The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon introduced the world to Sam Spade, the clever, tough, hard-boiled detective figure. First published in 1930, the novel follows Spade's exploits as a private detective during the early 20th century in San Francisco, California. Spade meets a group of eccentric characters as he is hired to assist in tracking down a priceless relic: the titular Maltese falcon statuette.

Hammett's Spade left a clear mark on the detective fiction genre. Other authors have credited Spade as the inspiration for their own detective characters, including Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe from the 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Hammett's unsentimental writing style and cold, calculating characters also lent themselves perfectly to film noir (a film genre characterized by a dark mood).The Maltese Falcon was further immortalized in the 1941 film adaptation that featured American actor Humphrey Bogart's critically acclaimed portrayal of Spade.

1. Hammett once worked as a private eye.

Hammett had lived a life similar to that of his hard-boiled protagonist, Sam Spade. Before earning popularity and acclaim as an author, Hammett was a successful detective. The author joined the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency—the largest detective agency in the United States in the early 20th century—at age 20. The Pinkertons were renowned for infiltrating unions and performing counterintelligence operations; the agency's founder, Allan Pinkerton, had foiled an early assassination plot against President Abraham Lincoln. Hammett continued to work for the agency until the onset of World War I, when he enlisted in the U.S. military.

2. Hammett was jailed for his ties to communism.

Later in his life Hammett ceased publishing his writing to focus on political activism. He taught at a Marxist institute in New York and expressed sympathy toward socialism during the McCarthy era, in which Senator Joseph McCarthy accused many Americans of communist ties with little evidence. Like many suspected communists, Hammett was investigated and jailed during the 1950s. Hammett was released on bail but faced an additional five months of imprisonment for refusing to provide the names of his alleged co-conspirators. Although Hammett never complained about his imprisonment, his time in jail had a negative effect on his health.

3. Hammett had to work around his editors to include homoerotic subtext in The Maltese Falcon.

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon at a time when homosexuality was an extremely taboo subject in the United States. Despite Sam Spade's rugged, hyper-masculine characterization, Hammett also included a character described as "queer" and effeminate: Joel Cairo. Hammett's editors attempted to censor his portrayal of another sexually ambiguous character, Wilmer, who Hammett originally referred to as a catamite (kept boy). Since the editors rejected this particular word, Hammett changed it to gunsel, which they assumed meant "thug" or "ruffian." In reality gunsel was a term used by hobos to describe "a young male kept as a sexual companion, especially by an older tramp," but the editors were none the wiser.

4. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II got their names from The Maltese Falcon.

On August 9, 1945, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan by the United States, striking the city of Nagasaki. This bomb was referred to as "Fat Man" due to its bulbous shape and enormous radius of destruction. The scientist in charge of assigning the bombs' codenames chose "Fat Man" to pay homage to The Maltese Falcon's character Casper Gutman, whom Sam Spade continually calls "the Fat Man." A third atomic bomb, codenamed "Thin Man," was developed but never deployed. This bomb's name was a reference to another Hammett novel, The Thin Man, published in 1934. The first nuclear weapon ever used in war, "Little Boy," was also indirectly named for Hammett's novel. The bomb was named for its smaller and rounder appearance to the "Thin Man" prototype. "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.

5. Humphrey Bogart got in a fight with his studio head over smoking while filming The Maltese Falcon.

American actor Humphrey Bogart famously starred as Sam Spade in the 1941 film noir adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. The film features a considerable amount of smoking, which led to a dispute during the filmmaking process. The studio head, Jack Warner, feared that the gratuitous amount of smoking on screen would influence audience members to step outside the theater for a cigarette. Bogart was offended at being asked not to smoke, and he conspired with his fellow actors to smoke heavily during the filming, even at critically important moments. Warner then threatened to fire Bogart, but he quickly realized that without including smoking, tense scenes simply didn't have the same effect.

6. The statuettes used in the 1941 film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon are some of the most valuable movie props ever made.

Much like the fictional Maltese falcon, the statuettes used in the 1941 film adaptation of Hammett's novel are artifacts of unimaginable value. Three of the statuettes survive, and each is worth well over $1 million. This means that each statue is worth over three times the cost of filming The Maltese Falcon. In 2013 a Las Vegas casino billionaire paid $4.1 million for one of the props. This was, at the time, one of the highest prices a movie prop had ever commanded. Only the original Batmobile from the first Batman film and the Aston Martin from Sean Connery's portrayal of James Bond in Goldfinger had been sold at higher values.

7. Rumor has it that Spade lived in the same building as Hammett did in San Francisco.

The address 891 Post Street in San Francisco, California, is the home of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Scholars have conducted extensive research on the now-famous building's floor plans, deducing that apartment #401 is the likely home of Spade in the novel. Hammett himself also lived on 891 Post Street, and scholars believe that he resided in the exact same unit as his fictional protagonist. The building was dedicated as a literary landmark, bearing a plaque that identifies it as the home of both Spade and Hammett.

8. Hammett married the nurse treating his tuberculosis.

Hammett contracted tuberculosis, a deadly respiratory disease, during his service in World War I. He was plagued by the disease throughout his life and lived in a near-constant state of poor health (amplified by his habits of drinking and smoking). However, he fell in love with the nurse who initially treated him for tuberculosis, Josephine Dolan, and the two married in 1920 while he was still a hospital patient. Hammett's marriage to Dolan lasted less than a decade as Hammett couldn't live in the same home as his family for fear of infecting his children with tuberculosis.

9. Detectives, authors, and reporters from around the world formed the "Maltese Falcon Society."

The Maltese Falcon Society was founded in 1981 by literary critic Don Herron and private investigator Jayson Wechter. The society's worldwide membership includes both historians of literature and practitioners of detective work, paying homage to Hammett's careers in both fields. Herron and Wechter often solicited FBI agents, private eyes, and bounty hunters to speak at meetings.

10. Hammett stopped publishing his writing abruptly in 1934.

Despite the monumental success of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett halted his literary career abruptly in 1934. While Hammett claimed that he desired to focus more on political activism later in his life, his decision to cease writing altogether has mystified scholars. Some biographers speculated that Hammett did not want to "reveal himself emotionally" to his audience, and he felt that silence was the only way to preserve his privacy. However, Hammett's daughter, Jo, refuted this rumor. She explained that later in his life, Hammett "didn't stop writing so much as he stopped finishing."

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