Written for my 3rd year college film noir course. A brief response paper to The Maltese Falcon with a brief mention of Detour. Word salad.
What You See Is What You'll Never Get
Both forms of The Maltese Falcon smack of originality because of the choices in perspective. The movie drips almost too smoothly off the screen and the intensity of the book burns the reader. But these impacts take energy and motivation. In both cases, the audience must consider the misalignment of the orchestrator's (author's, director's, screenwriter's) view and the main character's. In most films they are identical; like Ionesco said, books and films are made to simulate someone's real-life experience of the world. But by denying the obvious character this responsibility, thematic friction is created.
Much of this is due to Hammett's choices about Spade. Spade is essentially Noirian: not good but trying to curb evil's progress into his world for (often) unknown reasons. All of Noir can be seen as attempting a realist allegory, and for Spade to hold a place in this construct, he must have faults. His hedonism is rampant, his apparent detachment infuriating, and his system of morals that he imposes upon the world just unfair. As mentioned in class, Hammett does not like his creation, and this lends an edge of disapproval to all descriptions of Spade. But this only deepens the allegory: no perspective rooted squarely in the real world could serve a purpose in Noir.
This genre thrives on the unpredictability of its inhabitants, unpredictable to real people but to those living within similar causal laws, perfectly understandable. For instance, Brigid is unaffected by Spade's precognition about her “sister's” letter, but I would be freaked out especially if my story was a falsehood. There is an understanding between characters in Noir that is not shared with the audience. Sure, some identification does take place with the Noirians, but never with a character as a whole, only fragments.
It must be assumed that a similar fragmentation occurs between character and author. The implications run deep: the author is able to make fictional decisions not real-morally possible. If authors can imagine non-real human moral interaction, does it exist in our world? The question has the capability to turn Noir into a speculative genre, like a prophetic (or postphetic) fiction. In any case, Hammett's presentation of a distasteful protagonist like Spade lets the audience feel the unreality of Noir as it clashes against Hammett's perception of our world.
Chandler and Cain usually use first-person when presenting their protagonists. Think about it.
The film softens most of the edges of the book, including Spade himself. The latter is largely attributable to Bogart's personability. In this way we see how the actor becomes an author of the character, in the process of which Stanislavski claims disjuncts must be kept to a minimum. So the professor is correct in referring to the film's Spade as “Bogart” since the Hammett's is the only real Spade.In this way, Bogart solves Hammett's problem: Bogart authors a digestible protagonist that at least has a foot in the real world.
But the allegory that should remain removed from reality is instead tripped up by Bogart's realism. The protagonist in Detour makes no such effort and thus keeps his character beneath the problems of reality, totally consumed by the problems inherent in the Noiriverse. Noir should not be about our apparent problems (nobody has troubles like the Noirians) but about problems of the soul and the deep recesses of our imagination.