“The stuff dreams are made of”

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Now, here’s a thing – A while ago I wrote about the film Casablanca and particularly the ‘Letters of Transit’ around which the plot revolves. I mentioned it was probably my second-favourite film of all time, behind The Maltese Falcon, which I said I would also write about at some point. (NB, there are spoilers in this article, and it’s a bit longer than I usually write!)

Based upon a Dashiell Hammett book, the Maltese Falcon had already been made into two not very good films before this adaptation in 1941. The first film to be written and directed by Hollywood legend John Huston, it draws upon the book but judiciously mixes it with the then emerging ‘film noir’ style that became popular in the forties, and it became the template for almost every ‘private eye’ film that followed it. (Before this American detectives were usually rich people of independent means who collaborated with the Police – think the ‘Thin Man’ series – the British equivalent would be Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey).

This Maltese Falcon succeeds where the others failed  because of the great script, the memorable characters and acting,  and the cracking pace it goes at.

The story is set in San Francisco but there are few external scenes and those there are have no identifiable features.  Mostly it is set inside, including the last 20 minutes which has all the main characters together in a single room. And what characters – each one perfectly cast and played by a varied collection of actors,  including the 60-year old English actor, Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut, no less. Peter Lorre plays Joel Cairo, equally memorably.

The story revolves around the Maltese Falcon itself ,described by Greenstreet’s character Kasper Gutman as follows:

‘….not an insignificant live
bird but a glorious golden falcon
encrusted from head to feet with the
finest jewels in their coffers.’

Stolen by pirates hundreds of years before, tracking down the Falcon had become an obsession for Gutman and his competitors. One of them (Brigid O’Shaughnessy) engages Spade’s partner to assist her, but subsequently as part of her scheming kills him and covers it up, returning to enlist Spade himself in his place.

Spade himself seems to get caught up in the desire to possess the ‘black bird’ (so called because it has been painted over.) However, when they do get it, it turns out to be a fake, swapped by a rival who plays no part in the film, but now has possession.

Gutman and Cairo resolve to continue to pursue the Falcon.  Spade phones the Police to turn them in and persuades Brigid to admit to the death of his partner. Rather than joining her romantically and in pursuit of the Falcon, as she hopes, he turns her in also,  because despite his feelings for her and his desire for the Falcon, as he says to her:

“Listen… When a man’s partner is
killed, he’s supposed to do
something about it.
It doesn’t make any difference what
you thought of him. He was your partner
and you’re supposed to do something
about it. Then it happens we’re in
the detective business. Well, when
one of your organization gets killed,
it’s bad business to let the killer
get away with it — bad all around
— bad for every detectives

Handing over the fake Falcon to the Police he is asked what it is – his answer? – ‘The stuff dreams are made of”.

So, what does it tell us from a Christian point of view? Whereas Casablanca and the ‘Letters of Transit’ are about the chance of freedom and a new life, the Maltese Falcon is about greed, obsession, deceit and cynicism.  Yes, the Falcon is worth untold millions, but the possession of the item itself, rather than the monetary value that can realised from it, is what drives on the pursuers. Contemplating a further year tracking down the Falcon at the end of the script Gutman says:

For seventeen years I have wanted
that little item and have been
trying to get it. If I must spend
another year on the quest — well,
sir — that will be an additional
expenditure in time of only…
(his lips move
silently as he
…five and fifteen-seventeenths

He can calculate value (‘five and fifteen-seventeenths percent’!) but what matters is possession. Sin often has that effect on people, turning initial desires into compulsive obsessions.  Look at David with Bathsheba – he saw her, he wanted her and he contrived to have her husband killed so he could have her[1].  However, whereas Huston has people thwarted by fate and fallibility, David is called out and dealt with by God through the prophet Nathan.

We also see (to quote Tony Macklin[2]) that ‘If one of Hammett’s basic themes is the fall of man, Huston picks up on it nicely’,  – we see this illustrated in a number of images in the film, particularly at the end as Brigid, stony-faced,  stands ‘behind bars’ as the lift goes down when the police take her away.

Finally, despite the cynicism and alienation (distance that he feels between himself and those around him) that he embodies, Spade eventually lets go of his desire for both the Falcon and Brigid. In the end, for him there is a morality that arises from a sense of loyalty to his partner (whom he disliked) and to his profession. Whereas these things are the touchstone determining his actions, ours surely comes from a love of God and a desire to serve him.  Like Spade, we may be tempted and become entangled, but like him also, we have a touchstone that will guide our actions and deliver us from temptation. My in-house editor says there is too much about the film in this article – if so, I apologise – but I love this film!

[1] 2 Samuel 11

[2] ‘There’s only one Maltese Falcon’, Macklin, T, http://tonymacklin.net/content.php?cID=175