While the great crime writers of ‘30s and ‘40s don’t often receive the academic attention of their more celebrated “literary” contemporaries, the popular fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain is as much a part of the pantheon of Twentieth Century American Literature as Dos Passos, Henry Miller and Faulkner. The best roman noir is as insightful into human behavior as anything by O’Hara, as rich with regional characterizations as Steinbeck’s novels and as crisp as any prose by Hemingway.
In the film world, however, crime stories are honored with the same zeal as tragedies and romances. In fact, because of their plot-driven nature -- oftentimes convoluted and frustrating plots though they be -- crime fictions are more successfully adapted to the big screen than, say, Absalom, Absalom or The Rosy Crucifixion.
Arguably, the most successful and most beloved noir thriller is John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade two-fisted potboiler The Maltese Falcon. (Stacked against The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and The Grifters, it’s a coin-toss.) Within the confines of the industry, Huston captured the spirit of Hammett’s novel as best he could, recreating Sam Spade’s dank San Francisco on film and imbuing the same relativistic anti-hero attitude in the morally ambiguous Spade. But, beyond all expectations, Huston divined Hammett’s gift for dialogue, stacatto bursts of glib responses that rattle off the tongue like machine gun fire. While there had been roman noir adaptations prior -- in fact, two previous versions of The Maltese Falcon itself -- it is Huston’s version that can be credited with the inventing the film noir genre.
Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade in a star-making role (notoriously earmarked for George Raft, who turned it down, I suppose in favor of drifting into obscurity.) Spade is as hardboiled as they come, and not exactly the paragon of moral fiber. But neither is he a complete reprobate; he possesses a firm sense of honor and code of ethics.
Of course, when rich dame Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) comes into his office, sashaying around with a leaky sob story and a wad of cash, Spade’s world is turned all topsy-turvy. First, his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cown) ends up on the wrong end of a bullet and Spade ends up the prime suspect. Miss Wonderly turns out to be Brigid O'Shaughnessey, the very definition of femme fatale, a black widow who weaves a sticky web, entangling Spade in an international smuggling operation that involves a jewel-encrusted, gilded statue of a falcon, now painted black, 12th Century Knights Templar, swishy fenceman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and the enigmatic Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreet).
If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, what are you watching? The Usual Suspects? Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze…Okay, I got it! Let’s move on. LA Confidential? Terrific. Nice approximation of noir; SEE ALSO: Devil in a Blue Dress, Chinatown. And for godsake, throw away your copy of Pulp Fiction. You know what they call film noir in France? The Maltese Falcon.