RARA-AVIS: Hammett & the New

From: Frederick Zackel (fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 29 Jan 2009

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    (I sent the following email off-list to Seth Hardwood, but I reconsidered and sending to my fellow rar-avians. I like discussions on Hammett. What follows is much of what I teach about Hammett in both my CALIFORNIA LITERATURE and my DETECTIVE IN LITERATURE courses. Be critical, folks. Chew it to pieces. What you correct about this I will pass on to my students ... and take all the credit for.)

    Imagine Sam Spade as Gandalf the White Wizard from The Rings. Sam Spade as the Good Warlock makes mythopoetic sense -- if the Falcon itself is the Ring. Like the Ring, how each person "touches" the Falcon describes their character & thus determines their fate. (What did Mary Austin say about Fate?)

    It is a testament to Dashiell Hammett that we continue to read, and re-read, this book even after we know all of the surprises, even after some of them have been so copied as to become cliches in the genre.

    In The Maltese Falcon, character portrayal is at least as significant as plot execution. That's why it's still worth re-reading even after you know what happens. And in spite of all the surprises lost, there is still a delicious sense of ambiguity in the story. Does Sam love Brigid? When did Sam figure out that ________ was the murderer? What in hell does the Flitcraft story mean?

    Brigid O'Shaughnessy: "I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know."

    Sam Spade: "You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere."

    From the classic film noir novie "The Maltese Falcon," 1941.

    Okay, okay, a Seattle Times film critic claims film noir is the great American genre, but in truth it is the great California genre. Something about the California Dream morphing into the California nightmare, ah, that is our real anchor.

    Noir has its roots in Dash Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It has deep roots inside the Flitcraft Parable. It is a way to look at Life, the Universe and Everything.

    The answer is a .45 caliber.

    Remember how the tv show 24 ended last season? Jack Bauer standing on the California coastline with a gun in his hand? He just got told he can never see the woman he loves ever again?

    That's noir, baby, noir.

    Did you notice . . .

    This is not the FIRST hard-boiled novel. Just the most important.

    Spade had all the information he needed to solve Miles' murder a few chapters in.

    The historic aspects of the Falcon compare favorably with the current best-seller The DaVinci Code, but they are not as important or as over-the-top in the other book.

    Spade, who, like Dashiell Hammett, is tall, extremely thin, blond, with an angular face that looks like it's composed from a series of v's (giving him a rather satanic look), has his story told in an extremely objective third person style that's very close to being the prose equivalent of a camera and tape recorder.

    Staying on the outside like that, never going into someone's mind or describing an emotion except through its physical manifestation, does get a bit strained.

    Notice the detailed description of how Spade rolls a cigarette--a medium-long paragraph, with complete instructions--and the head-to-toe listing of every piece of clothing Spade puts on when he gets dressed after being called about Archer's death.

    (For undies, Spade wears a union suit plus garters to hold up his socks, so he was very bundled up. San Francisco is cold.)

    When some students read the novel, they are always bewildered by the descriptions of cigarette rolling. Some students have noted that Chandler does the same thing with Marlowe's coffee making.

    One of the key elements of this course is that California's major literary figures never wrote for English classes or for academe. Most worked or are working in what is called genre fiction. Popular Fiction written for Money.

    A good working definition of Popular Culture is "traditional middle-class values placed on trial in a carnival atmosphere." So what are the traditional middle-class values on trial in The Maltese Falcon?

    Curiously enough, much of California fiction is centered around the character of the urban and urbane private eye. More on this later on, folks.

    As the syllabus states, students are required to read Dashiell Hammett's
    "The Maltese Falcon" and then watch the 1941 film version starring Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade.

    Dash Hammett is the most influential literary source for modern detective fiction. Sam Spade is important to this course because he was the first internationally popular fictional character created by a California writer. Hammett is considered San Francisco's most representative author, beating out Mark Twain and Jack London (who was actually born "south of Market" in San Francisco.)

    Students are also required to read Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel "The Big Sleep" and then watch the 1946 movie version starring Humphrey Bogart as private detective Phillip Marlowe.

    Raymond Chandler himself is critical to this course because he was the first California writer to look critically at Los Angeles and its various subcultures. Chandler may well be the patron saint for ALL Los Angeles writers, and yes this sainthood pisses off a lot of Angelenos and other literary types.

    Students are required also to watch the 1974 movie "Chinatown" which tells a fictional version of how Los Angeles got its water supply. The story was written by Robert Towne, who is considered Hollywood's greatest living scriptwriter.

    Chapter Summary

    What is the Central Question?

    (Write it out. No kidding. Write it out.)

    One. Spade and Archer

    We start with the very first narrative image: Sam Spade himself. Notice the colors and shapes. A blond Satan, with teeth like a wolf. And his eyes!

    The synedoche represents the whole object by naming only a part of it, or naming the part for the whole, like just saying "keels" for "ships".

    Watch how body parts are substituted for the whole person.

    A boyish sunburn? I think that's weird.

    Miss Wonderly is red, white & blue?

    Her lips were red, her looks were free, Her locks were yellow as gold : Her skin was as white as leprosy, The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, Who thicks man's blood with cold.
    ~ Samuel Taylor Cooleridge
    "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

    Go ahead and describe Miles Archer in a single word.

    Does the difference in age matter?

    Two. Death in the Fog

    Look at Spade's room. What's outside? What does he reads. The shaved bear? What's that mean?

    Where on his body was Archer shot?

    Burritt Alley/ Street really exists. A plaque marks the spot. The killer's name is revealed there, too. Tourists go there to celebrate a fictional murder. Fans occasionally try to steal the plaque. (Across Bush Street at the mouth of the alley is a former residence of Robert Lewis Stevenson. There's a plaque there, too, only nobody tries stealing it. Go figure.)

    He shakes hands with the cops. Drinking on duty?

    "I'll bury my dead."

    Where was Thursby's Luger?

    Three. Three Women.

    Eyes eyes eyes--

    Describe Eva. Remember Adam & Eva (ah, Eve) from the Bible?

    Four. The Black Bird.

    "faking a story"

    Read aloud the paragraph that begins: "I haven't lead a good life," she cried.

    "for supper and to dance"?

    The gambler that Floyd Thursby was protecting . . .

    Spade sees his lawyers, "Wise, Merican, and Wise." Names mean what?

    Describe Sid.

    Notice how fast Spade checks in with his attorney because he KNOWS the judicial system for what it really is.

    Mark Twain wrote "Life on the Mississippi" in 1883.

    In Chapter 43 of that great book we find:
    "And there 's one thing in this world which you don't have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. And that 's a coffin. Undertaking?--why it 's the dead-surest business in Christendom, and the nobbiest."

    A few lines later, Twain has a character saying:
    " 'D'ye mane to soy that Bridget O'Shaughnessy bought the mate to that joo-ul box to ship that drunken divil to Purgatory in?'

    Women's intuition.

    Joel Cairo is a "dandy" like Oscar Wilde was. (But you know who Oscar Wilde is, right?) Spade's homophobia must be recognized for what it was.

    Five. The Levantine.

    The inventory of Cairo's belongings: Wow!

    Patent shoes and fawn spats?

    What is "chypre"? (Good look researching that one!)

    "You're betting your eyes."

    "What about his daughter?"

    Six. The Undersized Shadow.

    Again, check Hammett's use of colors.

    Remember the doorbells Spade pushed at the apartment building on Sutter Street?

    "I give you my word I do not know him."

    "Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken."

    Her eyes. Her lips. The colors.

    Seven G in the Air.

    You did trace it out for yourself, right?

    Ahhh, the Flitcraft Parable.

    "like a fist when you open your hand."

    Falling Beams?

    "Somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works."

    What exactly is "the part of it I always liked"?

    Are we scripted into our destinies?


    Notice she calls him "Joe."

    Where does Spade flaunt his superior power over Cairo?

    What does this chapter's title refer to?

    Is the Central Question: What happened to Floyd?

    According to Dundy, the measure of a man comes when you look him straight in the eyes. You buy that, right?

    Eight. Horse Feathers.

    What do we first see? But who was the first to scream?

    A chapter of "story-telling."

    Spade's 1st story to the cops.

    Then he tells the players what is reality.

    Then . . . but who is he talking to?

    "The point is that that's our story and we'll stick to it."

    Nine. Brigid.

    How long can you curse?

    Watch Brigid's body language and how Hammett choreographs her body movements.

    What should we eat?

    Important question: How should Spade know what happened in Constantinople?

    Where is Marmora? Go look it up.

    As the chapter ends, watch fingers and hands.

    Ten. The Belvedere Divan.

    She stays the night. He then searches her clothes. Then he searches her quarters.

    The Lost Child.

    "The Baumes Laws" of New York State in the late '20s making it illegal to possess much of the heavy artillery associated with gangsters. Whether a
    "Baumes Rush" meant cops planting a gun or pointing a gun at someone, I can only guess.

    Baumes rush: Senator Caleb H. Baumes sponsored a New York law (the Baumes Law) which called for automatic life imprisonment of any criminal convicted more than three times. Some criminals would move to a state that didn't have this law in order to avoid its penalty should they be caught again, and this was known as a "Baumes rush," because of the similarity to "bum's rush."

    In a similar vein, "The Baumes Laws" of New York State in the late '20s making it illegal to possess much of the heavy artillery associated with gangsters. Whether a "Baumes Rush" meant cops planting a gun or pointing a gun at someone, I can only guess.

    The gun under her pillow. (You have one, too, right?)

    Is Cairo Greek?

    A police storm? Well, I suppose you can Google.com it.

    What did Wilmer do on Sutter Street?

    Woman's intuition, again.

    The use of the word "Madonna."

    Later Sam patronizes.

    Eleven. The Fat Man.

    Who is Phil?

    The divorce?

    Pink? A cluster of soap bubbles? Sheesh!

    "I know the value in life you people put on it."

    Exactly at the mid-point of the novel. No turning back for Our Hero. What exactly does Sam say that makes this the turning point?

    Oh, the gunsel.

    Well, the English word "catamite" refers to "a young boy who is kept for the purpose of sodomy". In the original version of "The Maltese Falcon", Dashiel Hammett had his hero, Sam Spade, say "Get out, and take your catamite with you". Well, this may have been a gritty, noir thriller but it was written in the 1920s and Hammett's editor insisted he tone it down. The word catamite being considered too strong for the readers, Hammett changed the line to
    "Get out, and take your gunsel with you". This, thought the editor, was an acceptable alternative despite the fact that gunsel is simply a hobo's word for a catamite (from the Yiddish genzel, "a gosling").

    Twelve. Merry-Go-Round.

    Eva's side of the story.

    The only honest lawyer is a dead one?

    Gooseberry lay: Hobo slang for "stealing clothes from a clothesline."

    Sadism with the gunsel. The word "impotent." Notice the body language is very specific. Act out the choreography. What do you see?

    Thirteen. The Emperor's Gift.

    A history lesson.

    Knights Templars (13th. Century) So rich, they became bankers. 9000 fortress, own fleet of pilgrim ships
    "Beware the kiss of the Templars." 1307 brought arrests, torture, mock trials
    (dealing with the devil) The Grand Inquisitor

    Doped-up body movements is very precise.

    Fourteen. La Paloma.

    Thrilling? Or ridiculous? (Was Hammett himself unsure of his story's impact?)

    On 2 August 1923 President Warren G. Harding dies suddenly at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. His wife Florence forbids an autopsy, and the President's body is embalmed shortly after death. It is speculated by many that the cause of death, initially reported as "a stroke of apoplexy," was in fact poison administered by the First Lady.

    In confidence with Luke, the hotel detective.

    Is that legal? Or is it breaking and entering?

    Fifteen. Every Crackpot.

    Food San Francisco style.

    Thursby is framed?

    Dixie Monahan & his gambling debts.

    Arnold Rothstein
    (1882-1928) Also known as: R., Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Big Bankroll, The Man Uptown, and The Brain The inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, and Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. He'd bet on anything but the weather. Celebrity thugs such as "Legs" Diamond, "Lucky" Luciano, Dutch Schultz and Frank Costello. Luciano worshipped Rothstein. "He taught me how to dress -- how to use knives and forks and things like that at the dinner table, about holdin' a door open for a girl," Luciano reminisced. "If Arnold had lived a little longer, he could've made me pretty elegant." Rothstein was rumored to be the mastermind of the "Black Sox" scandal, the fixing of the 1919 World Series.
    (His bodyguard Abe Attell was convicted of trying to fix the Series.) Lost
    $300,000 in NY poker game, then refused to pay, saying the game was rigged. Murdered two months later.

    "Mrs. Spade"? Mom?

    "You think I'm dumb," is said by ________.

    The cops think it's the spillover from a gambler's war.

    Sam Spade & the Law to the DA.

    "My best chance of clearing myself . . ."

    "My only chance is ever catching them . . ."

    Sixteen. The Third Murder.

    Effie and Spade fight.

    "The La" is a lousy combo, but do you know why?

    The date with Jacobi.

    Jacobi drops in --

    What of his description makes him special? You noticed it, right?

    Dead eyes?

    What makes Effie scream?

    "You're a damned good man, sister." (Hammett cracks wise.)

    Seventeen. Saturday Night.

    Who answers the door?

    Rhea's last name.

    The 3-inch jade-headed steel bouquet pin.

    John's Grill is for real. The Sam Spade Special is still on the menu. I suggest the scallops, my personal favorite.

    Burlingame is south of San Francisco, near the present location of San Francisco International Airport.

    "dragging her lamb through gutters."

    The end of this chapter marks the point where Our Hero takes his life into his own hands.

    Eighteen. The Fall-Guy.

    Very clever verbal battles.

    BODY PARTS????

    "the way to handle them is to toss them a victim . . ."

    "I never let myself forget a day of reckoning . . ."

    Who are "you chumps"?

    Spade is truly a San Franciscan: "This is my city and my game."

    If we had to, "we can have him killed resisting arrest."

    Key to SF legal system: don't confuse the case. What's that mean?

    Wilmer & Cairo's secret?

    Nineteen. The Russian's Hand.

    "A fine lot of lollipops" is who?

    Why did he kill Thursby?

    Who killed Jacobi?

    Who set the fire?

    How can Brigid prove she doesn't have the thousand dollar bill?

    Who has the thousand dollar bill?

    How does Wilmer rebuff Cairo?

    Who reads "Celebrated Criminal Cases of America"?

    Whose book is it?

    What is a "rara-avis"?

    Twenty. If They Hang You.

    "The only falls he took were over women. And once a chump, always a chump."

    "I knew Miles."

    The colors, oh, the colors!!!

    What does this statement -- "I'm not Thursby. I'm not Jacobi." -- mean?

    Count "the sap." How many times is it said?

    To a man, Effie's curious reaction.

    At the end, what makes Sam shiver?

    Your best guess: what happens next?

    Good luck and best wishes.

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