Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, tells the story of Sam Spade’s investigation of a young woman’s disappearance which leads to him becoming embroiled in the real story: the acquisition of the mysterious ‘falcon’ figurine. The novel is widely considered to be the father of the hard-boiled detective novel – characterized largely by the impassive depiction of graphic scenes involving violence and sex. Hammett presents his readers with a number of characters – some good and some bad, although in the true style of the detective novel, their real personalities are often shrouded in ambiguity. Even Spade, as a clean-cut detective, presents the reader with a quandary as to whether he is one of the good guys or not: right up until the end, the reader is left unsure of how to feel about Spade when he is queried by his secretary, Effie, as to how he left things with the woman, O’Shaughnessy and he states: “Your Sam’s a detective.” (Hammett 212). Even though the reader knows that Sam handed her over to the police, his response and Effie’s immediate dismissal of him suggests that he may not be as proper as he first appears. The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast the characters of Sam Spade and Casper Gutman, an unscrupulous con man who will stop at nothing to attain the falcon.
The reader is first introduced to Caspter Gutman some way into the novel. Spade returns to Cairo’s hotel room and is met by “a fat man” (Hammett 101) and a more detailed description follows: “The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs.” (Hammett 101). The immediate image of this man is one of a large, rotund man whom, we can infer, is probably sweating due to his bulk and who would move awkwardly. This image is one of a man who is immediately difficult to trust and suggests a level of ugliness about him – the reader is unlikely to feel entirely comfortable with such a figure. By contrast, the introduction of Sam Spade is of a man whose “jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.” (Hammett 1) This description presents Spade as being quite a handsome, easy-to-look-at man. However, the paragraph is ended with the statement: “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” (Hammett 1). The implication of this is an immediate juxtaposition between the ‘pleasant’ appearance of Spade and his being likened to Satan – a figure associated with dodgy dealings and negative connotations. However, Satan is also associated with charm and so by comparison to Gutman, Spade poses a much more likeable figure than Gutman – he is a more attractive a man than the latter.
Although the author presents a degree of uneasiness with all of his characters (as is traditional to the hard-boiled detective novel; the reader is kept guessing until the end), Gutman and Spade are two of the novel’s most morally-ambiguous characters. Although Spade supposedly represents ‘good’, he is party to a number of events which suggest that he is not quite as decent as he first seems. For example, after the death of his partner, Miles Archer, the deceased’s widow, Iva, comes to Spade’s office; it is immediately obvious that the two were having an affair: “Iva came quickly to him, raising her sad face for his kiss. Her arms were around him before his held her.” (Hammett 23). The implications of this scene clearly show that whilst they were having an affair, Spade seems significantly less interested in the relationship than Iva – compounded by what follows: “he had made a little movement as if to release her, but she pressed her face to his chest” (Hammett 23). Spade is presented as being a morally reprehensible character that appears to have been using Iva, his partner’s wife, for sex. When this is the sort of man who is representing the just and good, it does not bode well for the rest of the characters: Gutman, in particular, is a vile man. He is a greedy man who wants to acquire the falcon figurine through any means necessary. He meets with Spade, who knows where the figurine is, to discuss how it can come to be in his possession. Spade, who is clearly aiming to procure a financial reward for himself, states: “’Don’t be a damned fool,’ Spade said patiently. ‘You know what it is. I know where it is. That’s why we’re here.’” (Hammett 106). As of this sentence, the two men are both placed on an equal footing in terms of their character: neither one caring more about anything other than his reward.
The brilliance of The Maltese Falcon, is Hammett’s ability to keep his characters’ morals as vague as possible: he never truly defines who is good and who is bad. Sam Spade, although he is presented as being a detective – a discoverer of the truth; a purveyor of justice – his character is juxtaposed to his role as he continues to become a less and less reliable figure. After the death of his partner, it is revealed that he has been sleeping with the deceased’s wife for some time, he then allows himself to become embroiled by the case of the falcon – encouraging all interested parties to involve him in their plans and then, ultimately, to save himself from being charged, he hands them all over to the police, along with the money and the falcon itself. O’Shaughnessy is shocked and upset when Spade reveals that he has been toying with her emotions and using her for his own ends: “’That is not just,’ she cried. Tears came to her eyes. ‘It’s unfair. It’s contemptible of you.” (Hammett 207). O’Shaughnessy is presented as being a con-artist from the very beginning of the novel and her assessment of Spade shows how unreliable and ambiguous his character really is. Arguably, although Gutman is equally as unscrupulous, he is a more reliable character than Spade because he never attempts to present himself as anything other than a criminal. From the moment that he is introduced, Gutman is presented as being an unlikeable, disgusting man who wants the falcon figurine at any cost. He is reliably dodgy as opposed to Spade, whose true nature is ambiguous throughout the novel and is still unrevealed at the end. The two characters are both dubious men and, in the sense, they share a large number of similarities (most importantly that both men is entirely out for himself), however the main contrast between the two is their levels of ambiguity: Gutman is a criminal through and through, whereas Spade is a dishonest character masquerading as a good guy meaning that ultimately, he is much less trustworthy than Gutman.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. London: Orion Books, 2002. Print.