Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction and Film Noir: The cultural depiction of the death of the American Dream


When Dashiell Hammet’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, was first published in 1929 it was heralded as a revolution of the detective fiction genre. The Outlook and Independent claimed it to be “the best detective novel [they had] ever read” and The New Republic noted that it transcended the “tawdry gum-shoeing of the ten-cent magazine” (qtd. in Marling, Dashiell 87). The exclusive and “aristocratic” Town & Country magazine presented a glowing, 1,500 word review of the novel (Marling Dashiell 87). Hammett had gained the acceptance from the literary intelligentsia he had craved from the beginning of his career (Marling, Roman 105) and, more significantly, had galvanised the Hard-Boiled detective genre as a legitimate literary pursuit. Hammett, like many authors, wrote detective fiction for the pulps as a means of making money while striving for literary recognition in other areas (Marling, Roman 105). It is this low opinion of the pulps that makes the literary acceptance of Hammett’s novel so significant and presents an interesting parallel to the reception of the 1941 film adaptation of  The Maltese Falcon. While films prior to the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon exhibited the characteristics of Film Noir, these films were generally considered ‘B’ films by the studios. The critical acclaim and widespread public popularity of The Maltese Falcon, however, propelled the genre into unprecedented legitimacy and opened up the possibility of Noir films as ‘A’ films. There is far more, however, than a casual relationship between the Hard-Boiled detective fiction and the genre of Film Noir. This paper will examine the relationship between Hard-Boiled fiction and Film Noir, using Dashiell Hammet’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, and its 1941 film adaptation.

Central to the philosophy of Film Noir is a sense of “ethical unintelligibility” of its settings. This is manifested as a pervasive and pessimistic philosophy that understands the world as a senseless, brutal place in which morality is a subjective and often irrelevant cultural artifact. Krutnik (39) asserts that the Hard-Boiled mode of detective fiction deliberately sets itself apart from the “golden age” of British detective fiction, such as that of Agatha Christie. Deductive reasoning is replaced by action and mystery is replaced with suspense (Krutnik 39). Violence, sexuality and personal danger to the hero have a greater emphasis than resolution of the crime or mystery which begins the narrative (Krutnik 39). Furthermore, rather than the detective existing above the criminal milieu and restoring order to the world, he exists within the milieu and acts as an intermediary between the world of the criminals and the world of the law (Krutnik 39). We can see from this that Hard-Boiled detective fiction is a genre which strongly defines itself against the morality, sense of order and hermetically sealed room style of murder which is present in classic detective fiction. It’s response is the melancholy presentation of a corrupt world, inhabited by flawed people in which chance, murder and crime are part of the natural course of events. This deep and pervasive pessimism is laid out by Hammett in The Maltese Falcon inThe Flitcraft Parable’, which the protagonist, Sam Spade, recounts to his lover as a means of explaining his grim view of the world.

The parable tells the story of Flitcraft, an insurance agent who disappeared. Spade is hired by Flitcraft’s wife and, eventually, he finds him in another city. Flitcraft explains to Spade that one day, as he was passing a construction site, a heavy beam fell from above and missed him by a couple of feet. He realised that he could have died and that this meant that his honest, orderly life was meaningless. People died in a “haphazard” fashion, regardless of whether they were morally upstanding or not. He reasoned that this meant there were no consequences for what he did. He leaves his wife, travels about the country and eventually settles in a new city and starts a new family and a new life which almost perfectly mirrors his old one. As Spade puts it, “he adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell and he adjusted himself to them not falling” (Hammett 62). This parable is key into the basic philosophy of Hard-Boiled fiction, Film Noir and the moral code of Sam Spade. Marling (Dashiell 75) comments that, for Spade, “the world may not operate rationally, but rationality is the best net with which to go hunting”. This is the fundamental philosophy shared by the Hard-Boiled detective genre and Film Noir. Spicer notes that the “Noir universe is dark, malign and unstable” (4), a disordered, chaotic place in which the only way to navigate its pretence of order successfully is to acknowledge the underlying chaos (Marling Dashiell 75). While Naremore is correct in noting that “it has always been easier to recognize a Film Noir than to define the term”(9) these themes of disorder,  violence and pessimism are certainly some of the uniting characteristics of Film Noir, which it shares with the Hard-Boiled detective genre.

The Flitcraft parable is the morality of Noir distilled. It asserts that there is no reward for living a virtuous life, nor a punishment for behaving in a deviant fashion. Importantly, it is those who understand and accept this fact that have an advantage in life (as opposed to those who try to live a morally virtuous life). In effect, the potential losses and gains for Noir characters are derived from people rather than a moral compass or karmic force.  In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade succeeds because he understands that there is no reward for a particular kind of behavior and that the only way to compete with deviants is to sink to their level. In effect, the potential losses and gains for Noir characters are derived from people rather than a moral compass or karmic force. As a result, rather than a virtuous detective who works to improve the lot of others, he is a manipulator of the highest order who continually seeks to exploit others to his maximum advantage. This extreme pessimism and assumption of a corrupt, flawed world in which the detective is a part of is a crucial component of both the novel and 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, from early in the story, is aware of the involvement of Bridget, Cairo, Wilmer and Gutman in his partner’s murder but is more interested in extorting each of them for as much money as possible than avenging his partner’s death or turning them over to the police. More intriguing is Sam’s obsession with not becoming a ‘sap’ (Hammett 208). When sapped “the circulating fluid of a plant of animal runs out: what should be inside comes outside” (Marling Roman 138). Spade’s fundamental belief in the chaos of the world and his ability to manipulate it requires him to be in control of everything. He must control those around him, his personal relationships and, perhaps most importantly, his true feelings. To allow himself to fall in love with Bridget is to surrender his independence and control to her but, more importantly “to succumb is to be mortal” (Marling Dashiell 80). If Spade accepts Bridget as a permanent part of his life, he surrenders his ability to flawlessly navigate the milieu of the chaotic world and becomes just like everyone else.

The influence of Hard-Boiled detective fiction on Film Noir is clear in the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon over any of the other adaptations. The two previous adaptations painted Spade as more of a ladies man which softened the brooding pessimism and fatalistic philosophy of the novel (Mayer 9). In the 1941 adaptation, Spade is a self-serving opportunist who uses sex and violence to manipulate those around him to maximum advantage. The focus of the narrative is the psychological drama, as opposed to the solving of the mystery of the murder of Spade’s partner. It is for these reasons that the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is considered the first true Noir. It is fitting that an adaptation of Hammett’s genre defining novel should become a genre defining film, both of which continue to act as yardsticks for their respective genres today.

Works Cited

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. London: Orion Books, 2005

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, genre, masculinity. London: Routledge, 1991

Marling, William. The American Roman Noir. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995

Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1986

Mayer, Geoff. Encyclopedia of Film Noir. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 2007

Naremore, James. More than night: Film Noir in its Contexts. London: University of California Press Ltd., 1998

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002


~ by Morgan on July 1, 2009.

2 Responses to “Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction and Film Noir: The cultural depiction of the death of the American Dream”

  1. […] of the professional identity of the detective–observable, for example, in such noir films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944) and Out of the Past (1947)–ends in the figure of Mike Hammer […]

  2. […] of the professional identity of the detective–observable, for example, in such noir films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944) and Out of the Past (1947)–ends in the figure of Mike Hammer […]

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