Goring Dash

Joe Gores's newish prequel to The Maltese Falcon, Spade & Archer, makes me wonder. It's not that I automatically resent the idea of a prequel.

Or, well, maybe I do a bit.

Part, a great part in fact, of what makes a work of art work is the underlying tension beneath the surface and between the characters, and the things that never are explained or clarified. Just what is the relationship between Spade and Archer? What's Effie's story? How did Spade become Spade? What sort of an affair did Iva Archer and Spade have? We don't know. There are hints. This is implied, that may be deduced, the other almost revealed. But nothing definite.

The more clarifications and explanations we have the less interesting it becomes.

Do I really need to know what Spade's father did for a living or where Spade served during the Great War and exactly how he started his own agency? Is it important for me to know everything about Spade and Effie's first encounter? Does it somehow enhance The Maltese Falcon that I be made aware of how Spade and Iva Archer conduct their extra-marital affair behind Archer's back? Do I need it spelled out that Archer's a bit of a card, do I in fact need Archer exposed as an unequivocal rogue?


I'm not denying that I quite enjoyed Spade & Archer and found it a good read, but there was far too much unnecessary exposition and back story that was right on the nose for it to be a really good book. It seemed like Gores's brief was to cover everything up till that magic moment when Miss Wonderly makes her unforgettable appearance and cover it he jolly well did with a vengeance!

That's what made it an embarrasingly semi-autonomous unit and therefore a bit redundant. We were told things that we neither need nor want to know. (Or, actually, we do want to know them, desperately even, that's the whole point, but once we do know them they become unimportant.)

It's a bit like someone writing a prequel to Hamlet (been done, I know I know) and painstakingly connecting every dot and filling every single blank space: showing what the relationship between old Hamlet and Gertrude is like, what the relationship between Hamlet and his father is like, what the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius is like, what the relationship between Hamlet and Claudius is like, how Hamlet's courtship of Ofelia commences and blooms. Everything. Leaving no stone unturned and no worms lurking in the dark damp crevices. Everything is out in the open. And suddenly it's all plain and unambiguous, trite and banal.

The ambiguities are what make it interesting and worthwhile. The ambiguities are what bring it alive.

Without the ambiguities, the unexplained tensions, the unclarified relationships, The Maltese Falcon would be a forgotten book. And justly so. Just like nobody would give a toss about why the fat Dane just doesn't revenge his father and get it over with.

Maybe I'm being rather too hard on Spade & Archer. It's just that I can't help but measure it against Gores's excellent 1975 novel Hammett, which by a curious chance I stumbled upon and read just a couple of weeks before reading Spade & Archer.

It's 1928. Hammett lives in San Francisco and is writing The Dain Curse. Public opinon is turning against the corruption and immorality that permeates the whole town. Brothel keeper Molly Farr is in the eye of the storm and disappears. Were she to talk it would be embarrasing for a lot of influential gentlemen. Hammett's old Pinkerton Buddy Vic Atkinson gets a delicate assignment: to investigate wrong-doings in the San Francisco police department. Vic gets killed early on in the game - no surprises there - and it's up to Hammett to crack the case and hunt down the culprit.

Who turns out to be not quite what Hammett expected. Quite chilly, really. But stays true to the gruesome world of Hammett where no punches are pulled. Ever.

Right after I finished Hammett I had another look at the Wenders/Coppola movie based on the book. What I still can't stand about it is its artificiality, its sterility, its almost hermetic quality. It doesn't breathe. And this is because most of it seems to be filmed in some ghastly studio instead of on location. Shooting scenes on the windy streets of San Francisco would have made it come alive. Now several scenes are almost unwatchable. I don't know if Coppola was going for a claustrophobic noirish feel, maybe he was. But if so he got it terribly wrong. In fact I'm not at all convinced it's particularly wise to try to see Hammett's work (and by proxy Hammett, both the book and movie) in terms of noir. There is a definite kinship, this cannot be denied, but Hammett's stuff transcends noir. The shoe just don't fit.

What Spade & Archer did do for me, and for this reason alone I cannot condemn nor censure the book, was to create the urge to re-read The Maltese Falcon and maybe the entire works of Hammett. And obviously to have another go at the Huston film. I still haven't seen the first two versions, Roy Del Ruth's Satan Met a Lady (1931) and William Dieterle's The Maltese Falcon (1936) in which Sam Spade for some strange reason becomes the rather less well named Ted Shane. Miss Wonderly has the not so enchanting moniker Valerie Purvis but is played by the glorious Bette Davis. Whose birthday, by the way, it seems to be today if Imdb may be trusted.

These two films seem annoyingly, damnably, elusive.


Anonymous said...

not in the least, if you take the trouble of acquiring the 3-disc version of the 'special edition' dvd of the Black Bird of Malta, which includes - on the third disc, unavailable here or in the UK - both of the earlier films.

PS said...

Right ho, shall look into that. Thanks for the tip.