Reaction Paper #2

There are so many dishonest characters in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon that it becomes difficult to distinguish between who is on protagonist Sam Spade’s side and who is not. A good way to keep track of this is to realize that there is not one single person in the work who lives outside of San Francisco and is trustworthy. This fact combined with the repetitive reference by Spade to San Francisco being his town is extremely interesting to many because it suggests that outsiders are evil and unwanted which completely contradicts the basic principals upon which this country was created. When looked at closely it can be seen that nearly every conflict of the work results from the actions of one of three people: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, or Mr. Gutman; all three of which happen to be foreigners. From her several aliases to her habit of telling stories, Brigid O’Shaughnessy creates many problems for Spade, and even causes his partner, Mr. Archer, to be killed by yet another foreigner, Floyd Thursby. It is very clear to the reader that Joel Cairo is also an antagonist of the work from the moment he is introduced. The very first description that the audience receives of Cairo is Effie Perine’s statement, “This guy is queer.” It should also be noted that Mr. Gutman is not a San Francisco native and is, at this point in the plot Spade’s greatest threat. Also, the Maltese Falcon itself is a foreign artifact and is the source of all distress in the novel.

The interesting part of the issue of nationality actually is a little bit deeper from than the surface, and must be attained through close reading of the actual language of the text. All of the criminals in the work, with the exception of Thursby who is really just a pawn anyway and not necessarily a “bad guy,” are not described in a masculine way. Most obviously, O’Shaughnessy is a female and has many curves, which is in no way masculine. Joel Cairo is described in a very feminine way and also has zero angles, and Gutman is large and fat, which is also far from the idea of the time of what a man was. All three characters severely lack the angles and masculinity of Spade. Considering that this is a Film Noir era novel, it can be assumed that the absence of masculine qualities makes these characters evil and untrustworthy.

Going back to the idea of nationality, masculinity also plays a role in that. Through close reading it can be seen that everyone from San Francisco, including Spade’s beloved secretary Effie Perine with her “boyish face,” in some way portrays the idea of the man during the Film Noir era. Not coincidently Spade, the hero, trusts and relies on everyone from San Francisco for information and assistance, but cannot count on any foreigner to help him. Essentially every time that Spade tells the villains that they are in his town, and he will not be defeated on his own turf Hammett is commenting not only that, in accordance with the national insecurities of the time, the United States cannot and will not be defeated by outside forces, but also that the “macho man” is the ideal man and will always triumph over those who are not excessively masculine. By looking closely at the actual language of the work it is clear that The Maltese Falcon is about far more than simply murder and a bird; it is a bold commentary on the dominance of the United States over the world as well as that of the “real men” over femininity.