If you have not read or seen The Maltese Falcon, there will be some spoilers ahead. But you should read it and see it.
Thanks to the good people at TCM, last week I was able (as was anybody else who felt like ponying up enough for a movie ticket) to see The Maltese Falcon (1941) on a movie screen for the first time in my life. I've read the novel more than once and seen the movie on TV screens more times than I can recall, but it had been a while and never in its intended venue before.
As always, the story was damn near perfect. The cast from top to bottom couldn't be better. The screenplay is essentially the book in movie format (there's an apocryphal story that John Huston threw the novel on his secretary's desk and said, "Type this up.") and it's wonderful. There are a couple of very minor false notes (Whose voice is that saying, "It's a fake! It's lead!"? It's surely not Sydney Greenstreet's) and they make absolutely no difference. If you can see this film in a theater, do it. If not, watch it on the best TV you can find.
But there's a common fallacy about crime fiction writing that this novel and this film do their very best (and that's really good) to debunk. There is a dirty little lie going around that cozy mysteries focus on character while other, more "serious" crime novels are devoted more to deep themes, complex plot maneuvers, airtight investigations and story mechanics.
Well, try to imagine The Maltese Falcon with a different set of characters. Imagine that we got Harvey Lichtenstein, newly minted PI straight out of Stamford, rather than Sam Spade. Assume that Casper Gutman was instead Jack LaLang, fitness buff. Consider Joel Cairo gone and place Biff Springfield, womanizer and feed salesman in his stead. Brigid O'Shaughnessy? Nah. We've got Shirley Smith, cosmetics clerk at the local five and dime.
The characters are what make any story work; without them you might as well simply issue a list of plot points as a Facebook post and wait for the comments to pour in. Characters are the brain, heart and soul of the story. Whatever you're writing is dependent on them for the humanity your story needs.
And The Maltese Falcon is chock full of characters. Over the top? You bet they are, and thank goodness for it. If you saw this crew walking down a street, you'd either double over in laughter or hurriedly cross to the other side. But you'd sure as hell notice them, and that's what makes this story the great fun it remains to this day. Yes, a fun noir. Imagine.
The idea is supposed to be that hardboiled noir (of which this is perhaps the prototype) should be depressing, full of cynicism and hopelessness, that every step the main character takes brings him closer to the inevitable doom he probably deserves. Is Sam Spade a glittering, white-horse hero? Good lord, no. The conversation in my car after the movie was about what a complete jerk he is most of the time, and you root for him anyway. He's the only character in the whole story who'll tell you the truth whether you want to hear it or not. He's actually enjoying the work most of the time, and he's almost always in complete charge of any situation he enters. I am crazy about Sam Spade as a character and know I couldn't possibly write anyone like him.
Part of the appeal in the film is that Humphrey Bogart is just so damn good at being Sam Spade that it's impossible to think of him as Rick in Casablanca or Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Yes, they look and sound the same, but the character at the heart is always more important to Bogart than being himself on screen. Here, he's tough and vulnerable, deadly serious and playful, tender hearted and absolutely cold-blooded. Yet he never seems contradictory; the character is just nuanced and written so well it makes an author's ego feel stomped upon. Nobody's that good.
Sam's supporting cast is so full of personalities it's almost embarrassing. Casper Gutman alone should have his own series of novels. Huge (in every direction) and of a bygone era, he actually believes he is acting within a set of rules, that he is a gentleman. Even when he's ordering people to be killed and threatening torture. He is the armchair Indiana Jones, a man who searches for rarities because he wants them for himself.
Usually "the girl" in such stories is either a flat-out femme fatale who is clearly leading our hero through her own plot only to discard him ruthlessly once he is of no use to her, or a dimwitted damsel who will surely need to be rescued at some point or another. Hammett's Miss Wonderlay/Leblanc/O'Shaughnessy has major elements of the first and pretends to be the second, but she's really neither. One of the great joys of the film is watching Mary Astor talk about how she's "been bad" and watching Bogart enjoy her discomfort. He's on to her from the first minute, and the movie's last few minutes of him trying to explain his code to her are among the best scenes appearing in any movie anywhere ever. The dialogue is almost verbatim from Hammett.
I'm not even mentioning Cairo or Wilmer Cook, Effie Perrine or Iva Archer, Tom Polhaus or Lt. Dundy. Each has a purpose and a personality, something lacking in the by-the-numbers books whose authors think character is simply something that facilitates plot points. They are people who would have their own stories to tell, and that's the point. Each of your characters is the star of his/her own book. They believe the story is about them, and who are you to argue?
So having experienced the 1941 Maltese Falcon as it should be seen, I can tell you confidently: Don't you dare believe character is only for cozies, or even that the "gimmick" in cozies is more important than their population. Pay more attention to plot than people at your own risk.
It is 35 days until Opening Day.