February 14, 2005

The Maltese Falcon  

It turns out today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece The Maltese Falcon. And while I've been somewhat remiss about posting (but not about reading!) my 50 books, it seems appropriate to comment on this one now (I read it on a train in Italy).

I'm actually not a big reader of detective fiction, but I'd been meaning to read Hammett on the recommendation of a friend with whom I share a common interest in Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. He was right; Hammett's spare and strictly external style blew me away, first in its similarity to Robbe-Grillet, but also in how appropriate it was for detective fiction. Maybe it was last year I read The Big Sleep, and, well, Chandler doesn't have anything on Hammett when it comes to technique, even though he was writing later. The discipline required to craft Hammett's precisely noncommital narrative -- especially when he didn't have a writing background -- is really stunning. Let me recommend Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers for those who'd like to see this technique taken to its logical conclusion.

The other thing that interested me about The Maltese Falcon was this game theory post from Baude a couple months back -- I'd been wondering just how closely the novel tracked his analyses, which, incidentally, I'm still not sure I comprehend, except in a purely academic sense (what good, I ask, are rational actors who are compelled to act according to some preimagined scheme?). What became clear in reading the novel though was just how appropriate a subject Sam Spade is in any discussion of game theory -- he's the ultimate rational actor, and he appears in an entirely amoral context. Again, the technique is central to making this work, but Hammett also makes the calculations disturbingly explicit. It's good stuff.

Haggai  {February 15, 2005}

Mysteriously, I don't seem to remember your original post on this, which I surely would have commented on for one reason or another. Did Will not know about IMDB, where he could find that Mary Astor's character was named Brigid O'Shaugnessy?

Here's a silly but entertaining Maltese Falcon-related sig file, from a frequent poster on a movies/DVD forum I often post on:


paul  {February 15, 2005}

Maybe Baude just meant that her name is uncertain in the movie, for at least part of the time?

I actually hadn't seen the movie either at the time I wrote that other post; I just saw it recently for the first time. My wife and I have ben running through a lot of classics lately.

Haggai  {February 16, 2005}

It's not uncertain for very long. "Strider" doesn't become "Aragorn" until halfway through the movie of Fellowship of the Ring, but his name isn't a secret. A minor point, to be sure, I won't obsess over it any more. :)

Glad you saw it, it's good stuff. Sort of confusing, but well-done. What are some of the other classics you've gotten to?

paul  {February 16, 2005}

A whole bunch of stuff. We've been working off the AFI top 100 list. I probably shouldn't admit this in a public forum, but we saw Casablanca for the first time in December (!)

I guess what I was suggesting with Mary Astor is that she could still be lying about her name even at the end -- she lies about everything else. I guess I don't really buy this reading of the situation, but it might be what Will meant.

Haggai  {February 16, 2005}

That's a good list to work off. Hope you liked Casablanca. I can never really pick one favorite movie, but that's as likely a candidate for me as any other. Definitely top five.

paul  {February 16, 2005}

I loved Casablanca... and it was an amazing experience because it's such a pervasive thing in our culture that I felt like I already knew so much of it. Definitely top five for me too.

Have you ever seen the Woody Allen movie Play It Again, Sam?

Haggai  {February 16, 2005}

I saw it a really long time ago, probably before I even saw Casablanca. I should certainly see it again at some point.

Want a rental suggestion? Try Rules of the Game, the most highly regarded of Jean Renoir's films (along with Grand Illusion, which I also love, though not quite as much). Now there's a great movie that deserves its lofty reputation.

paul  {February 16, 2005}

thanks for the suggestion -- I'm always looking for things to add to my queue...

James  {March 16, 2005}

I'm currently doing a coursework piece for my A Level's based on The Maltese Falcon. I know in the film "Wilmer" has the surname "Cook" but part of my coursework involves the use of Dickensian names and I hadn't noted that Hammett gave Wilmer a surname and so was going to use "Kidd". It's due in too soon for me to re-read the book so would one of you do me a big favour and let me know if he Hammett does give him a surname?

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