Crime Time editor Barry Forshaw tracks the progress from page to screen of one of noir literature’s most celebrated works. And what a dark yet glittering path it is . . .
The definitive Sam Spade adventure is also the definitive private eye novel, forging the template from which all future practitioners, such as Raymond Chandler, would draw. Initially serialised in Black Mask magazine (and filmed on several occasions), the novel features the ultimate literary McGuffin – the object which all the characters will kill or die for – in the eponymous objet d’art.
As so often in the genre, the plot and its machinations very much play second fiddle to the wonderfully sharp characterisations: of the dogged Sam himself, of course; and of the urbane villain Casper Gutman and his homosexual henchman Joel Cairo. There is, too, the archetypal literary femme fatale in the beguiling and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
The novel begins with Sam tracking down the killers of his partner Miles Archer, and the blunted but resilient code of honour that is the private eye’s stock in trade is given a definitive airing. And while Sam may lack the more subtle characterisation Chandler was to bring to his heir apparent Marlowe, the economical, steel-hard and witty dialogue is there, and the stripped-down prose echoes the contemporaneous writing of Ernest Hemingway.
There are those who would claim that Hammett’s work (in this less respectable genre) is the equal of his more feted colleague.
All the elements in John Huston’s 1941 film adaptation – from his own impeccable screenplay (wisely utilising whole swathes of Hammett’s dialogue) and direction (his debut), through Humphrey Bogart’s matchless Sam Spade, to the most memorable duo of villains in crime movies (Sydney Greenstreet’s saturnine, overweight Gutman and Peter Lorre’s effeminate but dangerous henchman) – go to make up the definitive cinematic incarnation of the novel, and simply could not be improved upon.
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Barry Forshaw is a writer and journalist whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, along with books on Italian cinema, film noir and the first UK biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon. His latest books are Euro Noir and British Gothic Cinema. He edits Crime Time, the foremost crime fiction news and reviews website.