by Niall Chithelen
Our first act of communication is to look in each other’s eyes, or not to. Many descriptors center subtly on the gaze: I might be shifty if I’m looking away from you too often and too purposefully, diffident if I cast downward when I ought to be looking you in the eyes, or unsettling if I never stop looking at you.
And in observing others’ interactions, it seems body movements have to catch your attention; you were not looking at a person’s hand until they put it on another’s shoulder. But what were you watching before?
The Maltese Falcon is a classic noir centered on private detective Samuel Spade. It is not a verbose novel, but it is a novel of details. Despite featuring morally grey characters who share a deep wariness of one another, it reads as intimate, taking place mostly in closed rooms as these people become embroiled in a plot that isolates them—and us—from the world around them. The author, Dashiell Hammett, does not explain his cast, he has them interact until we start to understand them. Character introductions are mostly physical; the novel opens with the protagonist’s jaw, chin, and mouth, and then makes its way around his face such that we learn he “looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”
Within his physical sketches, Hammett permits the eyes a special depth. The next character, Spade’s secretary Effie Perrine, has eyes that are “brown and playful,” and the novel’s femme fatale, Miss Wonderly, appears in the doorway with “cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.” These descriptions are coy, as we have not quite been told that Effie herself is playful or that Miss Wonderly is shy and probing. We simply know what their eyes suggest, and with such guarded or duplicitous speech from the characters, we cannot trust that the eyes tell us a more honest story.
Strip back the description and dialogue in the first scene and read only the eyes. Miss Wonderly, shy and probing, enters; her eyes are “uneasy,” then “pleading”; she goes on, and then Spade’s eyes “[brighten]”; Spade’s partner Miles Archer enters and all we learn of his gaze is that it is a “bold appraising” one in a lewd sense, inappropriate to the situation as we can tell he himself may be; we learn that Miss Wonderly’s villain has eyes that are “blue-grey and watery, though not in a weak way”; then Miss Wonderly leaves and Archer remarks that it doesn’t matter for his purposes if Spade “saw her first.” We can gain additional insights through their smiles and what they do with their hands, but there is not much to know about this scene that the eyes do not tell us (except, of course, the plot).
Read in this way, conversations in the novel have four elements: in what the characters are saying, in what they are doing with their eyes, in what they are doing with their faces (smiling, grinning, etc.), and in how they move. Hammett weaves these four tightly together. Take, for example, this moment in the midst of a confrontation:
Cairo’s eyes, holding worry and a question, met Spade’s mocking gaze. Spade winked at him and sat on the arm of the padded rocker. “Well, boys and girls,” he said, grinning at the Levantine [Cairo] and at the girl with nothing but delight in his voice and grin, “we put it over nicely.”
Repeatedly in The Maltese Falcon, the dialogue seems to be catching up to or failing to reflect where the characters are in their glances, smiles, and movements, even while we do not know which, if any, reflects the characters’ true feelings. That almost every scene involves this interplay might explain how a rather cold novel feels so intimate—we spend much of it looking closely at people’s faces and positioning. And it explains how such ostensibly sparse prose feels so dense—each scene happens effectively in quadruplicate.
When the pattern breaks, the novel moves into a different register. After a number of scenes dictated by action, the final chapter builds to a conversation between Spade and Miss Wonderly (who we have learned is actually named Brigid O’Shaughnessey). They are by now spiraling in a doomed romance. Spade has realized O’Shaughnessey double-crossed him, and he speaks, for once, volubly: he details eight reasons that he has to hand her over to the police to avoid incriminating himself, and then he provides the only reason he might not hand her over: “All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”
The power in this moment comes not only from the sentiment itself, but from the fact that this might be the only instance in which a character is completely emotionally honest. By this point, we hold a deep mistrust for these people after witnessing how their betrayal and deceit, either through larger plots or small moments—smiles, comforting hands, and words we suspect are fake. But here Hammett allows a character to speak honestly, and in doing so he lets the carefully entwined strands of prevarication burst apart. There is no physical description accompanying what Spade says about love, no glance or grin to complicate it. He has expressed simply the truth of his and O’Shaughnessey’s situation. And in a novel built of deception, openness means brokenness—Spade’s recourse to truth is actually his resignation to fate.
It is easy to read The Maltese Falcon without noticing that Hammett writes scenes with such a consistent, even repetitive, style (unless we are attempting to trace such a pattern). Perhaps this is because Hammett follows interactions as we do: if we read faces and bodies as we converse, it shouldn’t be distracting to read about faces and bodies in a scene of conversation. And when the faces and bodies slip away for a moment, and a character starts to just speak, we might know intuitively that what he’s saying finally matters.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. EPUB.
Quotations above can be found in chapters 1, 8, and 20.