© 2008 William
Lee Fu Gow was once the key to the mystery. If you’ve read The Maltese Falcon and have seen the 1940 John Huston film adaptation, you are probably wondering who Lee Fu Gow is and how he figured in the plot. He doesn’t. Lee Fu Gow is the character in the Roy Del Ruth 1931 original film production of “The Maltese Falcon” who witnessed the murder of Miles Archer. Lee Fu Gow tells Spade something in Chinese at the scene of Archer’s murder and the audience isn’t let in on the information until the end of the movie where a newspaper article shows Lee Fu Gow as a surprise witness who identified Ruth Wonderly as the killer of Archer at her trial. (In the 1931 original version of “The Maltese Falcon,” Ruth Wonderly is the name used throughout instead of it being a false identity for Brigid O’Shaughnessy as in the novel and Huston film.)
The writers of the original 1931 movie adaptation of The Maltese Falcon – that starred Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez – used Lee Fu Gow as a device to solve one of the enduring mysteries of Hammett’s novel and that is exactly when Sam Spade knows that Brigid O’Shaughnessy killed Miles Archer. It is one of the nuances that I love in Hammett’s novel and as Spade leads O’Shaughnessy inexorably to her deserved fate, Hammett shines the reader on as well. It is only at the end that we learn that Spade knew that it was Brigid O’Shaughnessy that shot Miles Archer in an alleyway off Bush Street long before the final scene in Spade’s apartment.
Many a reader has fallen into Hammett’s trap and believed that Spade actually cared for O’Shaughnessy and that at the end he was torn about “sending her over.” In the 1931 film version it is clear that Spade has fallen for Wonderly and even though he turns her in, he brings her cigarettes and candy and arranges for the matron to look out for her in jail. In this film version of the novel, Spade is hired to by the district attorney’s office after solving the case. In William Dieterle’s 1936 remake of “The Maltese Falcon,” “Satan Met A Lady,” starring Warren William and Bette Davis, the relationship plays out as a romantic comedy with a crime story background.
The hardboiled quality of The Maltese Falcon isn’t in the gats, the fedoras and the gaudy patter; it’s in the cold and calculating way that Spade uses to find out who killed his partner although that seems to be the last thing he is doing. His access into the motive is through O’Shaughnessy. Spade doesn’t know why she killed Archer and without any evidence linking her to the killing, he needs motive and a confession for her to take the fall. (The confession as the ultimate goal is played far more broadly in “Satan Met a Lady.”)
What makes John Huston’s film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon a classic is his determination to make the novel come alive as it was written. There are two stories about Huston and the writing of the script and whether either is true isn’t something that can be verified. The first story tells of Huston handing the book to a secretary and instructing her to “just describe the scene and add the dialog.” A few days later – due to miscommunication – that pile of papers were picked up by the studio and considered the script. The other story involves Huston not using the script at all but showing up on the set with the novel in his hand.
One quibble I have with John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s novel is that the introduction that scrolls at the beginning of the film states that there is, in fact, a bejeweled falcon statuette waylaid by pirates and lost to history. The novel only allows, “it could be.” That is a substantial shift and puts the falcon seekers in a somewhat different light.
The Maltese Falcon is based on misdirection and omission and nowhere is that clearer than in how Spade deals with the death of Archer. After notifying the widow (who Spade is having an affair with) and having Archer’s name removed from the windows and door, Spade doesn’t mention Archer again unless asked by O’Shaughnessy, the police, a hotel detective or the district attorney. His intent seems to be focused on obtaining the black bird by playing one side against the other (a classic Hammett ploy) and in doing so creates the real misdirection of the novel. At its heart, The Maltese Falcon is a whodunit and Hammett designed it so elegantly that all of the typical traps and trimmings of the genre disappear into the fog of a long gone San Francisco.
One of the sweet touches of distraction is in how Hammett uses the character of Spade’s secretary, Effie Perrine. When asked about O’Shaughnessy, Perrine replies, “I’m for her” and “I don’t care if she’s got all the names in the phone-book. That girl is all right, and you know it.” Because of the proximity of Perrine to Spade, Perrine’s take on the situation is given more credence than it actually should. Looking at this scene as a Murphy or a street con, Perrine would be acting as the shill or as a roper toward the reader. Perrine gives the reader a reason to believe that O’Shaughnessy is “all right” much as she gives credence to the possibility of a real Maltese falcon by contacting a relative who teaches history at a nearby college.
There is another manifestation of misdirection and it is in how Hammett uses Iva Archer. If you listen to all the hooey that the fan boys spin, you’ll hear the song of an amoral man in a corrupt world struggling with his love for the woman who killed his partner or some such silliness. “Don't be too sure,” Spade tells O’Shaughnessy, “I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.” I’m certainly not convinced. Once you blow the smoke away, the only amoral or immoral act committed by Spade is having an affair with his partner’s wife. Every other questionable thing is done in the advancement of finding out who killed his partner. At the end, he even turns over to the police the one thousand dollar bill that Kaspar Gutman gave him. There is nothing in the book to suggest even the slightest whiff of corruption on the part of the police or the district attorney. In fact, Lieutenant Dundy tells him, “you’ll get a square deal . . . and most of the breaks.”
The affair with Iva Archer paints Spade as a “bad” man, so his questionable actions later in the book aren’t given the benefit of the doubt and we’re easily convinced he might sell out O’Shaughnessy to Gutman for his own gain. The affair is a setup meant to confuse morality, legality and criminality based on the reader’s perspective.
There is no “aha” moment in The Maltese Falcon pinpointing where Spade knows the truth about O’Shaughnessy. Other people could pick other places but if I had to pick a place in the novel where Spade knew that O’Shaughnessy killed Archer, it would the first visit to Spade’s office from Joel Cairo. That visit begins in Chapter 4 The Black Bird and continues into Chapter 5 The Levantine.
In Chapter 4, Spade meets with Wonderly who is registered at a hotel as Miss Leblanc and she tells him that she is really Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She asks Spade if she is responsible for the murder of Archer. “Not unless there are things I don’t know about,” he replies. There is things he doesn’t know about and while he knows that the Archer and Thursby murders are linked, he doesn’t know why or how. It’s the appearance of Joel Cairo and tales of a black bird figurine – and that Thursby was also involved in recovering it – that puts the murders in a context that Spade can understand and subvert. Cairo in a few moments driven by something other than “idle curiosity” has told Spade far more than O’Shaughnessy has and that is as telling as the information itself.
There are two other places that Huston’s film deviates from the book and that’s in an omission and in the ending. The omission cuts the story that Spade tells in O’Shaughnessy’s apartment that has become known as “The Flitcraft Parable.” (The scene occurs in Chapter 7 G in the Air and doesn’t appear in any of the three film versions of the novel.) The term “parable” is a misnomer. If the Flitcraft material is anything it is a soliloquy. It’s not the kind of interior monologue usually found in detective fiction and Hammett blends it into the narrative by having O’Shaughnessy sit in a padded rocking chair and Joel Cairo interrupt with a phone call. Spade isn’t talking to O’Shaughnessy – he’s talking to himself.
Huston realized that the soliloquy isn’t cinematic – although he would forget that idea when he adapted James Joyce’s The Dead decades later – and wouldn’t add anything to the film if the film were adapted correctly.
While interpretations of the Flitcraft story drift into existentialism, references to logicians, cabbages, kings and all manner of philosophy, the gist to me is that falling beams – in the form of mysterious black falcon statuettes – can’t distract Spade from what it is that he has to do because he will end up doing it anyway. In this case, the use of distraction is the point. That is part of the elegance of the novel: That the distracting story about distraction explains how the novel and story is constructed.
The beauty of how Hammett set up The Maltese Falcon is that no one can put a finger on a page and say, “this is where Spade knew.” At the end of the novel – and Huston’s film – in Spade’s apartment, Spade uses information from the Archer crime scene to convince O’Shaughnessy that he’s sure she killed Archer when he mentions the “buttoned overcoat.” That he was suspicious of her all along becomes obvious, where exactly he knows that she did it isn’t.
But know he did and the ending in the book and the different ending in the film each in its own way make clear that O’Shaughnessy was nothing more than a suspect to Spade. The book ends the next day in a business-as-usual morning in the office. In the film, instead of accompanying O’Shaughnessy to jail – as was done in the 1931 movie – Spade instead chooses to carry a worthless statuette whose only value now is as evidence against O’Shaughnessy.