The Maltese Falcon’s Americanism


I likely have watched this 50 times. It has a draw for me on several levels, and one, I realized last night, was the pervasive celebration of pure American individualism.

Dashiel Hammet picked up on and was of that. Huston lived it. Bogart honed it fine, starkly, devoid of distracting excess.

The movie is the observation of a man who operates in his own economy, independent of praise or the standards of convention, who is original, resourceful and therefore unafraid of what he might meet up in the pursuit of truth. And maybe most of all, Sam Spade is not a bystander in life.

His foils are consistent human foible personified, and they show up one by one in every new character: greed, duplicity, coyness, fear, obedience, cowardice,  self-indulgence, and casually murderous on behalf of all those choices. It is a modern Dante’s Inferno, and the hero is American.

Sam Spade dismisses deceptions thrown at him as quickly as a punch. He knows what comes from the turf, it is his turf on his terms. He’s got a trigger temper he controls, or uses to his advantage. He laughs at his own bravado, and doggedly stays on track. 

He is seduced if it serves his pleasure and purpose and cuts it loose if it interferes with his purpose and pleasure. He makes no unnecessary gestures on behalf of anyone. He lives his life, he is a fair man of principle, he is dangerous, he is kind, he is an opportunist, and he knows who he is, and who he is, is an American.

Sam Spade is all of us on all of our journeys, a demonstration of the way to get it done and not be taken down. When we see them depart one by one, everyone else in The Maltese Falcon already has or is destined to come to a bad end because of the lives they lead. Sam Spade is going to continue tomorrow and for the rest of his days to have the penultimate adventure of genuine experience. There isn’t anything to match it.

And THAT, not multi-million dollar mansions nor the abstract fantasy of power and control, nor envy, nor bitter stardom with its putrefying celebrity, is the American dream. The broad open untamed trail to individual experience. Still best found in America.


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