A local radio broadcast reported that John’s Grill, in downtown San Francisco, was reopening with limited dining on the sidewalk. I’ve never eaten at the restaurant, but the report said John’s Grill was the setting for a scene in The Maltese Falcon, the novel by Dashiell Hammett published in 1929.
We’ve seen the film by John Huston, released in 1941, maybe half a dozen times. My video guide lists the film as “one of the greatest movies of all time.” We’ve loved the moody depiction of old San Francisco.
I had the Vintage Press trade paperback in my TBR stack, sat down, and read the whole thing (it’s only 234 pages long).
Huston didn’t have to do much to adapt the novel. Hammett wrote whole scenes screenplay-like (he himself wrote screenplays, though not this screenplay), and snappy dialogue. The film only had to follow along—the dialogue is verbatim.
It was thrilling to read; I love Hammett’s bold, tight prose. The end gets a bit convoluted, and Huston untangled the most important parts for depiction on the screen. What emerges in the novel, subtly, is a portrait of 1920s San Francisco, including several references to the underground homosexual scene.
When Joel Cairo, a flamboyantly gay character, first enters Spade’s office in the movie, Spade’s secretary, Effie Perrine, gives Spade Cairo’s business card. Humphrey Bogart makes a point of sniffing the card, at which Effie says ironically, “Gardenia.” In the novel, Effie comes into to tell Spade Cairo is there, and she simply says, “He’s queer.” In 1941, apparently Huston had to change that for the movie under the Hays Code. But, in the film, Spade repeatedly refers to Wilmer, Mr. Gutman’s gunman, as “the gunsel.” This is 1920s slang for a man who turns “sissy” while in prison.
About the scene set in John’s Grill, which appears in the novel but not the film—Spade has dinner at the restaurant with Polhaus, one of the cops. The scene novelistically builds character, but doesn’t advance the plot. They discuss Dundy, Polhaus’s partner—whom Spade refers to as Polhaus’s “boyfriend” and “playmate”, probably sarcastically since both cops are big, beefy macho guys. For dinner, Polhaus has a pickled pig-foot, described disgustingly. This is probably Hammett’s joke—I don’t know if cops were referred to disparagingly as “pigs” in 1929, but Spade does refer to them as “bulls.”
A thoroughly enjoyable novel, sexist warts and all, which kept me up all night. Recommended, before or after the film, which so well captures the story and characters. You must do both.
Edits: **Hammett’s first name was Samuel, so his hero is not a little based on him. Spade “digs up dirt.” Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective before he took up writing.
**And Brigid O’Shaughnessy was another joke and a pun by Dashiell Hammett.
The only way people in the early 1900s could get from San Francisco to Marin County, where a lot of people lived, was by ferry boat. There was a huge public outcry to build the Golden Gate Bridge over the mouth of the Bay, and the city engineer of San Francisco at the time, M.M. O’Shaughnessy, first proposed the project, which took a few years to get underway.
So Hammett joked, “Bridge It, O’Shaughnessy!”
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