The Maltese Falcon

by Jim Hull

In 60 years, the story you’re writing could be completely meaningless. Sad thought, isn’t it? Why else do we slave over characters and plot and theme if not to have some chance at immortality? Don’t our words last forever? The Maltese Falcon is a prime example of a story that, while important in its day, is lost on the current generation.

The first thing we agreed on turned out to be the easiest of the night: Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) was the Main Character. It was fairly obvious, but of note was the example given for why he was the Main Character: when he gets drugged, we as an audience are drugged and pass out. No better example of audience empathy than this! But that was about as easy as it was going to get.

Missing Pieces and Cultural Differences

When analyzing a film with Dramatica what we are trying to figure out is Author’s Intent. Sometimes this is fairly easy and straightforward (Star Wars or The Matrix) and other times it can be simply a game of Best Guess. The Maltese Falcon fell in the latter category.

As best as we could tell there was supposed to be a romantic relationship between Brigid (Mary Astor) and Sam. The last scene, the famous one with the line “it’s the stuff that dreams are made of” is obviously an attempt at wrapping up their Subjective Story. Emotions clash in this final scene. The only problem is that to audiences nowadays, it seemed to come out of nowhere. I recall during my first viewing--one I had to fight to keep my eyes open--that I thought to myself, “Well that was a great scene. I wish there had been more of that earlier.”

Staying Awake

Our culture has developed significantly since 1941. Perhaps back then it was assumed that if you put a man and a woman in a room together they automatically must have some sort of romantic relationship. The audience of the 40s probably assumed that Sam and Brigid were in love and therefore filled in the blanks themselves. This is fine if you’re in tune with your audience and you don’t mind your film losing most of it’s meaning down the road. If you want it to be timeless, you’ll need to make sure that you give your audience everything.

The Maltese Falcon had a weak Influence Character and an almost non-existent Relationship Story, thus making it close to impossible to find an accurate storyform for it. Further, the Main Character Throughline, while easy to distinguish, was also hard to accurately define. There was some sort of integrity/trust issue that Sam was dealing with personally, but was barely touched upon. The emphasis in this film was so much more about the deceptions and the storytelling that 3 of the four throughlines were left to interpretation.

This was why I couldn’t keep my eyes open (and why many today may find the film boring). The Maltese Falcon was more of a tale than a story. As we’ll see when we go over the story events, it is very much about “this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and then it was over.” Not at all what a Dramatica story seeks to show:

“With things set up this way, this is how everything went and naturally leads to this one and only conclusion.”

Objective Story Throughline and Goal

What are all the characters concerned with? Finding the Maltese Falcon, of course. Obviously then, this has to be the Goal of the Story, right? That’s what we thought too when we first started our analysis. But after some serious searching and a shot of insight from Sandy Stone we found another goal that seemed to fit the story better.

The most important step to take when analyzing a mystery like The Maltese Falcon, is to unravel it all in order to understand what is really going on. Not what the audience sees or knows at a given moment, but what really happens on and off the screen during the story’s progression.

For reference, here’s a quick list of the story events in the order that they really happened. (MAJOR Spoilers ahead!)

  • Brigid hires Sam
  • Brigid shoots partner
  • Brigid shoots Thursby
  • Sam identifies partner
  • Police investigate partner’s murder - Sam could be a suspect
  • Cairo searches Sam’s room
  • Gutman reveals the bird’s story then drugs Sam
  • Nobody has the bird - it’s on the boat from Hong Kong
  • Boat is burned (presumably by Gutman)
  • Falcon arrives at Sam’s office
  • Sam hides the Falcon
  • Falcon turns out to be fake.
  • Sam turns everyone in, gives away illegal money
  • Sam denies Brigid

Looking at this list, it’s easy to see that finding the Maltese Falcon was not the Story Goal. If it was the Goal, then once they discover they have a fake, the story should be over. But it doesn’t seem like it’s over. Even with Sydney Greenstreet frantically scraping away at the fake there’s a sense that there is still more story to tell.

The suggestion was made that the real Goal of the story was solving the murder of Sam’s partner. This seems to fit the above events better. The murder of Sam’s partner is the Inciting Incident and the arrest of Brigid the Closing Event.

At first I was concerned that not all the characters were really concerned with solving the murder. Gutman and Cairo certainly don’t seem to care. Neither does Gutman’s henchman. But I believe I was confusing the Objective Story’s Concern with the Objective Story’s Goal. In Dramatica, both will be of the same type (For example, if the Goal of the story is to ensure that a rural town will last for generations to come, everyone in the story in one shape or another will be concerned with the future - whether they care about the town’s future or not.)

The Protagnoist and the Antagonist are the ones chiefly concerned with the Goal - the other players orbit around this driving force. The Protagonist in The Maltese Falcon (whether it be Sam or the detectives or a combination of both) is trying to solve the murder of Sam’s partner - Sam because he is suspected, the detectives because that’s their job (and it’s suggested that one might really enjoy catching Sam). The Antagonist, or “Bad Guy” in this would be Brigid.

Judgment and Outcome

Setting this as a goal also had the added benefit of making the story’s ending feel right. The story does not end with a Star Wars/Independence Day “Yippee!” feeling. Nor does it end tragically like Hamlet. There’s an unsettling good for some/bad for others sensation that I personally felt and knew had to be addressed somehow.

Sam ends up the unsettled one. He’s torn up about having to turn Brigid in, and while he’s proud of himself for doing the right thing, he’s not too pleased about it. This would give us a Main Character Judgment of Bad - the Main Character has not resolved his angst.

But this creates an interesting problem when placed against the Story Outcome.

If the Goal was finding the Maltese Falcon then the Outcome of the story would be a Failure. Failure/Bad stories are Tragic Stories (like Hamlet) - the Goal is not met and the Main Character is miserable.

This didn’t sit right.

But if the Goal was indeed solving the murder, then the story ends in Success. This would give us a Personal Tragey story (Success/Bad). This feels correct. Sam solves the murder - but at what cost to his own personal life?

The Leftovers

There were other things that we agreed upon:

  • Story Limit: Optionlock (only so many characters could be the real murderer)
  • Main Character Approach: Be-er (prefers to solve problems internally, while he is a man of action, it is his bravado and force of personality that he calls upon first - perfect for Bogart)
  • Main Character Resolve: Steadfast (stays true to his values - consequently she Changes. She starts out with little to no compassion and eventually is willing to give it all up for Sam)
  • Main Character Problem Solving Style: Linear (if your partner is murdered, then you are supposed to do something about it)
  • Main Character Growth: Start

As far as the Main Character Growth goes, Sam is holding out for something to Start. While the cops chasing him would lend one to believe Sam is holding out for something to stop (as in The Fugitive) the emphasis in this story is on Sam waiting for the murderer to reveal himself (in this case, herself). Sam basically knows in the beginning that she did it - he doesn’t believe a word she says. He’s just waiting for her to tell him what he already knows.

(This article originally appeared on Jim's Story Fanatic website in 2007. It has been updated to reflect changes in the terminology.)

About the Author

Jim Hull has spent the better half of two decades exploring and communicating to others all things Dramatica. His publication Narrative First provides hundreds of insightful articles while his classes and weekend seminars offer an introduction to the theory. Currently consulting for a television series in production (but can't mention the studio because the mouse in charge doesn't like it when you use his name). In addition, Jim redesigned this site in its entirety in late 2012. Jim can be found @jameshull on Twitter.

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