Proto-Noir and Incomplete Character in the Maltese Falcon?

Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sam Spade isn’t the archetypal noir detective but he is close, he shows the cool command, the detective skills and the hard-boiled cynical nature found in the noir detective however his character lacks a certain trait. This trait is found in his partner but not himself. This trait is the doomed relationship with the femme fatal or the dark-ego female. Frank Krutnik explains ‘Spade is emphatically controlled in his relations with women: he is the master of his feeling and thereby can resist any danger of contamination and debasement through love’.1The ‘contamination and debasement’ though connection with the femme fatal is one of the central aspects of the true noir fiction detective’s personality. As I mentioned in my post about Coogan’s Bluff the interesting aspect of any character is the contradictions apparent in their character. The noir detective is interesting because he is both cool and in-command at the same time in-lust and hypnotised by the femme fatal. Again like the protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff he is both the rule-maker and rule-breaker. Sam Spade is too cool and too in control to be entirely interesting and entirely complete as a noir detective. This isn’t to say that his character doesn’t contain a dark side, he sleeps with his partner’s wife and doesn’t bat an eyelid when given the news concerning the same partner’s death. In combination Sam Spade and his partner create the archetypal noir detective. Stephen Cooper explains that ‘it can be no coincidence that the lascivious Mile Archer [Spade’s partner] is shot to death in the [scene] following’ the attraction and lust of Archer for Brigid O’ Shaughnessy.2Essentially and in concentration Archer suffers the fate that several other detectives will suffer when they become emotionally connected with the femme fatal or dark-ego female. Archer’s story is condensed compared to Walter Neff’s narrative of destruction in Double Indemnity (1944) however it is essentially the same. In many films the attempt to win a heterosexual prize comes along with the conclusion of a narrative, however: in film noir this always leads to death, either one’s own or hers.

Another interesting aspect concerning Archer’s death is that it is so brief, it hardly appears on the screen. We are not given time to build up an emotional state in either the killer or the victim. We are also not allowed to glimpse at the sad sight of Archer’s corpse as Spade refuses to witness it as he believes the police would’ve noticed everything he could have. The refusal to expose the emotional state of the crime in both the murderer and murdered is in fact a structural affect of the Hollywood system. Sam Spade is the focus point, the focalizer, and it is his emotions, his narrative that the camera follows and because he is indifferent to Archer’s death we aren’t given access to the emotional states connected to the murder. Structurally Archer is damned to suffer death and an obscure and unemotional one.

 

1Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, London: Routledge, (1994), p. 123.

2Stephen Cooper ‘Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Spring, 1989), pp. 22-31 p. 24.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

6 thoughts on “Proto-Noir and Incomplete Character in the Maltese Falcon?”

  1. An original and provocative critique.

    I would make these observations:

    1. The story follows very closely Hammett’s pre-noir novel, and the murder of Archer is the catalyst for the ensuing action, so I can’t agree that the early dispatch of Archer can be put down to the “structural affect of the Hollywood system”.

    2. Spade does have a doomed relationship with Brigid, but she is not fully a femme-fatale. Archer is killed because his weakness for attractive women overcame the necessary caution he should have shown on the job. There is no relationship of any meaning between Archer and Brigid.

    3. Spade is the full noir PI. As I have said elsewhere:

    “Spade is the quintessential noir protagonist: a loner on the edge of polite society, sorely tempted to transgress but declines and is neither saved nor redeemed. [Sam and Brigid are lovers.] Sam was not seduced. Brigid is not a femme-fatale: she manipulates Sam, but never seeks to have him act as her surrogate. Together they discover the desperate emptiness of their lives. She true to her nature can’t comprehend how he can send her down if he loves her. He can’t fathom her lying while knowing she loves him. The famous ad-lib by Bogart on the leaden black bird at the end says it all … the stuff that dreams are made of.”

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