Permit the film geek in me to have a moment. I love film noir. LOVE IT with a caps lock kind of love. I’m talking about the real film noir from the 1940s & ’50s, of course, not the modern neo-noir stuff. Give me all the clichés – the shadowy, black & white visuals, the Dutch angle shots, the femme fatales, the cons, the double-crosses, & the slang (“I’m packin’ heat cuz I’m on the lam!”). Give me The Roaring Twenties, Touch of Evil, & The Asphalt Jungle. Give me Humphrey Bogart, Veronica Lake, & Raymond Burr. I love it all.
The Maltese Falcon & The Big Sleep are two of the most iconic film noir titles, so it was fascinating for this former film student to go back & read the books on which they’re based. The hard boiled private eye novel is a sub-genre of detective fiction, which is itself a sub-genre of crime fiction. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon & Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep basically define their genre, taking elements from earlier British detective stories (i.e. the refined, whodunit-solving sleuths of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot & Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey) & reforming them to create something gritty, dramatic, funny, & wholly American.
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was published in 1929. Sam Spade is a private eye who is hired by the beautiful Miss Wonderly to find her missing sister. Of course, her name is not really Miss Wonderly, & she’s not really looking for her lost sister, so Spade must juggle shady characters, deadly dames, & a whole lot of lies to solve the mystery of the Maltese falcon. Although the chacter only appeared in this one novel , it was enough to crown Spade as the private eye archetype, one that would forever be the subject of imitation, parody, & loving homage.
Raymond Chandler was heavily influenced by Sam Spade when writing his own hard boiled private eye, Philip Marlowe of The Big Sleep. In the 1939 novel, Marlowe is hired by the wealthy General Sternwood to deal with a mysterious blackmailer who is targeting one of his two wild, trouble-making daughters. But as Marlowe navigates a maze of kidnapping, black market pornography, & murder, he keeps being confronted with another question altogether – where is Rusty Regan, the General’s beloved son-in-law?
On surface level, these books are practically carbon-copies of each other. They’ve both got the hard boiled private eye who solves mysteries with stubbornness, street smarts, & a bit of luck. They’ve both got the beautiful, deadly women, the sinister side characters, & the big-talking (and often interfering) city police. Sam Spade walks the seedy streets of San Francisco while Philip Marlowe patrols the back alleys of LA. Humphrey Bogart even plays the main character in both movies.
But there is one major difference between the two novels: The Maltese Falcon is written in third person while The Big Sleep is in first person. This may not seem like much, but it made a huge difference for me. With Hammett as the impartial narrator, it’s difficult to get much in the way of what Spade is thinking or feeling unless he stops to explain himself, and because that would destroy the flow of the plot, he rarely does. But since Marlowe is the narrator of his own story, his thoughts & feelings come out much more naturally, & as a result, the reader feels like a part of The Big Sleep – we are solving the mystery with Marlowe, whereas we could only watch Spade work. And when Marlowe does take the time to explain his feelings, the effect is that much stronger.
In chapter 24, Marlowe returns to his apartment to find Carmen Sternwood, the General’s youngest daughter, in his bed. When it becomes apparent that Marlowe is spurning her advances, Carmen grows furious and calls him “a filthy name.”
I didn’t mind that. I didn’t mind what she called me, what anybody called me. But this was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that. Nothing. Such as they were they had all my memories.
I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer. What she called me only reminded me of that.
This is miles above anything we learn about Sam Spade’s personal life. So whereas Spade will always be the ultra-cool, distant, ladies-love-him-men-want-to-be-him character, Marlowe is all the more real for letting us peek underneath that ultra-cool armor.
At the end of the day (probably a long hard day, spent in a stakeout in the rain, with lunch taken out of a flask), I adored both of these books, as I adore the movies based on them. But Philip Marlowe seems to have replaced Sam Spade as my favorite hard boiled private eye.
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All movie stills via Movie Stills Database; intended for editorial use only.