One That Got Away
I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God.
– Argumentum Ornithologicum, Jorge Luis Borges
In the closing pages of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Caspar Gutman, a ‘flabbily fat’ crook with a ‘great soft egg of a belly’ who has spent the last 17 years of his life hunting the elusive statuette of the novel’s title, double-crosses his young assistant Wilmer Crook. Samuel Spade – among the most iconic detectives in the history of crime fiction – has agreed to hand the falcon over to Gutman, but on one condition: Gutman must provide a ‘fall guy’. ‘The police have got to have a victim,’ says Spade, ‘somebody they can stick for those three murders.’ Despite professing that he ‘couldn’t be any fonder’ of Crook if he was his ‘own son’, Gutman decides to sacrifice him. Crook will take the rap for the murders; Gutman will get the statuette; Spade will be rewarded with a finder’s fee. Gutman expresses guilt at having betrayed the loyal Crook, but he quickly gets over it. ‘[If] you lose a son it’s possible to get another,’ he says, ‘and there’s only one Maltese falcon.’
Is there ‘only one’ Maltese falcon? Hammett was clearly aware, long before Gutman was, that this particular statuette was inauthentic, a fake: what the author couldn’t have known, however, is how many falcons would fly from his tale; how deeply the bird would descend through history and climb forwards through time. We know for certain, of course, that there is more than one The Maltese Falcon: the book spawned three book-to-screen film adaptations, the most famous being the 1941 version, starring Humphrey Bogart; a spoof sequel, The Black Bird, was released, and critically panned, in 1975; there have been radio plays, television adaptations, fan-fictions, a book of poetry. Even when we set aside the ways in which the bird has evolved across genres and formats, and focus solely on Hammett’s book, uncertainty wreathes the statutette like fog round a film noir villain.1 Is the bird a myth, a hoax, a metaphor? Does it even exist at all?
Gutman, for one, has no doubt that it does. He hands Spade an envelope containing ten one thousand-dollar bills (a down payment on future sale), and Spade hands over the statuette. The scene that ensues is central to the book, and to the falcon’s metaphorical significance, so it’s worth quoting from at length.
Gutman’s fat fingers made short work of cord and paper and excelsior, and he had the black bird in his hands. “Ah,” he said huskily, “now, after seventeen years!” His eyes were moist.
Cairo licked his red lips and worked his hands together. The girl’s lower lip was between her teeth. She and Cairo, like Gutman, and like Spade and the boy, were breathing heavily. The air in the room was chilly and stale, and thick with tobacco smoke.
Gutman set the bird down on the table again and fumbled at a pocket. “It’s it,” he said, “but we’ll make sure.” Sweat glistened on his round cheeks. His fingers twitched as he took out a gold pocket-knife and opened it.
Cairo and the girl stood close to him, one on either side. Spade stood back a little where he could watch the boy as well as the group at the table.
Gutman turned the bird upside-down and scraped an edge of its base with his knife. Black enamel came off in tiny curls, exposing blackened metal beneath. Gutman’s knife-blade bit into the metal, turning back a thin curved shaving. The inside of the shaving, and the narrow plane its removal had left, had the soft grey sheen of lead.
Gutman’s breath hissed between his teeth. His face became turgid with hot blood. He twisted the bird around and hacked at its head. There too the edge of his knife bared lead. He let knife and bird bang down on the table while he wheeled to confront Spade.
“It’s a fake,” he said hoarsely. ii
In The Double, The Labyrinth and the Locked Room, the literary theorist Ilana Shiloh has argued that the ‘existence of the genuine article and its duplicate seems to symbolically suggest [sic] the duality of reality and appearance. But I’m using the word “existence” here for lack of a better one. The Maltese Falcon does not exist beyond the novel’s fictional world, and in that world it is also fictional.’ The falcon, so the argument goes, is a fiction within a fiction: a shape-shifting desire-object, a secular Holy Grail, a plot device. But there’s a problem with this interpretation.
The falcon does, in fact, ‘exist beyond the novel’s fictional world’: indeed, the falcon precedes the Falcon by several centuries (and postdates it by several decades). Midway through the novel, Gutman outlines the statuette’s provenance. The description is extraordinarily detailed, even to the point of superfluity; especially so when we consider that The Maltese Falcon set the template for hard-boiled detective fiction: clipped, curt dialogue; tough and taciturn characters; prose expunged of lyrical description. Hitchcock, for example, never bothered to furnish his MacGuffins with biographies.iii He didn’t need to. Hammett draws on real-world sources to lend a frisson of plausibility to his otherwise tall tale. The statuette, as Gutman explains, originated in sixteenth-century Malta. After they were exiled from Rhodes, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem of the Knights Hospitaller settled there in 1530 at the granting of Emperor Charles V. In exchange for the island, a symbolic tribute of a falcon – a living bird – was to be paid to Charles once a year, on All Saints Day. ‘These are facts,’ says Gutman, ‘historical facts’. He isn’t lying.iv
The knights and the falcon are historically verifiable; it would be harder to substantiate what follows. Gutman explains that the ‘immeasurably wealthy’ Order elected to express their gratitude to Charles by sending as the first year’s tribute a ‘glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers’. The knights sent it to Spain in a galley; the ship was hijacked to Algiers; a hundred years later, the adventurer Sir Francis Verney spirited the falcon from here to England, from which it travelled to Sicily, Turin, Paris, Constantinople, Hong Kong – and finally, Spade’s office in San Francisco. Hammett trades in real to imagined characters, moving from Charles V, the knight Villiers de l’Isle d’Adam, Khair-ed-Din, Verney and Monino y Redondo to Cormier, Konstantinides, Kemidov, Gutman and Spade.
The falcon is not a sedentary object. It migrates at the rate of rumour, losing and gaining altitude, dropping into silence for decades before resurfacing in other countries, on other tongues: a possibility that points the way to another dead end, or dead man.v Gutman connects the historical dots to form a fragile necklace of cause and effect, but the chain is potentially infinite, and reaches forward as well as back, through fiction and reality. The overall effect is evolutionary: the falcon adapts to its environment. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is not a closed and systematised world, but a space through which the bird – a biological bird that became a statue, a fiction, a film, and finally a prop – moves through momentarily before flying out the other side, from fiction into history.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
– The Tempest, Act IV Scene I
The most famous line in The Maltese Falcon, the 1941 film, isn’t taken from Hammett’s book. In the film’s final scene, sergeant Polhaus, to whom Spade has just handed the ‘fake’ statuette, remarks: ‘It’s heavy. What is it?’ Polhaus wants to know about the bird’s ontological status vis-à-vis materiality: substance and essence are, for him, the same thing. Cue one of the most exquisite facial expressions in the Bogart canon: he peers off-camera, eyes wide in unblinking innocence, and reaches forward to caress and then cradle the statue with both hands.vi A moment later, glazed eyes fixed on the middle distance, he answers Polhaus: ‘The stuff that dreams are made of.’ It’s a rare moment of poetical softness from an otherwise hardboiled cynic, one Hammett didn’t write and doesn’t appear to have explicitly sanctioned. But Hollywood has a habit of fabricating utterances where none exist: in Casablanca, released a year after Falcon, Bogart will never say ‘Play it again, Sam.’ The fact that he doesn’t say it won’t stop it becoming the film’s most (mis)quoted line.
Is the bird made of words, dreams, lead, plaster, resin, celluloid, paper, gold, truth, lies, all or none of the above? The film theorist Vivian Sobchack has written that ‘the material bird (whatever its substance) is not only the prop and property that partially constitutes what we call “film history”’, but also supports ‘a structure of more general and labile cultural affects, meanings, and functions.’vii Sobchack shares with Shiloh a belief in the essential if unstable dualism of the bird – physical/conceptual, actual/virtual, material/mythical – but complicates the picture further by nesting these dichotomies in the context of film history, which imposes its own metrics of historical, material and economic significance. In the novel, Gutman’s establishes the provenance of the bird in order to guarantee its value: narrative coherence is a form of authentication, in fiction and in reality. The film prop Sobchack describes – given her by one ‘Mr Risan’, who later sold the item at auction, and who was only able to do so after Sobchack had helped authenticate it, which is why he gave it to her in the first place: she is in effect confirming that the ‘fake’ falcon is a genuine prop – is around 30cm tall, weighs around 3kg, and is made from plaster of Paris blackened by India ink baked into a surface finish. Sobchack’s text focuses on this specific prop, one of nine plaster replicas made for the 1941 film alongside the two lead figures known to have been used in filming. One of these latter, rarer and more valuable birds sold at Bonhams auction house on November 25, 2013, for $4,085,000, as part of an auction titled, predictably, ‘What Dreams Are Made Of’.viii By establishing the provenance of a specific iteration of the prop, Sobchack is able to draw the chimerical falcon closer to a tactile reality. Indeed, the bird appeals to Sobchack, Lesley Stern and other film theorists precisely because it transitions so ambiguously, and so fluently, between real, projected, material and filmic realities. It is the film prop par excellence.
Sobchack wants to understand the bird; others have an urge to possess it. Perhaps the least equivocal form of ownership derives from having produced an object in the first place. The motto of Replica Prop Forum, an online community of film prop enthusiasts, is ‘Craft Your Fandom’: abstract notions can supposedly be rendered physical through the hands-on devotions of craft. Numerous forum threads are dedicated to the 1941 prop, which is frequently referred to as a ‘grail’. Users swap photographs, compare statuettes, share tips and criticisms, and covet each others’ creations.
The most famous member of the forum is the prop-maker and TV presenter Adam Savage. In a recent TED talk Savage described the extraordinary lengths to which he went in producing a ‘black bird’ of his own, only to discover that the final result, which he’d crafted by hand and cast in bronze, and was the product of countless days and dollars, lacked the exact dimensions, wasn’t the precise weight – it just wasn’t right.ix Savage concludes, however, that ‘achieving the end of the exercise was never the point’. What mattered to him was the performance, through craft, of making the unattainable attainable. Some people have taken a more Ozymandian, if equally hands-on approach. In 1996 Ronald Winston, eldest son of the ‘king of the diamonds’ Harry Winston, revealed an object that he had been working on for two years, and which he christened The Harry Winston Falcon. Made of solid gold with ruby-encrusted eyes and a 42.98-carat diamond, hanging from a platinum chain in its beak, the statuette is valued at around 8 million dollars. Winston’s bird is valuable because of the materials from which it is made, and its resemblance to Sexton’s prop seems irrelevant in comparison; in the memorabilia market, by contrast, ‘authenticity’ derives from the object’s verifiable relationship to the histories that it substantiates. As Walter Benjamin has written: ‘The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.’ He describes reproduction in terms of a desire to draw an object towards us through manufacture: ‘Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.’ The falcon, it would appear, makes a Gutman out of anyone who tries to catch it.
A luxurious object is still of this earth, it still recalls, albeit in a precious mode, its mineral or animal origin, the natural theme of which it is but one actualisation.’
– Mythologies, Roland Barthes
Considering the flightiness with which it moves through history and fiction, from pulp-fiction pages to celluloid noir, a bird is an aptly metaphorical animal for an object whose value is described as an unstoppable ascent or flight: ‘There’s no telling how high it could go, sir,’ says Gutman, ‘and that’s the one and only truth about it.’ In the land of the birds, the falcon is arguably king. The nature writer W. Kenneth Richmond once wrote: ‘Terror and beauty, cold silver and hot blood are fused in [falcons] to produce the natural aristocrat.’ In Arabia and Iran, peregrine falcons are called Shaheen, Farsi for ‘emperor’. For ‘twitchers’, the brief, specific pleasure of witnessing a bird in the wild – of ‘capturing’ one, if only as a retinal image – is integral to the broader satisfactions of birdwatching. As the author Tim Dee has written: ‘To the birdwatcher, the wish to name matters less than the delight at the fizzing otherness of the thing, its flying or singing’. Aesthetic satisfaction precedes the taxonomic urge to name and categorise: and so it is with the Maltese falcon, whose ‘fizzing otherness’ derives from its unattainability. The historical justifications come after, and matter less than, the simple fact of its rareness.
The Maltese Falcon is not about an actual bird, with feather patterns and pinions, wingspans, mantles, coverts and quills; nor is it really about a specific statue: it is more complexly concerned with the perils of cathexis, and how a will to power is often exercised through a will to possess: ‘An article of that value that has passed from hand to hand by such means is clearly the property of whoever can get hold of it,’ Gutman says.x
Hammett’s falcon was purportedly inspired by the Kniphausen Hawk: a ceremonial pouring vessel made in 1697 for George William von Kniphausen, a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and currently held in the Chatsworth House collection. The sculpture looks nothing like the squat, sturdy, Art Deco-styled prop of the 1941 film; it strives instead for aggrandised naturalism in fitting with the Baroque excesses of the period. Proudly perched on a rock, its wings parted in imminent flight, the bird’s body twists away from the viewer as if it has glimpsed prey moving through a valley far below. Instead of the ridged, interlocking feathers of the film prop, which have the inscrutable solidity of armour plating, the Kniphausen’s contorted form is lavishly encrusted with red garnets, amethysts, emeralds and blue sapphires. The hawk is by far the uglier bird – the red jewels push through its skin like blood vessels engorged to the point of bursting: as a whole, the thing looks leprous with wealth – but is truer to biology.xi
The story reaches further into the past than Hammett seems to have realised. The collection at the Art Institute of Chicago contains a statuette of the Egyptian god Horus. Dating from the Ptolemaic period (305-30 BC), the sculpture is carved from black-grey basalt – it could easily be mistaken for lead – and depicts a squat, stern-looking bird standing upright with its tail feathers spread behind it, its eyes wide and forbidding, its mouth downturned in an austere frown. Its dense, compacted ferocity, the refined and abstracted way in which the wings are rendered, the wide-open, almond-shaped eyes all bear an uncanny resemblance to Sexton’s prop. Variously depicted as a man with a falcon’s head or as the bird itself, Horus, who rules the sky, is among the most significant gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Did Hammett know about Horus? Did Sexton visit the Art Institute of Chicago, or is the resemblance between his bird and the centuries-old statuette coincidental? Or perhaps Hammett, Sexton, Vivian Sobchack, Ronald Winston, Robert J. Sadler, Mr Risan and everyone else who has become captivated by the bird – which must include the authors of this essay – are channelling an archetype, an ancient and originary bird-god, an immortal, ever-changing figment of the mind.
Soon after we embark’d on that merchant ship for France, with England but a silver thread upon the horizon, a Thunder came upon us, & our Captain, dead drunk at the cider barrels, lost his Compass, & through bucking waves & lashing spray our vessel swung & darted like a hunted foal, & our Captain, hunch’d at the gunwale, & o’ercome with sweating-sickness, did naught but mewl and puke at our misfortune. We hit land awhile later, having lost two-score of our crew & the lion’s share of the cargo, & found ourselves (the Good Lord guide us) in a port in Algiers, decked about with strange trees, mosques & awnings, & many merchants clothed in fabrics of vermillion, ochre, charcoal, sapphire, emerald, mustard & teal. Some months later, & many miles south of that port, I encountered Quire, a fellow traveller of shady visage & destitute mien, whose beard was like bird’s nest pluck’d in pieces, & who was ever redfaced with the spicy liquor distill’d from the peculiar fruits of that land (he was, as I say, a notable disemboweller of quart pots). From Quire I heard about the Falcon, which I have much reason to surmise is but a half-truth, given the drunkenness by which his confession was made. I saw the golden bird, quoth Quire one night, & his eyes grew fierce as the tallow-candle wherewith the Inn lit its tables. But the thing flew swiftly from my advances, & now some other Devil has it, and he swallowed another half-quart of liquor as if it were water. What bird? said I, for my companion’s morale was drooping. The Falcon, quoth Quire. I saw it once, with my own eyes (& he reached & touched his own eyes, as if to check they had not quit him). I glimpsed it from afar, & in the makings of a sandstorm, but there can be no doubt in such visions, for they touch the heart as verily as they dazzle the eyes. & with 0ne final slug of liquor, his head dropp’d on the table, & he slept.
She inspects the statue carefully, bringing it close to her face. Its lightness surprises her. She glimpses her blurred reflection, outlined in milky light, warped by the bird’s black satin sheen, and her mind wanders back to those sleepless nights in her father’s house. He always worked when the moment struck him. He did whatever he liked: with his artwork, with her. She places the prop in a shoebox, labels it MALTESE, and slides it in between two folders of production slides, gifted to him from John Huston.
The boxes and folders rest there quietly, gathering dust for years. The world moves on.
And then one morning just past dawn, lying awake in bed, she gets a call. There was a fire on her father’s estate, the policeman reports. Perhaps it was arson, too early to say – 35mm film, he’d sometimes tell her, has a habit of catching fire – and by the time the fire trucks got there, there was little they could do. The collection is ruined. She visits later that week, and picks her way along the ruined aisles, until something makes her pause. The bird – what’s left of it – is now a black, featureless lump fused with the metal shelf its box was resting on. She prises the sculpture clean from the shelf and heads outside, to the car park. The falcon makes one final flight, and comes to land in the trash heap.
Close up of a clapper, snapping for the last time. Clapper moves out of shot, revealing the director, John Huston, dressed in his seersucker suit, cigar clamped between fingers, getting up from his monogrammed chair, and lumbering towards the actors. Mid-range shot of The Director shaking hands with Bogart; Bogart shaking hands with Greenstreet; Greenstreet kissing Astor; Astor kissing Lorre; Lorre kissing everyone; Lorre proposing drinks at the Lakeside. Track back as the gang marches arm-in-arm away from camera and towards the film hangar doors, a film noir Dorothy flanked by misfits on the road to Oz. Wide shot of army of production assistants carrying saws, ladders and hammers marching over the set and start stripping it down to a skeleton, ready to be fleshed again before another film. Cut to handheld shot of an assistant from the art department. Something’s caught his eye. He snakes his way through the crowd, towards the stage at the back, where they wrapped the last scene a few minutes ago. Cut to a static shot of the statue, foregrounded on the table, as the assistant places two hands on the black bird.
The surfeit of signifiers attached to the falcon indicates the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of tracking down the original. The statuette is variously referred to as the ‘black bird’, the ‘falcon’, the ‘Maltese falcon’, the ‘jewelled falcon’, the ‘glorious golden falcon’, the ‘rara avis’ (Latin: ‘rare bird’), the ‘black statuette’, and, significantly, ‘the ornament’. (‘The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects,’ wrote Adolf Loos in his 1913 essay ‘Ornament and Crime’.) Spade seems to prefer ‘the dingus’: no one else uses the term. Dingus comes from the Dutch ‘ding’, meaning ‘thing’: it’s similar to a ‘thingie’, a ‘doodad’ or a ‘doohickey’ – a North American usage connoting an object that ‘one cannot or does not wish to name specifically’. The term also indicates Spade’s aloofness among the criminal class, and evinces his wish to project an air of indifference in the presence of objects of astronomical value. Those characters who truly want the bird – Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy – surround it with names, each name producing a different idea of what the ‘falcon’ looks like: a proliferation of appearances for which there is no original.
The Maltese Falcon is riddled with religious imagery. We learn in the opening paragraph that Spade looks ‘rather pleasantly like a blond Satan’. The comparison is ironic: for all his brutality, Spade is the moral centre of the book. Gutman, by contrast, is a glutton. He has an idolatrous love for the falcon, his actions are swelled by pride, and he motivated by avarice. With this scene, Hammett introduces another sin into the equation: lust. The inflamed, bodily imagery of certain phrases – licked lips, sweating skin and blood-hot rage – couches the scene in terms of a sexual violation: an undressing; a penetration; a more violent penetration; finally, an outright attack. What starts as a kind of rape ends in a kind of murder.
‘It might be a Scottish name,’ said Hitchcock in a 1966 interview, ‘taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.’
Borges was a fan of detective fiction. Many of his stories share Hammett’s fascination with how fragments of obscure but verifiable history can be used in the construction of fictional worlds. His approach was slightly different. ‘What is called detective fiction in the United States nowadays is a sadistic or gory take on adventure novels,’ he told an interviewer in 1970. ‘In Dashiell Hammett’s novels, for instance, detectives use and abuse physical force. They are not intellectuals; they are criminals who happen to side with the law.’
Hammett worked as a Private Detective for several years and his worldview was largely shaped by life; the way real life was understood, in turn, was to some extent shaped by his fiction. Several people are killed in The Maltese Falcon; two actual murders have been linked, however tangentially, to the film. On January 15, 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short – the ‘Black Dahlia’ – was found in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. She was naked, had been mutilated, and her body was severed in half. On June 23, 1958, the body of Geneva Odelia Hilliker Ellroy was found in El Monte, Los Angeles. She had been raped and strangled. Neither killer was found. Geneva Ellroy’s son James, who was 10 at the time of the murder, grew up to become the foremost crime writer of his generation. He turned to noir fiction, and built on Hammett’s legacy, largely as a way of processing the trauma of his mother’s unsolved death. (Up until that point he’d been an alcoholic drifter, drowning his pain with drink and pills.)
Numerous theories have been concocted to explain the killings, some more plausible than others. Ellroy wrote the book on his mother’s murder (My Dark Places, 1997), but was unable to solve the case. Steve Hodel, son of the highly successful L.A. physician George Hill Hodel – the LAPD’s prime suspect during the investigation of the Black Dahlia murder – suggests that Fred Sexton, the maker of the Maltese Falcon prop, was an accomplice in the Black Dahlia killing and may also have been responsible for Geneva Ellroy’s murder. James Ellroy declines to mention Hodel’s theory in My Dark Places.
The two-handed embrace suggests a sexual will to power. But Bogart reaches out to grip the statuette without looking at it, as if he’s doing it unconsciously. We’ve already seen him embrace O’Shaughnessy in a similar fashion a moment earlier; now that she is gone, he transfers his desires from the broad to the bird. Up until this moment, Spade has resisted the falcon’s seductive power. Huston’s version of Spade differs from Hammett’s in this small but crucial detail: in the novel, Spade retains an unimpeachable detachment from the grubby desires of the crooks that surround him, and once he’s handed the bird to Polhaus he has washed his hands clean of its influence; in the film, it’s suggested that Spade, by the end, wants the bird as much as everyone else. The very last shot in the film shows Bogart, still clutching the fake falcon, walking down the stairwell after Polhaus. Fade to black. It is Spade who carries the falcon off-screen, and into the closing credits.
‘Chasing the Maltese Falcon: On the Fabrications of a Film Prop’ by Vivian Sobchack: Journal of Visual Culture 2007. There’s a video online in which Sobchack interviews Michele Fortier, daughter of Fred Sexton, the Los Angeles-based artist who designed the prop used in the film. Sexton was well known on the LA art scene. His paintings are restrained, chromatically muted, and realist. The best depicts an unpopulated L.A. riverside in blue-grey, concrete hues (it’s not unlike a de Chirico, minus the surrealist touches); the worst is a post-Impressionist still life of sunflowers in a vase. The pieces are pleasant, but not remarkable. Sexton often signed his paintings ‘FS’: initials that he carved into the right rear tail feather of the birds he made for the ’41 film, and which, in subsequent decades, proved pivotal in authenticating the props prior to auction.
One of the solid lead props fell on Bogart’s foot during filming, damaging two of his toes, the very same object sold at Bonhams: in the catalogue, this is noted with the remark ‘lower right tail feather visibly bent’. The incident acquires a philosophical relevance when considered in light of the following, much anthologized quote from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson: ‘After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – “I refute it thus.”’ Perhaps the prop is made from dreams, figments and weightless desires; it is also resolutely physical.
The closer one gets to the ‘real’ falcon, the more acute this not-quite-rightness becomes. Robert J. Sadler, a cop turned P.I. turned crime novelist, writes on his website about the time he mail-ordered a Maltese falcon from a catalogue he finds in a The Maltese Falcon-branded diner. ‘The replica was reputed to be an exact copy of the bird used in the movie,’ he writes. ‘When it arrived I was both gladdened and saddened. It was heavy, it had gravitas but something seemed wrong.’ Deeming the piece insufficiently authentic, he ordered another from a different, more reputable supplier. This one came with a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’.
The Sexton prop has small bells attached to its ankles, meaning it was a kept bird, a hunting falcon. This is perhaps ironic, given that the falcon/falconer relationship is one of mastery over nature, a taming of savage instinct, a symbol of mankind’s control: Hammett’s falcon is anything but tame. When in 1919 W. B. Yeats wanted to describe the chaos and trauma of Europe in the wake of the First World War in ‘The Second Coming’, he reached for the falcon metaphor:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’
The prop designed for the 1931 film (which was also called The Maltese Falcon, directed by Roy Del Ruth) is less naturalistic than the Kniphausen, but more naturalistic than the Sexton prop. The ’31 head is not so squashed and bullet-like as Sexton’s; the wings have smaller, more realistic feathers, and are not so tightly wrapped around the breast. The prop seems, if anything, caught between the two states, paused midway through its evolution from ornate vessel to an abstracted statuette.