The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Are there significant differences between the novel and the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon?

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John Huston's 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon is fairly faithful to Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name. He added the scene showing Miles Archer being shot in Burritt Street, but left out the scene where Spade surveys the alley from atop the parapet wall. This makes a few minor differences in how his investigation proceeds, but all in all it is still a good adaptation of Hammett's book, and Humphrey Bogart was quite excellent as Sam Spade. The movie is available on DVD.

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In The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, the murder of Spade's partner Miles Archer is not depicted. In the film version by John Huston, Archer is shown being shot in Burritt Street but the shooter is not shown. Huston may have inserted this scene in order to give good actor Jerome Cowan a little more screen time.

Burritt Street in San Francisco actually exists. It is a blind alley one block long. There is a plaque on a building-wall near the entrance stating that this is where Miles Archer was shot by Brigid O'Shaughnessy. The entrance to the alley is easily observed from the place "where Bush roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown," but Huston does not show that

Spade crossed the sidewalk between iron-walled hatchways that opened above bare ugly stairs, went to the parapet, and, resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street.

The steep vacant lot between Burritt Street and Stockton Street where Miles Archer would have tumbled partway down after being shot no longer exists. Huston may have left the scene out, partly because that particular vacant lot had already been built on by the time he made the film in 1941.

This scene is important because Spade can see from his position at the coping overlooking Stockton Street that there is no way out of the alley except into Bush Street or down the hill through the vacant lot. Spade learns that the police have established that no one went down the hill into Stockton because there are no footprints on the wet ground.

His scrutiny of the scene is what leads him to tell Brigid in the last chapter and near the end of the movie:

"Miles hadn't many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years' experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn't quite that dumb. The only ways out of the alley could be watched from the edge of Bush Street over the tunnel. You'd told us Thursby was a bad actor. He couldn't have tricked Miles into the alley like that, and he couldn't have driven him in. He was dumb, but not dumb enough for that."

The sound of the shot should have attracted attention in this neighborhood of tall brick apartment buildings all set close together. But the police did not ask questions of the surrounding tenants because they took it for granted that Floyd Thursby shot Archer and then, as Lieutenant Dundy tells Spade (in both the book and the movie):

Thursby was shot down in front of his hotel just thirty-five minutes after you left Burritt Street.

At the end of the novel Spade accuses Brigid of murdering his partner in the alley with Thursby's Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. If Brigid had continued to deny it, Spade would have turned her over to the police anyway, and they would have found witnesses in the apartment buildings who had seen a woman going into the alley with Archer and exiting right after the shot was fired. Someone might have even been able to identify that woman as Brigid. This would have added to the circumstantial evidence against her, along with her involvement with Thursby and with the Maltese falcon.

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The movie leaves Gutman's daughter Rhea Gutman out completely. This is probably so she will not compete in attractiveness with Mary Astor, who played Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Rhea is described as outstandingly beautiful. In the novel Brigid is only about twenty-two years old. (She makes this clear in her first interview with Spade in his office.) Mary Astor was obviously in her early thirties. Huston evidently didn't want to cast a younger actress in the role of Brigid because Bogart was getting old and would have looked like a cradle robber alongside an actress in her early twenties. Since Mary Astor was so mature, it makes it seem slightly harder to believe that Spade could have forced a confession out of her so quickly while the police were on their way.

Homosexuality was a forbidden subject when the film was made. They could only hint that Joel Cairo, played so well by Peter Lorre, was a homosexual. Hollywood was heavily censored by the Hays Office in those days. (The same censorship applied when Bogie played private detective Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep.)

Huston does not show Wilmer killing Gutman.

Gutman's lengthy account of the origin and subsequent history of the Maltese falcon was cut drastically by Huston, who wrote the screenplay as well as being director. Sam Spade's lengthy explanation of why he is turning Brigid over to the police was also cut drastically. This is especially regrettable because the American vernacular by Dashiell Hammett is marvelous.

Other scenes in the movie were left out or considerably shortened, e.g., Spade has lunch with Tom Polhaus in the novel and learns about Floyd Thursby's background; Spade makes Brigid take off all her clothing to see whether she stole the thousand-dollar bill.

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Two differences between the book and the film occur in the 1941 film noir detective classic, The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Along with having the distinction of being what critics consider the first Hollywood dark film noir movie (as distinguished from standard film noir), it also has the distinction of having a significant change to the action as Hammett wrote it and the closing line, complete with Shakespearean allusion, thought up and delivered by Humphrey Bogart.

In the novel by Dashiell Hammett, at the resolution of the story, the police report that Gutman has been killed by Wilmer. In the film version, director John Houston shows Wilmer killing Gutman. Since film is visual media and books are narrative media, the change from reporting to showing is a logical one, and one that helps make this film noir so dark. Bogart contributed the final flourish to Hammett's work by originating Spade's last line: "The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of," alluding to Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act IV, Prospero.

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