Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thin Man, Thick Plot



Since I live in the middle of nowhere, it takes time for me to get from nowhere to somewhere, time that generally I spend in an automobile. Usually I'm by myself and there's no one to talk to. In order to engage my brain on the journey, I rely on audio books.

A couple weeks ago I was looking for a new audio book at the library, didn't find anything that appealed, and ended up picking up a copy of The Maltese Falcon. Over the years I'd read the book multiple times, and of course seen the John Huston version of the movie, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, more than once.

It took hearing The Maltese Falcon read aloud, however, for me to develop a proper appreciation of the book. When a book is read aloud, all its flaws clang out like temple bells. Padded or meandering passages seem interminable. Repetition makes you grind your teeth. Awkward writing rings like a milk can bouncing down stairs, whereas bad writing simply shrieks at you.

The Maltese Falcon doesn't have a single wrong word. Every word or phrase or sentence takes you somewhere you need to go. Each character has a distinct manner of speaking that is attuned to his character and personality. Every word serves to move the plot or elucidate character. There is no wasted space, no padding, no unnecessary subplots.

Reading the Falcon made me pick up an audio book of The Thin Man, which I came to admire for similar reasons. The Thin Man's plot is more complex, and its characters come from many different walks of life: they're all distinct and well drawn, especially the hysterical socialite whose every appearance makes you clench your teeth--- and who is important to the structure, because she's the big shrieking arm-waving scene-stealing red herring whose job is to distract you from the villain, who (once you think about it) is fairly obvious.

Since I'd read the book multiple times and seen the movie ditto, I knew who the baddie was, and I came to admire Hammett's methods of distracting the reader from the character who ought to have been the chief suspect. First, the villain is the most normal and likable person in the book--- the others are criminals, detectives, or crazed rich neurotics. Even the schnauzer Asta likes the bad guy (Asta was a Yorkie only in the movies). And second, there are a lot of characters who are so annoying that you really wish they'd done it, and are hoping that Nick Charles will pin it on them. (Charles himself isn't Jack Armstrong, either--- he's a middle-aged soak who's had an affaire with a married suspect.)

Reading a book you already know well is one way of appreciating how the work is structured. If you already know where the story is going, you can concentrate on how the story is taking you there.

Which brings me, again, to The Maltese Falcon. One of the things I noticed was that the book is written in third person objective--- while you're with Sam Spade the entire time, you never know what's going on in his head except insofar as he chooses to share it with other characters. (And then, often as not, he's lying--- as are they.)

Spade is described as looking like a "genial Satan." He's sleeping with his partner Archer's wife, he's not terribly put out by Archer's death, he doesn't seem interested in vengeance or justice at all. He treats women badly. He keeps telling people that all he really cares about is the money, and you have no data to indicate otherwise. To all appearances, Spade is a heel.

If you were reading this book fresh in 1930, and hadn't seen the movie and knew nothing other than what the book told you, you wouldn't know that Sam Spade is the good guy--- not until the last scene, when he sends Brigid up the river for murdering Archer. That reversal would have come as a complete surprise, and a revelation. Hammett succeeded in hiding that particular football right up to the book's climax.

Now suppose're in a theater in 1941 to watch the Huston film adaptation. You haven't seen the earlier adaptation with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and you haven't seen the comic adaptation with Bette Davis, and you haven't read the book. And there you are watching Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade.

You've seen Bogart before, and you know he isn't a leading man. Up to this point, Bogart has always played the heavy. He's the gangster, the gunman, the crooked lawyer, the criminal kingpin. You have no idea that this is the breakout role that makes him a huge star.

If you're watching the film in 1941 with no prior knowledge of the story, you would have had no idea that Bogart was the good guy. In that final scene, you would have been just as poleaxed as the first readers of the book in 1930.

There's probably no way that anyone can re-create the original experience of seeing the film today. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the story, you at least know that Bogart is the star, and presumably the hero, and you'll assume that he'll sort out the villains by the end.

You'll just have to enjoy the movie for its eerily perfect casting, with Mary Astor (fresh from a divorce scandal) as the bad girl, and including Sidney Greenstreet, age 62, in his very first film role and Peter Lorre with his morphine addict's twitch. You'll appreciate Huston's economical direction--- he edited in the camera, to make certain the studio wouldn't screw up his masterpiece--- and the straight-from-the-novel dialogue.

As for me, I'm going to see if I can locate audio books of Red Harvest and The Glass Key.

8 Comments:

Blogger halojones-fan said...

"...you wouldn't know that Sam Spade is the good guy--- not until the last scene, when he sends Brigid up the river for murdering Archer."

Except that Spade isn't the good guy, at least not in the usual meaning of the term. Sure, he's feeding her to the cops; but only because it would be bad for his business if he didn't--and because he's angry at the way she's trying to manipulate him. If he were a Good Guy he'd be doing it because it was The Right Thing To Do; instead, his reasons are entirely personal.

Nobody in "The Maltese Falcon" is a good guy.

6:08 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Spade gives quite a number of reasons why he sends Brigid to Tehatchapi--- something like eleven, I think--- but one of them is a moral argument:

"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."

It's not exactly "blessed are the peacemakers," but it's there. Out of the thugs, rats, and louses who make up the cast of characters, Spade is the one who sends the others to prison.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Oz said...

It's funny that you mention the film. Because of course I saw the Bogart film first, when I was quite young. And Bogart wasn't any sort of hero to me. I remember being on the edge of my seat right up to the very end. I had no idea what he would do, what his game was.

Unfortunately, being quite young, I didn't understand all the subtext. But I did have that feeling you're talking about. Later, I read the book and I've probably seen the movie more than once. It used to be a favorite on the college circuit and in Seattle film houses.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps a reason the novels you mentioned are so tautly written is that they were written on manual typewriters, were any mistake screws up minute if not hours of work.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Phy said...

I posted a link to this article, and MKeaton responded with this reply:

I think Williams missed a key point in Hammett's writing. He says that Spade is a heel and we have no reason to think otherwise. The reasons to think otherwise are the entire book. There are repeated opportunities for him to sell out--not just to quit, but to quit at a personal profit. He doesn't. In many ways the book is more eastern in theme than western. The driving force, for Spade, is not good vs. evil or even justice; it's honor. Spade is an American samuri. He talks tough and rationalizes because overt emotion is a sign of weakness. But we the reader know he's a hero, and a "good guy" despite what he says, because of what he does. In Hammett's world, actions speak louder than word--as it should be.

http://tinyurl.com/39wupj

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Murphy said...

Asta the dog in the movies was a wire-haired fox terrier. Not a Yorky.

2:21 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Fox terrier, Yorky . . . small yappy dogs all look alike to me.

Phy, when you quoted me, you left out the crucial sentence, which is why MKeaton gets my argument wrong.

After "To all appearances, Spade is a heel," I wrote, "If you were reading this book fresh in 1930, and hadn't seen the movie and knew nothing other than what the book told you, you wouldn't know that Sam Spade is the good guy--- not until the last scene, when he sends Brigid up the river for murdering Archer."

MKeaton is responding to an argument that I didn't make (but that HJF did). Up until that crucial scene, Spade's actions could have been taken as entirely self-serving, and I think that's how Hammett intended them to be taken. Afterwards, you have to respect Spade's interest in justice, even if you can't quite approve of all his hobbies.

In the very last scene, Spade's secretary Effie Perrine finds him repellent and won't let him touch her, but then she was a partisan of Brigid and her judgment can't quite be trusted.

3:54 PM  
Blogger halojones-fan said...

"Spade gives quite a number of reasons...but one of them is a moral argument:

'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.'"

Well, yes--that's exactly my point! That argument isn't a "good" argument, unless you're arguing that bad guys can't have honor. (That many of the characters in "Maltese Falcon" don't is beside the point.)

Sure, the end result is "bad guys go to prison", but that isn't to say that all the bad guys went to prison--or that they were sent there by good guys for good reasons. Spade might be a good guy, but only if you let the ends justify the means.

Although I will say that Spade isn't as bad as Duke Togo. Spade sleeps with the girl and then shops her to the cops; Togo sleeps with the girl and then shoots her in the head.

11:40 AM  

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