Lost in the Movies: Spade & Marlowe, Private Eyes (The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, on page and screen)

Spade & Marlowe, Private Eyes (The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, on page and screen)

Who is Sam Spade? Who is Philip Marlowe?

Well, for many film buffs, Bogie will always be Bogie. Granted, there's plenty of wiggle room within the Humphrey Bogart persona: the paranoia of Fred C. Dobbs, Dixon Steele, or Captain Queeg; the ruthlessness of those many gangster roles; the lovable grunginess of his turn in The African Queen. But when he dons his detective's fedora and lights his cigarette, there's an iconic continuity to the look, the mannerisms, the speech. One could justifiably assume that Bogart's iconic screen presence eclipses any individual character tics, whether he's supposed to be playing San Francisco sleuth Sam Spade (in John Huston's 1941 The Maltese Falcon) or L.A. dick Philip Marlowe (in Howard Hawks' 1946 The Big Sleep). Yet at root, Spade and Marlowe are very different people - one might even say fundamentally so, despite the superficial similarities and notable overlap. Within the hardboiled detective persona, they represent different motivations and actions - at least as originally conceived.

Page: The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett & The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

Samuel Spade, private eye in partnership with Miles Archer (until this detested co-worker is shot dead), debuted first - starring in Dashiell Hammett's 1929 The Maltese Falcon. This was to be Spade's only appearance in a novel (later Hammett would pen him into several short stories) but the one-off made a notable impression, upending crime genre conventions left and right. Raymond Chandler himself later pinpointed Hammett's importance, noting in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder" that Hammett at once elevated pulp magazine material to the realm of respected literature while also gleefully sinking the mystery genre (previously the province of upscale British drawing-rooms) into the muck of America's urban modernity. Or as the admiring pupil himself put it, "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley."

Chandler was a lifelong chess enthusiast (a pastime he passed on to his literary creation), and he had an interesting countermove to Hammett's bold opening. Chandler invented Philip Marlowe ten years after Spade changed the game; Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, followed a half-decade devoted to mastering the pulp genre. This didn't necessarily come easy; unlike Hammett, who had been a Pinkerton detective himself, Chandler had zero acquaintance with the criminal underworld - his childhood had been spent as a privileged British schoolboy, his youth as an aspiring poet and newspaper columnist, and his early middle age as an oil executive in the Southwest. Fired due to excessive drinking, caring for a wife two decades his senior, Chandler decided to finally devote himself to writing - on trips up and down the California coast he began to casually read and then study the dime-store magazines from which he would take his inspiration.

The end result was Philip Marlowe who, like Spade, first appeared - fully formed - in a classic detective novel. But unlike the hero of The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep's Marlowe played for keeps - sticking around for six more novels and establishing a legendary reputation eclipsing even Spade's. In certain respects, Marlowe's world is even grittier than Spade's. The Maltese Falcon is stuffed with rich dialogue - characters describing or hinting at their devious deeds. The Big Sleep, foregrounding action over allusion, immerses us in firsthand experience; there's less distance to its violence. Marlowe himself witnesses or even perpetrates several killings (Spade, for all his tough talk, never does much more than beat up a few punks).

Furthermore, the Falcon villains are worldly adventurers, not common criminals - their methods might be down and dirty but their speech and carriage illuminate their erudition, wealth, and even decadence. Sleep, on the other hand, casts its criminals as genuine lowlifes. Even the wealthiest baddie is a common racketeer. And yet despite its darker, grungier texture, the atmosphere in Sleep is also more romantic, more sensitive than Falcon's wry, unflinching cynicism. Even aside from other factors, chronology explains some of this: Spade's invention occurred at the fast-paced, hard-edged apex of the Roaring Twenties, while Marlowe was born after a decade of Depression, on the cusp of a catastrophic war. Marlowe isn't allowed the same defenses and barriers as Spade - his Maginot Line has lone ago been pierced; only a small island of a man, under duress yet defiant, remains to carry on the fight.

This underdog quality, less pronounced in the cooler, less subjectively-presented Spade, gives Marlowe a distinctly romantic, tragic, even quixotic quality. He's immersed in the seamy underworld, but not entrapped by it - up to his neck in dirt, eyes focused skyward. Chandler introduces this chivalric aspect of Marlowe, subtly, in the first chapter of Sleep, as the detective wryly observes a (probably pre-Raphaelite) stained-glass panel of a knight untying a fair maiden: "I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't really seem to be trying." Ironically contrasting the elevated, unreal sense of nobility captured in this picture with the actual muck and hard work required of those who, like Marlowe, must hold to their responsibilities in the real world, the commentary nonetheless reveals a latent sympathy between the modern detective and the storybook hero. After all, would Spade even think to compare his job to that of a knight? In rolling his eyes at old-fashioned romanticism, Marlowe - and Chandler- doth protest too much.

Chandler himself best defined Marlowe's unique qualities with his famous epigram - "down these mean streets must walk a man who is not himself mean." Spade, on the other hand, is kind of mean. Marlowe can be cruel and snide yet he's more sensitive, self-conscious, and sentimental than Spade appears to be (these qualities reach their logical outcome in the disappointment of 1952's The Long Goodbye, where they prove to be the dick's Achilles' heel). Spade takes less physical and psychological abuse than Marlowe: his most notable psychic wound occurs when turning in Brigid O'Shaunessy; only then do we witness the suffering which earns Spade the right to be so hardboiled. Usually, however, he's more guarded.

Which points to perhaps the most singular difference between Marlowe and Spade (at least in print): one narrates his own story, the other does not. In fact we're not even certain until the end of Falcon what Spade's moral scruples are - until he cleverly turns the tables on his supposed collaborators, we wonder if he's actually as corrupt as they are. He holds his cards close and remains, for readers as well as the characters in the book, an aloof and intimidating figure. Hammett (drawing on his Pinkerton experience) would later describe this (anti?)hero as the man every real-life detective hoped to be and occasionally kidded himself he was. Marlowe is also idealized, but we sense the self-portrait is more honest on Chandler's part (not warts-and-all - Marlowe never breaks his personal code - but certainly troubled and weary).

Screen: The Big Sleep (1946)

So, how do these subtle distinctions play out on screen? Unlike the first Marlowe masterpiece (1944's Murder My Sweet, starring Dick Powell and based on Marlowe #2, Farewell My Lovely), The Big Sleep does not feature a first-person voiceover. This lack already draws it closer to the earlier Hammet adaptation, 1941's The Maltese Falcon, in terms of how we experience its protagonist. Furthermore, both films star Humphrey Bogart; do casting and performance further blur the lines? Bogie has been accused of playing Marlowe exactly the same way as Spade - both are tough, skeptical, sardonic, and violent - but the charge is not entirely fair.

Bogart's Marlowe is noticeably more laid-back than his Spade; the actor even invented an ear-tugging gesture, evidence of all-too-human confusion and bemusement that would have been out of place on the rougher, more cagey Falcon P.I. Marlowe seems to be having more casual fun in his role than Spade, suitable for the protagonist of a Howard Hawks film. Yet if this quality highlights a difference in tone between the Sleep and Falcon films, it also highlights a big difference in characterization between Chandler's book and Hawks' movie. Chandler's hero has a sense of humor, but his wounds are more noticeable and the book doesn't end on a note of sexual and romantic triumph but rather with Marlowe drinking alone, longing for the one female in the book (a gangster's moll with a silver wig, almost entirely cut out of the movie) who unambiguously did right by him.

Jaggedly ending the book on a note of melancholy, in a standalone paragraph following what could easily have been a satisfactory closing line ("And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep"), this remarkable, risky coda deserves to be reprinted in full:

"On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again."

The bittersweet tragic romance of this sentiment can receive no quarter in the Hawks universe, and so the cinematic Sleep - despite its reputation as a seminal noir - is very un-noir in theme and tone (and even, compared to the '44 Marlowe picture, in the density and darkness of its visual scheme). Truth told, it's all for the better that Hawks sticks to his own guns because an earlier version of the finished film (completed in '45 before further revisions) highlights Hawks' weaknesses when he strays from his comfort zone. The '45 edition is more faithful to the book, but less satisfying as a complete picture - an attempt to follow the book's spirit when the filmmakers' hearts weren't really in it. The '46 release is lighter, funnier, less logical, and less ambiguous - and a classic.

Sleep's screenplay was written by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett. Brackett's later treatment of The Long Goodbye offers further evidence that she was never very interested in translating Chandler's sensibility, intact, to the screen: interestingly, in both films Marlowe kills a major character who survived in the respective book (Brackett found such avenging violence more satisfying than the more ambivalent denouements of the novels). Whatever the writers' input, and despite the fact that executives advised revisions (ironically heightening the film's auteur qualities with managerial meddling) it is Hawks' directorial voice which emerges most clearly from the movie's chaotic creation. Unlike, say, John Ford, Hawks doesn't have much room for loners. His films tend to be about camaraderie and/or competition: emphatically social.

No wonder it's the later version of the film, with its more heavily emphasized Bogart-Bacall romance, which feels more assured and entertaining. Sleep was initially trapped between fidelity to the book's skepticism (in which Marlowe can never really trust any of the women - or men, for that matter - around him) and a cleaner, more Hawksian narrative trajectory, an emerging partnership between the characters of Philip Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood - the reshoot/re-edit committed to the latter. Meanwhile, in both versions of the film, Hawks finds as many opportunities as he can to establish Marlowe's manly virility.

Onscreen (and, skirting the Code, offscreen) Marlowe makes love - in both senses of the expression - to numerous characters who appear only fleetingly and functionally in the book. Take, for example, the sexy bookstore employee portrayed by an absolutely smoking Dorothy Malone; her mostly irrelevant scene might even be the best in the movie. For an amusing - and quickly intoxicating - drinking game, try taking a swig every time Marlowe runs into a spicy dame. There are three bookish foxes, giggling cigarette girls, sultry waitresses, and even a female cabbie angling for a lay ("Call me up next time you need a ride." "Day or night?" "Night - I work during the day.").

Contrast this with Chandler's nearly celibate hero - committed to suppressing his base urges for the sake of duty. This reticence is epitomized by Marlowe's refusal to bed his client's nympho daughter, Carmen (played with electric allure by Dorothy Vickers, whom I confess would effortlessly overpower my professionalism were I in Marlowe's gumshoes). Ready, willing, and unencumbered by clothing, she surprises him in his bedroom after a long day of work and he angrily kicks her out. His reaction betrays a beguiling mix of disgust and desire: "The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely." Marlowe doesn't fuck Carmen in the film either, but there we might as well put his reaction down to exhaustion - he's already gotten his rocks off and right now a "big sleep" doesn't sound so bad. At any rate, Hawks is miles away from Chandler on this score.

Screen: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

And what of John Huston, 35-year-old writer/director making his debut with the third cinematic edition of The Maltese Falcon in 1941? Actually, Falcon is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book - partly due to Huston's respect for the material, and partly due to his secretary typing up an initial nearly word-for-word treatment of the novel which his producers mistakenly took for the finished draft. Almost everything in the original story is up there on screen; despite the previous films, this is the one audiences remember, due to Huston's tight direction and the brilliant casting coups of Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. (I've always felt Mary Astor, while exceedingly assured in her performance, was a bit miscast - she looks too prim for a femme fatale. Elisha Cook, Jr., a reclusive character actor who had to be contacted at his mountain retreat by courier pigeon when the studio needed him, is as perfect here as in The Big Sleep, where he plays another, equally nebbish, yet more noble noir loser.)

Though earlier and less visually evocative, the film is in some ways more palpably "noir" than The Big Sleep. Its universe seems more dangerous, more troubled and the limitations of what we actually see (as with the book, more is revealed by dialogue than action) make us feel like investigators striding side-by-side with Spade. The fact that Falcon's mystery, while complex, is also infinitely less bewildering than Sleep's (where the romance and scene-to-scene intrigue compensate for a byzantine web of connections and incidents) also helps us invest more deeply in the proceedings. After all, there is a clear object of attention (the black falcon statue, apparently concealing a jeweled 15th-century relic), always a plus for a visual medium, and only a few, well-drawn characters are involved in the scheme. Like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane the same year, Huston shoots up at ceilings on set to heighten the feeling of claustrophobia. Here is where the mood most palpably evokes later noirs, despite being less shadowy in its cinematography: visually the movie creates a sense of anxiety and oppression - it's entertaining but not "fun" the same way as Sleep is. And the same goes for its hero.

Huston's and Bogart's conception of the central detective and his world seem far closer to the literary original than Hawks' and Bogart's efforts five years later. If there are differences, they involve Bogie seeming simultaneously less suave and less sinister than the literary Spade (ironically, Bogart seemed too sinister to some at the time, having mostly played hoods up to that point in his career; perhaps today it's our familiarity with his tough-but-good guy roles that swings us in the other direction - we never really suspect he's sincere in his supposedly criminal mechanations). For the most part, Bogart nails Spade's uncanny ability to cavalierly take control in every situation. The actor also captures the character's cold arrogance, revealed in both his unperturbed reaction to his partner's death and his unsympathetic spurning of his clinging, bereaved mistress (who also happened to be his partner's wife). Smart yes, sensitive no.

Mean Streets and Righteous Paths

Spade has been described as amoral. He isn't, not in the most important matters anyway, but his conscience derives more from intellectual principle, and intelligent self-preservation, than any deep, instinctive conviction about right and wrong. That's probably the sharpest, and most intriguing, distinction between Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, at least as originally conceived. Spade is a man almost forcing himself to do good, for uncertain reasons, and against his own inclinations, while Marlowe, much as he might wish to take the easier or more corrupt course seems constitutionally incapable of doing so. To flip Chandler's phrase, in Hammett's world a man must walk the path of righteousness who is not himself righteous.

At the end of Huston's film, Spade describes the titular statue - fraudulent object of criminal attention and cause of several murders - as "the stuff that dreams are made of" (a great line cribbed from Shakespeare's Prospero, and not featured in Hammett's book, which tends to spurn the lofty literary references Chandler burnishes proudly). Spade's words are more true than we may initially suspect - for deep down, his desires and aspirations probably tend more toward the criminal than the lawful. If both Spade and Marlowe are existentialists, Spade's commitment is intellectual while Marlowe's is inherent: one chooses a code to survive the traps he sees other, less cautious individuals fall into; the other lives almost compulsively by a code that puts him at odds with the world yet arises from deep within - from something akin to a soul, which Spade probably wouldn't even recognize. These disparate motivations send them forth on the same perilous path.

There, then, is the common bond between Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: they each, in their distinct fashions, fuse a sordid scenario with a sense of right and wrong. Spade and Marlowe are heroes for an age that no longer quite believes in heroes. They are players in a psychodrama that immerses Superego in a sea of Id where it must swim or drown - where triumph over threatening forces feels more like survival than victory. And at the end of the day they must content themselves with faint, fading dreams of black birds, and silver wigs...

Also read my take on the seventies Marlowe update in "The Long Goodbye".

The following books helped me write this piece: Creatures of Darkness, by Gene Phillips; Raymond Chandler, by William Marling; That's Hollywood, by Peter Van Gelder; and of course, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett and The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

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Sam Juliano said...

This is really a stupendous essay that raises the bar in the Chandler and the Marlowe literature. I don't think I have yet made my peace with THE BIG SLEEP in an interpretive sense, but has anyone, really? What always did strike me about Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON was the remarkable fidelity to the source material, but you've come up with the right answer for that. Spade and Marlowe will always be the quintessential noir characters, and Hammett and Chandler to most essential noir writers. The analysis will never end, and it shouldn't.

Congratulations on a truly extraordinary and challenging essay.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Sam. After reading the book, the plot seemed to make more sense but after watching the film I was confused all over again! I think Hawks and Warner's were right to refocus the film on the more playful and romantic aspects. Sometimes what works on page doesn't work as well onscreen. Of course something is lost in the process too.

johnny said...

Wow! Great essay. I have never seen your page before, and this is a capital introduction. I am a Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett man, in the Stones or Beatles? - Spade or Marlowe? self defining sense of choice. I always found Marlowe to be a little loopy and flowery in narrative, but you have convinced me to reread his some of his stories. Where does Elliot Gould fit into this, since you brought Dick Powell up? I saw The Long Goodbye recently, and actually watched it from start to finish, and I was really taken with it.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for visiting, Johnny! I guess I lean toward Marlowe though I respect Spade's more brittle edge. As for The Long Goodbye, you're in luck; about a month ago I did an essay on that too. It's still on the main page if you check that out. There are things I like about that movie, and Gould is fine in fulfilling what's asked of him, but ai fin it's reinterpretation of Chandler somewhat lacking.

Joel Bocko said...

Not sure I anyone who stumbled across the essay previously will read this but I just fixed the embarrassing word repetition in the first paragraph ('whether playing San Francisco sleuth' etc). Ugh, sometimes I wish I could afford an editor...

Joel Bocko said...

And of course my correction notice has a typo too. The perils of working from a phone lol...

Joel Bocko said...

Addendum: I may either update or create a whole new supplement focusing more on Hammett & Spade. My fascination with Marlowe & Chandler regrettably led me to neglect Hammett somewhat in my research. Reading a book now about American radicals, I am reminded that he was an active Communist which could shed some new light on the seemingly less 'committed' Spade. Granted, much of Hammett's political engagement seems to have come AFTER he wrote Maltese Falcon, so the literary implications may be neglivle. But it's worth checking out more thoroughly. I will red a bio of the man and return with further thoughts.

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