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Old 03-15-2020, 01:04 AM   #1
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March 2020 Discussion - The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett


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A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man name Gutman, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett's coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers
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Old 03-15-2020, 01:06 AM   #2
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Up a bit early, but I'm sure you're all ready to jump in and have at this pulp mystery, so why wait.
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Old 03-15-2020, 10:33 AM   #3
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I don’t think this has aged well. It started off fine, with effective descriptions and stage-setting, but it turned into self-parody, especially as it started to repeat itself. Just how many times did we need to read about Spade’s yellow eyes (seriously? ) glowing and his wolfish smile? Or Gutman’s fat wobbling?

Similarly, plotwise it was tight, except when Captain Jacobi, riddled with holes, fell into Spade’s doorway and literally dropped the dingus at Spade’s feet after staggering up and downhill through half of San Francisco. Spade didn’t even have to find it.

With the punchy dialogue and great visuals, this was a much better film than book. The book is more interesting as a groundbreaker than as a great novel in itself.
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Old 03-15-2020, 11:08 AM   #4
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If we assume stuff this bad (sexist, racist, homophobic, repetitive descriptions, tortured dialogue) was normal for the genre in 1930s U.S., then I might be kind and describe it as ordinary. The closest the book came to a saving grace was Brigid, but I liked the idea of her more than what we see of her (figuratively speaking).

How did it come to be the basis for movies? My guess would be that it was chosen for its fairly small cast and very basic settings, making it seem almost designed for the stage and should have been cheap to make into a movie.
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Old 03-15-2020, 12:24 PM   #5
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The closest the book came to a saving grace was Brigid, but I liked the idea of her more than what we see of her (figuratively speaking).
I found Brigid to be flatly unbelievable, for two reasons. The first, is that based on her initial interview with Sam, she was supposed to be 21 years old. Yeah, she’s a liar, but she couldn’t have been that much older without it raising an issue from the start. At 21, she couldn’t possibly have the smarts and the appeal to travel the world and take every man she met into her her web.

And second, yes, some women are mantraps. But I don’t think that mantraps appeal to women very much; they see through it, or resent it, or both. Yet both Effie and Rhea thought she was the bee’s knees as well as the men.
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Old 03-15-2020, 03:14 PM   #6
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I'm not done but making good progress. The last week has been weird and moving forward the next few weeks are likely to be weirder. Hopefully I will be able to chime in more tomorrow.

I have been amused and interested in some of the changes in the English language since this was written. I noticed a few words that have different meanings now than they used to. The one that really stands out to me is "sun burned". When I hear "sun burned" I think bright pink and maybe peeling skin. The way it is used, multiple times, is what we would generally refer to as a "suntan" or just "tanned". Quite different in my eyes. To me, this little change in the language really set off the setting and made me consciously realize this was about a different time and place.
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Old 03-15-2020, 04:08 PM   #7
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Well, the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Perhaps I’ve seen too many parodies of it, not realizing so many quotes were pulled directly from the original. They interfered with my ability to lose myself in the book. Every time a familiar line came up, it broke the spell. As issybird said, it started to feel like a parody of itself.

That said, it was fun in campy kind of way. I’m glad to have finally read it, though once is enough. It’s interesting to see the original, and how John Huston shaped it into such an iconic movie. My admiration of him went up.

I had similar thoughts to the points you’ve all raised, including the changes in language. I thought Brigid was much too young to have done all those things, and I really couldn’t see attraction. I was flabbergasted when he said he loved her, after all those lies. Why?? It had to be the spell of her lovely sunburn.
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Old 03-15-2020, 06:06 PM   #8
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I too thought Brigid was way over the top, and issybird is on the money in saying that the women wouldn’t have been fooled by her. Effie would have spotted what she really was the minute she walked in the door.

It shines an interesting light on Hammett’s understanding of women, or lack of it. I get the impression that he must have been a “man’s man” with both that and of course all the tough guy stuff in terms of Sam Spade.

It’s an interesting book to read in terms of its being something of a trailblazer, but not otherwise. The people are types rather than being nuanced individuals.
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Old 03-15-2020, 06:43 PM   #9
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I found Brigid to be flatly unbelievable, for two reasons. The first, is that based on her initial interview with Sam, she was supposed to be 21 years old. Yeah, she’s a liar, but she couldn’t have been that much older without it raising an issue from the start. At 21, she couldn’t possibly have the smarts and the appeal to travel the world and take every man she met into her her web.

And second, yes, some women are mantraps. But I don’t think that mantraps appeal to women very much; they see through it, or resent it, or both. Yet both Effie and Rhea thought she was the bee’s knees as well as the men.
Where did you get 21? I didn't notice it when I read, and can't find it now. - never mind, I found it: says she is five years older than 17 - so 22. I know Wilmer was "an undersized youth of twenty or twenty-one" because we are told twice. I know I assumed she was older than that.

It's not the man-trap thing that attracted me to the character but her brazen lying and moving from one lie to the next without blinking - it made her (at least potentially) rather more interesting than those fawning over Spade. I agree that Effie's reactions to her were far from convincing, but then Effie's (and Iva's) reactions to everything were far from convincing.

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Old 03-15-2020, 10:55 PM   #10
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I suppose villains are usually more interesting than heroes - actors certainly seem to find them a lot more fun to play.

The actor in the Bogart film, Mary Astor, was 35 when the film was made. (I didn't know that off the top of my head, just looked it up and did the sums.) She was certainly a more believable age to have done all the things that Brigid had done.

I got the distinct feeling that having all the women swooning over Sam Spade was perhaps a bit of wish fulfilment on Hammett's part. I can't think of any woman I have ever met who would still be utterly devoted to a boss that grabbed hold of her hard enough to bruise her, to say nothing of all the extra jobs she was supposed to take on at the drop of a hat.

I can only assume that Effie (and Iva) were masochists. They were obviously supposed to enjoy be pushed around and roughed up a little.
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Old 03-16-2020, 12:29 AM   #11
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I could wish it were simply them being masochists, Bookpossum. Sadly, I suspect it was a lot more about male attitudes of the era, especially as portrayed in pulp fiction. Which were all about manly men doing manly things in a manly way. (or some such equine fecal matter.)

As issybird said, this has not aged well. Where the movie version is, somehow, less annoying, even with many of the same complaints.
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Old 03-16-2020, 02:26 AM   #12
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Well yes, I was being a bit ironic there! All part of the whole machismo thing which unfortunately far too many men still seem to think is appropriate behaviour.

In terms of the plot, I did enjoy the way in which the Falcon was such a perfect McGuffin in the best Hitchcock tradition. All the people in the book cared about it to the extent of killing for it, and yet for the reader, it really didn't matter at all. And the best thing about it was that after all that, it turned out to be a fake.
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Old 03-16-2020, 08:22 AM   #13
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In terms of the plot, I did enjoy the way in which the Falcon was such a perfect McGuffin in the best Hitchcock tradition. All the people in the book cared about it to the extent of killing for it, and yet for the reader, it really didn't matter at all. And the best thing about it was that after all that, it turned out to be a fake.
The ending was one of the few instances when the film departed from the book, and I thought they were both effective. Cinematically, that last shot of Mary Astor and “The stuff dreams are made of” worked far better than the book ending would have, but in terms of the book, ending with the reminder that Spade is not a moral person himself and that he still had to deal with repercussions also was excellent.
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Old 03-17-2020, 02:23 AM   #14
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I am still rather fixated on the idea that Brigid might be considered too young to have been as she was portrayed: an accomplished confidence trickster.

She said 22 early on, but it seems everyone knew she was a liar (even the reader is told this in fairly short order). So her age could quite believably be anything from say 17 to 26 or so. (We let Jennifer Ehle get away with playing Elizabeth Bennet - who was "not yet one-and-twenty" - when Ehle was 25. I can't say I was convinced Jennifer looked 21, but then in The Maltese Falcon we are not supposed to be convinced Brigid was 22 either.)

So Brigid might be, say, 26. And what do we know of her youth? (And what would we believe even if she told us?) She might have been a military or diplomatic brat that spent her formative years in foreign lands, gaining confidence in the presence of strangers (etc. etc. etc.); for all we know she might be an accomplished linguist with contacts throughout Europe - none of which would help much when dealing with a hick-detective in San Francisco, so it never comes into the story.

A stretch, maybe, but then this is a 1930s detective novel.

It's not that important, it just seemed an odd fault to pick up on, in a book with so many (to me) more prominent woes.
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Old 03-17-2020, 02:27 AM   #15
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Indirectly related to my previous post - regarding Brigid as a confidence trickster. Do we believe in the "love" she professed for Spade? Given everything that had gone before, I felt firmly convinced it was a sham to try and get Spade to let her go. Given Spade's reaction, I got the impression he believed the same thing.

It's the boy-who-cried-wolf problem. Once someone shows they are a liar and a cheat, how can they prove when they decide to tell the truth? Especially, as in this case, when the supposed "truth" is so obviously in their own best interest.
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