We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE


Download PDF

The Three Sam Spades: The Shifting Model of American Masculinity in the Three Films of The Maltese Falcon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon—starring the quintessential hard-boiled private detective, Sam Spade—was adapted for the screen not once, but three times: The Maltese Falcon (also known as Dangerous Female) directed by Roy Del Ruth (US, 1931); Satan Met a Lady directed by William Dieterle (US, 1936); and The Maltese Falcon directed by John Huston (US, 1941).1 It is the last of these films, according to critics, that follows the novel most closely and is the version Hammett liked best, although he had no direct involvement with the production of any of the three films.2 And it is the last of these films that is remembered best, in part due to Humphrey Bogart's iconic performance as the tough Sam Spade. The novel's adaptation to the screen twice in the 1930s, however, attests to the dominance and popularity of a different kind of detective-hero during the Depression. While Bogart's Spade, as the epitome of the hard-boiled detective, would become a model of American masculinity during World War II, Ricardo Cortez and Warren William's "Spades" in 1931 and 1936, respectively, embodied different traits—ones more in keeping with what we now regard as belonging to an English tradition of heroism and the American tradition of villainy.3 The Spades of the Depression were more suave, cultured, self-serving, and more like the villains than the tough, working-class detective who would come to symbolize American manhood in the 1940s, and it is this shift in ideals of national masculinity that an analysis of the three film versions of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon reveals.

Most critics and scholars have focused on Huston's film, and few even acknowledge that there was more than one film made of the story. As Joan McGettigan argues, there have been few serious scholarly attempts to look at all three films and, those that do, tend mainly to examine plot differences and evaluate the fidelity of the three films to the novel.4 While these discussions do address aspects of narrative and/or film style, they do not explore the context of the three films and, more specifically, the differences in their representation of heroic (and villainous) masculinity and the shifting cultural ideals that those differences signify. Therefore, in this paper, I will explore how, despite their superficial similarities and their common source, the three film versions of The Maltese Falcon differ in terms of theme and representation regarding the masculinity of the hero and how these differences can be related back to the social, economic, and industrial factors of the time. These differences include a shift in the representation of the hero from a bourgeois gentleman/cad to a working-class tough guy; of the villains to highlight issues of national identity during World War II with an increased emphasis on their foreignness; and from offering a hero with questionable morals and motivations to one with clearer allegiances to social mores and the law. The traits that defined the Depression-era detective-hero in Dangerous Female and Satan Met a Lady were those associated with caddish and villainous behavior and, in Huston's 1941 Maltese Falcon, they were realigned with Spade's enemies rather than with Spade himself. Contemporary film audiences, and often critics, seem to regard classical Hollywood film as, thematically, a relatively homogenous body of work because of the assembly line system of production and the system of self-censorship (the Production Code) that governed content; however, cultural associations with certain types of representation altered over time and generic conventions and audience expectations were not uniform during the classical era—even across a single decade like the 1930s. From the depths of the Depression to the dawn of America's entry into World War II, the three film versions of The Maltese Falcon offer different heroes for different times.

Adapting the Falcon

Hammett biographer Richard Layman notes that Dangerous Female was well received upon its release in 1931.5 Similarly, a New York Times reviewer judged the film to be a "faithful" rendition of the original story.6 The film was released a year after Hammett's novel was published and...