THE MALTESE FALCON: How Not to Screw Up a Novel

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We’ve all seen them, those movie adaptations of our favorite books, movies that turn great works into steamy piles of shit, often unrecognizable from the source material (see: “To Have and Have Not”). But once in a while, a movie based on a novel satisfies the movie-going audience as well as the novel’s loyal fans. Every novelist thinks, damn it, why can’t Hollywood do with my novel, each word of which is spun gold, what director John Huston did so simply, yet so brilliantly, with Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel, The Maltese Falcon?

Cover, Vintage Paperback Edition, 1992.


In 1941, Huston took Hammett’s already lean prose and pared it down to bone and sinew, literally tearing out pages from the 1929 novel and writing a screenplay from what was left. A number of Hammett’s lines of dialogue remained verbatim. Why was Huston so slavishly devoted to the original text? Every producer or director feels some sort of holy compulsion to butcher the work. I suspect Huston, being a first-timer, reined in his ego because he recognized that Hammett’s novel and suspense techniques were already sharply cinematic.

The result was that rare, happy marriage of book and movie with which both author and director are thrilled. The movie is widely considered to be the first in the film noir mode, painted in dark, angular shadows and the terse, point-blank speech of the book. The Maltese Falcon, in both print and film, is the very definition of the hardboiled mystery genre, and its jaded hero, Sam Spade, remains the quintessential private eye…cynical, smart, and…well, hardboiled.

Add to that the unique talents of Sidney Greenstreet, as Kasper Gutman, the “Fat Man,” and Peter Lorre, as the scheming, effete Joel Cairo, and you get a classic.*  Watching Spade use Cairo’s own fist to punch him out never gets old. Great casting indeed, marred only by the rather homely, overacting Mary Astor. Seriously, Mary Astor? Huston couldn’t do better? In his defense, however, she wasn’t the first choice.

Viewpoints being what they were in 1941, the homosexuality of Joel Cairo went unmentioned in film, although Huston sneaked a couple of suggestive lines and scenes past the rat bastard censors of the Hays Office. No matter. Lorre plays the role brilliantly, and his exasperated, nasal outburst hurled at Gutman – “You…you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead, you!”–is priceless.

Hammett’s publisher was also adamantly opposed to anything polite 1929 audiences would think vulgar, and Hammett chafed under that. How could he write believably about the underworld without using the language of the underworld? So he worked around the strictures and sneaked the naughty stuff in. Spade refers to Wilmer, the punk kid with the guns, as “the gunsel.” Hammett’s publisher assumed this was slang for, well, a gun-toting punk. That’s exactly what Hammett hoped would be the assumption, when in reality, “gunsel” was Americanized slang for the Yiddish “gendzel”, which meant “gosling” or “little goose.” The term described a young homosexual man kept by an older man for favors. Gunsel has been incorrectly used to describe a gun punk ever since Hammett pulled the wool over his publisher’s eyes.

The Maltese Falcon remains a treat on page and screen, and to this day provides authors with the unreasonable hope that their work will yet be translated to film, just as they’d written it.

Silly authors.

*Historical footnote! The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was named “Fat Man”, after Greenstreet’s character.

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