Although this was the only time he played Sam Spade in films, he has become indelibly linked with the character, and "Sam Spade" has become a generic term for hard-boiled private detective, recognized even by those who have neither seen the movie nor read Hammett's novel.
Dashiell Hammett and Detective Fiction
The Maltese Falcondid more than transform individual careers; it helped change the detective genre and paved the way for film noir. Indeed, Huston's film represents a change in film detectives somewhat comparable with the influence of Dashiell Hammett's work on detectives in literature. The literary genre was itself a relatively new one when Hammett's work first appeared in the 1920s. The genre had its origins in the mid-nineteenth century in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, but did not hit its stride until the wildfire popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories at the end of the century. These, followed by the work of writers like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, set the tone for what has become known as the British school of detective fiction. These stories and novels generally involved a very bright detective, a very bright criminal, and an extremely clever crime in a comfortable, highly mannered, and largely benign society. When the crime is solved, that society returns to a peaceful "norrnality."
Hammett's work, which first appeared in the popular "pulp" magazine Black Maskin 1923, was characterized as part of the "hard-boiled" school of detective writing, which was a reaction against the more genteel British tradition. The detectives were proletarians rather than aristocrats (Sam Spade as opposed to Lord Peter Wimsey), and the crimes tended to be brutal and often senseless. The criminal acts and the moral decay they revealed were representative of rather than aberrations from the workings of the society in which they occurred. Social problems such as organized crime and urban corruption that were largely irrelevant to the British stories were central to the American ones. The language was not polite discourse but street slang and, even though the individual crime might be cleared up at the end, the social and personal evils it revealed tended to be endemic. This fiction offered little in the way of a return to a polite "normality," even when the mystery was solved. Hard-boiled writers like Hammett, James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson were less interested in the complex orchestration and clear-cut resolution of the crime than they were in the dark motivations of the criminals and their relationships to the society in which they functioned.
Hammett was not the first of the hard-boiled detective writers, but he quickly became one of the most admired and remains a standard by which others are judged. The Maltese Falcon, his third novel, appeared in serial form in 1929 and in book form in 1930. It was an immediate success and the film rights were /7/ quickly purchased for $8,500 by Warner Bros. Although Hammett's fiction won him an international reputation, he only completed two more novels. His work had helped create a genuine revolution in detective fiction, but by the time John Huston's film would help create a revolution in detective