Hammett, and of The Maltese Falcon in particular, fits into a larger context of detective fiction in books and films.

Wolfe, Peter, Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980. Wolfe approaches the author’s life as a mystery, piecing together clues from his writings to create a convincing portrait of the man.


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Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Ballantine, 1972. This interesting essay by another famous American hard-boiled mystery writer discusses the shortcomings of the traditional British mystery novel and the advances in the genre inspired by Hammett. Chandler and Hammett are credited with being the fathers of the modern American mystery novel.

Layman, Richard. Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. The best available biography of Dashiell Hammett, who led a colorful life and resembled Sam Spade in his moral code and unsentimental view of human nature. Discusses the genesis of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s most acclaimed novel, in detail.

Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Contains a thorough discussion of Hammett’s life and art, with considerable attention to The Maltese Falcon. Excellent reference notes and selected bibliography.

Nolan, William F. Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin, 1969. A book about Hammett’s life and writing by an author who has established a reputation as an authority on American crime fiction in general and on Dashiell Hammett in particular. Discusses The Maltese Falcon thoroughly.

Wolfe, Peter. Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1980. An author who has specialized in the study of hard-boiled crime writers presents full-length analyses of Hammett’s stories and novels. “Beams Falling” alludes to the much-debated “Flitcraft Episode” in The Maltese Falcon.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide