Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Maltese Falcon: The Right Thing...or the Easy Thing?

I've always loved The Maltese Falcon, the film noir classic starring Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade. Of course, I knew that the movie was based on the novel of the same name, written by Dashiell Hammett. But I'd never read the book until a few weeks ago, after I picked it up for pocket change at Half Price Books.

The Maltese Falcon, it turns out, is more than just a terrific detective story. It's the work of a great storyteller who writes well. Hammett's sentences are compact and descriptive. The characters he created are vivid. I'll grant that the movie makes them even more so. Nonetheless, you'd clearly see Spade, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and the rest in your mind's eye even without the film. Besides, the Sam Spade of Hammett's imagination is a large-ish man, not like the slight Bogart at all. (Still, it's hard to picture anyone but Bogey in the role!)

But, in digressing, I'm doing something Hammett never does. What I really want to focus on is the climactic dialog that happens between Spade and O'Shaughnessy. You remember the scene if you've seen the movie. It happens in Spade's apartment. They're awaiting the arrival of the police. Spade has figured out that O'Shaughnessy was responsible for the murders of two men, one named Thursby and the other his partner, with whose wife Spade had been having an affair. He tells O'Shaughnessy, this woman with whom he's fallen in love, that he's going to turn her over to the cops for her crimes. He's going to "send her over." O'Shaughnessy protests that he can't do this, that he loves her whether he knows it or not.

Spade responds:
"I don't [know it]. It's easy enough to be nuts about you." He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. "But I don't know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won't. I've been through it before--when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I'll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I'd be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I'll be sorry...I'll have some rotten nights--but that'll pass. Listen." He took her by the shoulders and bent her back, leaning over her. "If that doesn't mean anything to you forget it and we'll make it this: I won't because all of me wants to--wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it--and've counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others."
What's intriguing about this is how, from the mouth of a morally complicated character, a guy who routinely uses others and bends the rules to suit himself, Hammett presents the choices each of us must make between what's compelling and attractive on the one hand and what's distasteful and difficult on the other.

It's almost always easier, it really is the path of least resistance, to do the wrong thing. For Spade, it would have been easier and brought him quick gratification to throw in with O'Shaughnessy, who had already warmed his bed, who might soon have wealth beyond his imagining.

But Spade took a longer term view, something we always need to do in our moral reasoning. And by longer term, I'm not referring to the eternal perspective, though that shouldn't be irrelevant. It ought to matter to us that the God Who judges over the lives of us all cares about whether we do right and wrong. But here I'm really thinking of longer term in this life. While Brigid O'Shaughnessy might have provided Spade with momentary pleasures, satisfying the immediate cravings expressed in that hungry look he gave her, he knew that sooner or later, she would turn on him, just as she had on Thursby and on his partner Miles...and who knows how many others? He knew too that he would become a fugitive for as long as he lived.

He knew something else too. As he tells O'Shaughnessy in this same dialog: "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be..." Maybe, Spade tells Brigid--and himself--his principles are too high to not only refuse to play the sap for her, but also to do the wrong thing.

The Bible says that we all know the difference between right and wrong. God's law is written on our hearts. We know what it is and we want to abide by it...or at least want to appear to abide by it. The reason that Jesus taught Christians to pray, "Lead us not into temptation" or, as a modern translation puts it, "Save us from the time of trial," is that it's always easier to cave into doing the wrong thing than to stand firm and do the right one. And since I'm not as strong as Sam Spade, who after all is a heroic fictional character, I find myself praying that prayer, in one form or another, all the time.

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