Sunday, July 29, 2007

# 56 The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

From 1926 to 1929 Dashiell Hammett occupied an apartment at 891 Post Street in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin district. A young husband and father of two, “Dash” lived apart from his family because he suffered from tuberculosis. He wrote The Maltese Falcon in the flat which greatly resembles that of Sam Spade, his detective hero.

Other local buildings figure in the novel, some with their names changed. Gutman, the arch-villain, stays at the Alexandria Hotel, where he drugs Spade. The
model for the fictional lodging was the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, five blocks from Hammett’s apartment.

To this day a popular hotel and stately landmark, the Drake holds personal significance for the centathlete. In 1999, while attending a convention in downtown San Francisco, he ventured out after dinner with an entourage of salesmen in suits, some of them friends, some new acquaintances. It was a breezy but not overly chilly Monday evening. Someone suggested
Harry Denton’s Starlight Room as a destination.

This nightclub, on the 21st floor of the Drake, is advertised to party seekers by an illuminated rotating
gold star atop the hotel. The beacon lured the entourage west, as if they were magi, across Union Square.

The wise guys exited the hotel elevator and spilled into a throng of glitterati—a pleasant surprise on a worknight. A red booth was secured. Conversations unfolded rapidly with neighbors, local suburbanites in for a swank night on the town. Slurping a Manhattan, the centathlete scanned the crowd and the main seating area.

“Hey—there are
The Go-Go’s.”

Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin, those glam-punk goddesses of the ‘80’s, were holding court around a lengthy table. They looked good, more mature since their MTV salad days, but decidedly good. Their three bandmates were absent but not missed on account of a gaggle of women, dressed in skimpy, retro-mod outfits suggestive of the ‘60’s, and a few contemporarily mod rakes. Their giggly colloquy was pierced by Wiedlin’s nasal fife of a voice.

This observation passed largely unremarked in the booth—the entourage was preoccupied with mingling—but one of the neighbors reported having seen The Go-Go’s in concert days before somewhere (California geography means nothing to a Manhattan-slurping business traveler) to the south of the city. The women accompanying Carlisle and Wiedlin, entertaining them with lurid commentaries and accounts of racy exploits as far as the centathlete could tell (maybe he was only projecting), were actual go-go dancers who flanked the band when they performed.

At the far end of the lounge the DJ was churning up the dance floor. The entourage, which the centathlete now privately termed “geeks in wingtips” in light of the stylish company, attained the space and boogied, power-ties flapping flaccidly.

The collective energy was revved up by the opening notes of the mega-smash, “
Livin’ la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin. That infectious track instantly compelled The Go-Go’s to the floor. Carlisle was radiant, bouncing next to the centathlete and blind to his presence. She was buoyantly engaged with her gal pals, a couple of whom avidly demonstrated their go-go skills on the ledges of the windows displaying panoramic views of the San Francisco night skyline.

As the DJ spurred on the floor with successive numbers, a fellow wingtipped geek engaged one of the go-go dancers in mutual bumping and grinding against the glass. The spectacle was positive and the mood all around was high. Eventually the celebrities’ presence was called out: the DJ played the early ‘80’s hit, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” For a few delightful moments the centathlete danced to The Go-Go’s with The Go-Go’s, but Carlisle and Wiedlin abruptly returned to their table—apparently their own
beat didn’t make them get off their seat anymore.

The flow eventually subsided and the entourage sat down as well. Desultory conversation ensued. Then, the centathlete noted Carlisle and Wiedlin leading their group out a side door.

“Where are The Go-Go’s going? Let’s follow them.”

The salesmen and a few neighbors proceeded out into a service stairwell not meant for public traffic. Up a few flights they stepped, and out on the
roof itself. The perimeter was ringed by a walkway sunken between stout, chin-high outer walls and a central peak. Down this trough the Go-Go group was smoking and drinking. The geeks satisfied themselves with the impressive vistas and the thrill of the illicit excursion, except for the one salesman who resumed his burgeoning relationship with the window-grinder.

But she had other fish to fry. Upon quitting his company she and her fellow go-go dancers, to the geeks’ astonishment, crawled one at a time up the central slope. They reached the roof’s apex and stood directly under the gold star, yelping triumphantly. After they came down the entourage again followed their lead. The centathlete mounted and ascended the
ladder, which rose above the visual comfort of the outer walls. Vertigo was combated with clenched hands and a steady downward gaze at the rungs. The terminus was a short gangplank around the star’s supporting pole.

The entourage stood on the summit, their tentativeness giving way to exhilaration. The star twirled above their heads. It was gusty and chillier. There was an urban mysticism in the moment and it seemed that an affirming ritual was required, but the surrounding skyscrapers offered no guidance or commentary.

When the geeks descended to the trough and then to the Starlight Room, The Go-Go’s were finishing their drinks at their table. Wiedlin was still chirping. Most of the patrons were gone. Eventually the salesmen traipsed off to their hotel and requested their wake-up calls. The next morning on the convention floor it was established that most of them had not recognized, nor did they care, that they had been in the presence of The Go-Go’s. They had brochures to distribute and quotas to meet.

The centathlete has since returned to that unforgettable gangplank, which can only be accessed surreptitiously, without the knowledge of the Starlight Room staff. Creep and climb at your own peril.

The night with The Go-Go’s— a Low Brush with Fame to be sure—could, in retrospect, serve as stock for a Dashiell Hammett story if embellished appropriately. The centathlete would be a hard-boiled private eye like Sam Spade. His entourage would include seedy characters selling gambling accessories and contraband. Their interaction with the celebrities’ group would be more intimate, involving both overt and ambiguous sexuality, eliciting jealousy. Fog would enshroud the rooftop.

One of the go-go dancers would shriek and fall off, the event not directly seen by the narrator and (most of) his entourage. The celebrities would vanish with their harem. The centathlete, on returning to the lounge, would be met by the management and the cops, who would informally accuse of him of witnessing or perpetrating a murder. The urgent mission, under the suspicion of the SFPD, to find the real killer would ensue…

Many readers applaud such ingredients, now familiar to consumers of literary and film noir, and of much other detective dramas, and they eat up the straightforward, monotone presentation. In 1929 Hammett’s laconic, “objective” narrative style in The Maltese Falcon was
admired and compared to Hemingway’s. The opening paragraph includes:
“Sam Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v… The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows…”
The centathlete found the repetition and passive grammar, here and throughout, downright clunky. Hammett used “was” whenever possible; colorful verbs did not appeal much. “He's an unindicative writer—not a lot of adverbs,” one critic further
noted.

The noir atmosphere of The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade’s “existential” mystique attracted countless fans (
Gertrude Stein, for example, who considered Hammett and Charlie Chaplin the two people she wanted to meet in America, according to an interview with the playwright Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s companion) and imitators. However, Hammett himself disengaged from the genre he helped create and he futilely dreamed of producing artistic novels.

The centathlete enjoys noir to a point but he won’t reread its progenitor. He prefers John Huston’s 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon—the third adaptation of Hammett’s book—and he will watch it again.

Ranked
23rd on the American Film Institute’s Best 100 movies of the 20th century, this adaptation celebrates a triumvirate of thespian magnetism: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. You can’t beat the stiff swagger and snarled calculations of Bogart (who looked nothing like Hammett’s “blond satan”), the eyelids and insinuating purr of Lorre, and the jowls and learned bluster of Greenstreet. In their roles the masters draw in and repel each other, the minor characters, and us.

By contrast, the novel’s narration kept the centathlete mainly and mildly interested in the puzzle. We know Spade will bring the criminals to justice relatively quickly (the book is short), we just don’t know how. Today the derivative, expedited formula of virtually every TV detective drama (the crime scene, the red herrings, the main suspect, the twist, the confession, justice) is a triter shade of stale. Each new installment makes one mix another Manhattan.

Thus weighing in on the two Falcons, the centathlete considers the general question—the book or the movie?

While common experience prefers the book, minds of varying potency have sought to enlighten us toward a more tolerant perspective. Charles Taylor, a contributing writer to Salon.com,
railed against bookish snobs who “believe that only words are capable of conveying nuance, distinction, sensibility, thought.” In the desperately polemic and contrarian style typical of many e-zines, he sought to debunk:
“…the old canard that reading is active while watching is passive. Doesn't it depend on what you're reading or watching? It's just as easy for a reader to tune out reading pulpy trash (or, if they're really unlucky, a ‘literary’ snoozer like Michael Ondaatje) as it is to tune out at a movie or in front of TV.”
The allegedly soporific Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and other novels, plays and poems, refrained from casual slander when he
discussed for the Times of London literature and cinema with his friend, the art critic, novelist and intercultural essayist, John Berger:

Ondaatje:
As a writer are you influenced more by writing than by art?
Berger:
I think I’m most influenced—only when writing fiction—by cinema.
Ondaatje:
Why cinema?
Berger:
First of all, cinematographic editing seems to me to be close to a form of written narrative. Also, that one can have long vistas and close-ups one after the other. And lastly, because of the relationship of the cinema to its public. It’s in the dark. There are people together and yet each is listening and looking alone. People can’t look at paintings like that; they can’t read books like that and somehow, that image is an image of collaboration, the collaboration of the spectator who is no longer a spectator but part of the telling of the story. That image, which comes from the cinema is, to me, more encouraging.

As a connoisseur, philosopher and historian of virtually all the visual arts from Cro-Magnon
cave art (“a metaphysical arena of continually intermittent appearances and disappearances”) to modern photography, Berger is especially qualified to issue meditations such as:
“Compare...the cinema with theatre. Both are dramatic arts. Theatre brings actors before a public and every night during the season they re-enact the same drama. Deep in the nature of theatre is a sense of ritual. The cinema, by contrast, transports its audience individually, singly, out of the theatre towards the unknown.”
In many of his writings Berger emphasizes a socialistic need to uphold connections with the Past, the Environment and the Community. His high-minded appreciation of cinema, as performance art in which the moviegoer is also a collaborator, provokes more than does Taylor’s high-handed dichotomy of “reading vs. watching.”

The centathlete does prefer books to movies; far, far more of the former have enriched as they entertained. That said, after grappling with Berger, the notion of comparing literature to cinema as comparing apples to oranges becomes inapt. If a book is an apple, a movie is a group of oranges dancing on a screen against the dark.

The customary primacy of books matters, perhaps more than the different experiences of reading and watching. In most cases the movie is an adaptation of the book (not vice versa), and originality counts a lot; we must grant that a story’s source material enjoys heavy favoritism, in the manner of parents to a child, in our psyche.

Skimming the web yields several forum
threads about movies that, for some, bettered their inspirations. Certain titles recur:

The Godfather (the centathlete agrees)
The Lord of the Rings (the centathlete disagrees)
The Wizard of Oz
The Shining
To Kill a Mockingbird
Jaws
Harry Potter
Forest Gump
Fight Club
Gone With the Wind


Further investigation has begun—your opinions and additions are crucial. If you don’t post soon, a man in a trench coat will be making the rounds and asking questions. And if he has to slap you, you’ll like it.