-A Study in Style-
By Ray Greenblatt
We are familiar with the movie version of The Maltese Falcon (1941): the durable Humphrey Bogart, the seductive Jane Greer, and the evil-doers Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, along with their punk hit man and various flatfeet. We know that a script can delete a character or add a new one; that indoor scenes can be enlarged to the outdoors; that dialogue can alter greatly, etc.
However, unless you read the book, you don’t realize that Hammett specializes in a poetic Style: his rare descriptions of Things are powerful; yet his unique expertise is description of People, especially their faces and eyes. As a matter of fact, The Maltese Falcon (1929) could make a consummate drama for the legitimate stage.
Like a poet Hammett employs strings of nouns: “The eyes—lids, balls, irises, and pupils—remained frozen, immobile.” (197); adverbs: “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously, in a harsh guttural voice.” (101) ; participles: “Probing, scrutinizing, testing with expert certainty.” (111) He uses fresh adjectives: “A lathy youth with salient ears ushered Spade into the District Attorney’s office.” (179) He even dares lewd words, whatever he could get away with in 1929: “The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second ‘you.’”(116)
The humor of Hammett’s characters is dry:
“Cairo hesitated, said dubiously: ‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’
Spade scowled. ‘What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?’” (119)
Not only dry but sardonic: “’Now I’ve got to remember to be polite to you. What did I do? Forget to genuflect when I came in?’” (143)
Hammett’s use of symbolism is subtle: “She spoke slowly, looking down at a pointed finger tracing eight on the settee between them.” (45) His psychological probing sharp: “Her air of personal indifference to the subject was flawless.” (121) “In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo looked at him there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed, drew back his advanced foot, straightened his legs, lowered the pistol.” (218) “The appearance of Gutman and his companions seemed to have robbed her of that freedom of personal movement and emotion that is animal, leaving her alive, conscious, but quiescent as a plant.” (217)
Sam Spade is a man of action; Gutman seems to be the philosopher, but a hollow one. He pontificates: “’I do like a man that tells you right out he’s looking out for himself. Don’t we all? I don’t trust a man that says he’s not. And the man that’s telling the truth when he says he’s not I distrust most of all, because he’s an ass and an ass that’s going contrary to the laws of nature.’” (132) In contrast, through an anecdote Spade muses: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” (78) “He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” (78)
Although Hammett does not often in his descriptions leave the human body, he forcefully at times brings objects to life. Outdoors: “Beginning day had reduced night to a thin smokiness.” (111) “A high thin moon was cold and feeble as the distant street-light.” (210) Around the house: “He tiptoed to a window and then to another. They, like the door, were uncurtained except by inner darkness.” (210) “The alarm clock perched atop the book saying two-fifty with its clumsily shaped hands.” (103) “The ashes on the desk twitched and curled in the current.” (4) Even a car is given emphasis: “An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away.” (15)
Hammett’s literary revelation to me was his explicit description of a person’s features. First the entire man: “A man of thirty in clothing and hair of kindred unruliness.” (180) Gutman is obviously an extreme character: “The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.” (129) Here the entire body comes alive: “He made angry gestures with mouth, eyebrows, hands, and shoulders.” (48)
Then the author concentrates on an arm: “Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion.” (56) Now a hand: “Held out a hand like a fat pink star.” (129) “’He went like that,’ Spade said, ‘like a fist when you open your hand.’” (76)
Now we start to focus on the face, Hammett’s eminent domain of expression. “The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.” (40) “His face was a watchful-eyed smiling mask held up between his thoughts and Spade.” (134) “His face was grey now, with jaw-muscles standing out like tumors under his ears.” (161) “His face while he smoked was, except for occasional slight and aimless movements of his lower lip, so still and reflective that it seemed stupid.” (58) “The indelible youngness of his face gave an indescribably vicious—and inhuman—turn to the white-hot hatred and the cold white malevolence in his face.” (228)
The mouth becomes a special area of expression: “Spade put the cigarette in his mouth, set fire to it, and laughed smoke out.” (27) Then lips and teeth come into play: “She tortured her lower lip with glistening teeth and said nothing.” (5) But the voice with its significant words is most important: “His voice was resonant with latent power.” (180) “His voice was too hoarse and gritty for the paternally admonishing tone it tried to achieve.” (228) “It was a harsh voice and rasping with agony and with the strain of keeping two words from being smothered by the liquid bubbling that ran under and behind them.” (195) “His voice sank to a more impressive key and his words came out spaced and distinct.” (183) Often the mouth is linked to the eyes: “Spade stared through the girl and spoke as if using speech to arrange his thoughts.” (165)
Eyes are such a major motif I wonder if a psychological monograph has ever been written on this aspect of Hammett’s style. Sometimes the eyes are in league with the face: “His bony face—weather-coarsened, age-lined—was the color of wet sand and was wet with sweat on cheeks and chin. His eyes were dark and bloodshot and mad above lower lids that hung down to show pink inner membrane.” (196) Other times the eyes are mated with the mouth: “She laughed a clear merry laugh, dropped the mangled cigarette into a tray, and looked at him with clear merry eyes.” (69)
But on innumerable occasions the eyes alone dominate:
“His eyes were shiny in a wooden Satan’s face.” (68)
“The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.” (133)
“His eyes were dark holes in an oily pink face.” (161)
“His sleek eyes had borrowed merriment from his laughter.” (224)
“His eyes were warm green discs.” (24)
“Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.” (69)
“Points of yellow lights began to dance in his eyes.” (114)
“His eyes were hard and shiny as the lenses over them.” (182)
“His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button.” (21)
“He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her.” (66)
Even though the script was close to the book, Hammett’s descriptions of people could only be roughly interpreted by actors’ expressions.
My wife and I loved the blue harbor and golden cliffs of Malta. Here the Knights Templars established their main stronghold in the 16th century. What more mysterious place in which to discover an objet d’art that brought such mayhem unto murder into our world. Dashiell Hammett hit on a beguiling concept that sold innumerable books, produced a classic film, and made him internationally known. But the mystery remains—where is the real falcon encrusted with gold and priceless jewels?
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Maltese-Falcon-Dashiell-Hammett/dp/0679722645
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).