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The Maltese Falcon: 75th Anniversary

Rick Layman and Julie Rivett
Biographer, Hammett Granddaughter
Thursday, January 13, 2005; 1:00 PM

"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-- from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
-- Excerpt from "The Maltese Falcon"

One-time detective Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the hard-boiled crime novel. Seventy-five years after its publication "The Maltese Falcon" remains one of the best-known detective novels ever printed. Hammett biographer Rick Layman and Julie Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter led a discussion of Hammett's life, writing and legacy.


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"Maltese Falcon" Readers Guide Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Baltimore, Md.: I have a college friend who wrote a philosophy thesis that analyzed "The Maltese Falcon" -- and the film noir genre that it helped inspire -- as a case study in modern moral ethics. He argued that Hammett boiled down Kant's turgid "Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals" into a compelling prescription for modern moral action. Sam Spade ultimately chose what was right and for the greater good over what might have been more gratifying for him (i.e., Brigid O'Shaughnessy). I know this may seem like an odd question, but can you talk about the intellectual interests that informed Hammett's view of the world? Was Hammett a 20th-century moral philosopher disguised as a writer of potboiler fiction? It seems to me that Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created detective fiction, but that Hammett added a new, internal, psychological, and character-driven element to the detective novel.

Rick Layman: Excellent observation and comment. Hammett was an avid student of philosophy, and he read Kant at an early age. At the time he was writing The Maltese Falcon, Hammett tried his hand at an essay on philosophy that was unpublished. The essay, called "The Boundaries between Science and Philosophy" had to do with the question of perception. Hammett read the 19th-century American pragmatists and was particularly taken with Charles Sander Peirce, whose name he appropriated for the Flitcraft parable in The Maltese Falcon. A basic element of Peirce's philosphy was the triad that consisted of first potential, then action, then laws based on the action. Peirce argued that habit was one the basic forces in nature and that it underlay all other laws.
Clearly the habitual habits of Brigid, on the one hand, and Spade on the other, are at the heart of The Maltese Falcon.

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New York, N.Y.: Why in some quarters has Raymond Chandler leap- frogged Dashiell Hammett as the top private dick author? Is it because Marlowe seems to have an inimitable sense of humor, along with a line of gab with more wit and sarcasm than Spade. It doesnt seem to matter in the least that Chandler's plot lines are usually incomprehensible while Hammett's generally make more sense.

Rick Layman: One of the favorite games of detective fiction fans is to argue whether Hammett or Chandler is the best writer. As a game, such arguments are fun. But in more serious moments, I think you have to first accept the fact that they weren't in a contest and if even if they were, the rules are not clear. They are different writers. When I play the game, I always say flipantly that the difference between Chandler and Hammett is the difference between style and substance, and then quote Hammett, who said that it is the beginning of the end when you realize you have style. When I am being serious, I admit that while I much prefer Hammett, Chandler is a fine writer, and the difference between them begins with personal preferences.

Julie Rivett: Rick once used an analogy that I particularly like in response to the Hammett-Chandler question. He likened the pair to Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis: they both play trumpet and they both play jazz, but that's about as far as the similarities go. It is not a matter of one being better than the other. It is a matter of taste.

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Oakton, Va.: Ms. Rivett: I'm a great fan of your grandfather and have visited his grave at Arlington National Cemetary. Have you ever had a chance to visit that spot?

What do you or Mr. Layman make now of your grandfather's Communist leanings and political opinions (which he went to prison to defend) and his patriotism (a WW1 vet who, at a pretty advanced age, volunteered again to serve in the military in WW2)?

Thank you.

Rick Layman: Hammett was certainly a member of the Communist Party USA. He called himself a Marxist, and he followed Stalinist dictates, abandoning anti-fascism during the Hitler-Stalin pact, for example. In all cases of categorization, I think one should consider not just the theoretical position a person espouses, but the practical application of that position. In Hammett's case, it is difficult now to justify his advocacy of Stalinist policies. On the other hand, when he put his political beliefs into practice, he was an early and energetic advocate of civil rights, working hard to combat lynching, for example. He worked for voters' rights and for the democratic principle that one should not be excluded from the ballot because of unpopular political beliefs. He worked for equal rights for women. There is no indication at all, even in the light of recently released documents in the Comintern and the Venona Papers that Hammett ever worked as a spy or was a subversive in any sense. His name is never mentioned among the many named in that context. Hammett himself said he believed in the rights of the little man against the big, and that Marxism was the most compatible philosophy he could find. When something better came along, he would adapt to that philosophy.

Julie Rivett: Yes, in 2001 I had the opportunity to visit my grandfather's grave at Arlington. It was bittersweet. I am glad that he is buried there in quiet dignity. I wish, however, that he had lived long enough for me to have built a meaningful relationship with him.

The burial site is important, because he was truly a patriot. His letters--especially those to his older daughter Mary--make this very clear. He believed that communism was the best means to bring better lives to the most people. He told Mary to "be in favor of what's good for the workers and against what isn't."

So, however much his opinions may be questioned or condemned, his sincerity was absolute and his loyalties were to the American people.

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Herndon, Va.: "The Maltese Falcon" is one of several books, I believe, in which the movie version is much better known. Did Mr. Hammett ever express any annoyance over this, and, to be somewhat crass, how much money did he receive for the filming rights?

Rick Layman: On 5 June 1930 Warner Bros. bought performance rights to The Maltese Falcon for $8500 from Alfred A. Knopf, Hammett's publisher. He got 80 percent of the income. Warner proceeded to make three movies from the novel, one in 1931, one in 1936, and the famous Huston version 9in 1941. The budget for the 1941 movie was $381,000, and Bogart got $12,500 for playing Sam Spade. Hammett had little to say about the movies, except to say of the 1941 version at the time of its release, "they made a pretty good picture of it this time, for a change."

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Fairfax, Va.: I used to live in Malta and was amused to hear tourists ask vendors if they had any Maltese Falcon souvenirs. The Maltese usually said, "Well, you know, that didn't really have anything to do with Malta".

Nevertheless, I did come across some shops with the little falcon statuettes, and they seemed to be selling rather briskly. This was in the late 1990s, so the book and film are still in many people's minds!

Rick Layman: Hammett's account of the history of the falcon is remarkably accurate. In fact the Hospitallers of St. John did make a rental agreement with Charles V of Spain to give him a falcon annually. The references Gutman cites in his history are real and correct. The falcon is a traditional symbol of regal authority. Charles V's palace at the Alhambra in Granada, built during the early-mid 1500s, has striking falcon grotesques all around. I would like to know where Hammett got his history. The sources are hard to locate and in at least three languages. I suspect there is a book from the 1920s he relied on. I have searched for it without success.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: It seems writers today have adopted different styles of writing. Do you see any writers today who remind either of you of the writing style of Dashiell Hammett? If Dashiell Hammet was an unpublished writer and submitted "The Maltese Falcon" to publishers today, what do you believe would be their reactions?

Rick Layman: Hammett's influence is vast. I would name two writers, though, one mystery writer and one so-called mainstream writer. Three-time Edgar-winner Joe Gores knows Hammett's work thoroughly and writes masterful mystery novels. He pays homage to Hammett frequently in his works. The mainstream writer is Paul Auster. His Book of Illusions is a tribute to Hammett and his writing reminds me of the the clarity and complexity of Hammett at his best.

Rick Layman: I can't believe that any editor worth his or her salt would fail to recognize the timeless value of The Maltese Falcon. I am admittedly prejudiced.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Ms. Rivett,

I recall that Hammett was born somewhere in Maryland. Are there any Hammett relatives still in the area?

Always thought it was cool that two of the century's great fiction writers (Hammett and James M. Cain) were originally from Maryland.

Julie Rivett: My grandfather was born on the family farm called "Hopewell and Aim," in St. Mary's County, Maryland in 1894. He moved with his family to Balitmore in 1901.

Hammetts have lived in the area for centuries. They are still there in force, including Hammett's brother's family. If you want more information on this sort of personal background, you might seek out my mother's memoir, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. It's heavily illustrated with family photographs, too.

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Rockville, Md.: Was curious if either of you knew...

Is the real John's Grill in San Francisco (featured in "The Maltese Falcon" when Spade has a meal there) still open?

Julie Rivett: Yes, John's Grill is still open at 63 Ellis Street in San Francisco. The restaurant serves a special Sam Spade meal of lamb chops, sliced tomatoes, and potatoes. If you're interested, they also serve a drink called a "Bloody Brigid." Be sure to wander upstairs to check out the photographs while you're there.

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Bowie, Md.: I'm afraid I associate "The Maltese Falcon" with the name Humprhey Bogart much more so than Dashiell Hammett.

In 1930 sound films were just getting started. Was the possibiity that a novel "be made into a movie" a part of the writing world at the time?

What did Hammett think of the film? It was a pretty loyal adaptation.

Julie Rivett: People often tell me that they are primarily familiar with my grandfather's work through Huston's excellent adaptation of the Falcon. That's fine, and certainly understandable, but I do encourage them to read the book!

My grandfather mentions Huston's film in a number of his letters. Unlike the 1931 and 1936 adaptations, he was quite pleased with it. There is no record of his opinions on the casting.

It is, as you say, a faithful adaptation. Legend has it that Huston, up against a tight schedule, gave the novel to a secretary and told her to retype it as an outline for a screenplay. Jack Warner was thrilled with the result, and they were off and running. The Matlese Falcon is one of only a very few works to earn places in both the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels and the AFI's 100 Best Films.

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Washington, D.C.: Which movie portrayal best captured the real Hammett? Jason Robards ("Julia")? Sam Sheppard ("Dash and Lilly")?

(Until consulting the film Web site IMDB.com I never knew that Frederic Forrest, who played the author in the 1982 movie "Hammett," also played him again in a 1992 TV movie about Roy Cohn.)

Julie Rivett: My pick would be Jason Robards, but that may be due in part to Alvin Sargent's fine writing. What is important in any portrayal of my grandfather is capturing his dry, understated wit. Also, people tend to forget that Hammett grew up on the eastern seaboard, not in the western United States. The difference may be subtle, but it is crucial to capturing his personal style.

There was also a surprisingly good portrayal of Hammett by Tom Selleck in the old Magnum PI show. Selleck played the part with just the right mix of wry irreverence and charm.

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Virginia: According to the IMDB, The Maltese Falcon was made twice before the 1941 version directed by John Huston.

The 1931 version had Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly and Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and the reviews state that it is more true to the book than the better known version.

What is your opinion?

Rick Layman: I disagree. The 1931 movie, relased on television as Dangerous Female but named after the novel for its initial release, is far superior to the 1936 version called Satan Met a Lady, but the character of Spade fails in the 1931, I think. He becomes an almost comic character. The Spade, Cairo, and Gutman roles are far more convincing in the 1941 version. I do think that Bebe Daniels, who played the Brigid character in 1931 was potentially a better Brigid that Mary Astor, whose portrayal I think falls flat. Both the 1931 and 1941 movies are more or less faithful to the novel, unlike the 1936.

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Annandale, Va.: I've read a lot of your grandfather's novels. Not only was he a great writer but a great storyteller. I've read some of his biography. Is there anything you can tell us personally about him?

Julie Rivett: I only met my grandfather once, when my family spent a week week on Martha's Vineyard Island with him in 1960. So, what I know is a blend of childhood memories, my mother's stories, stories I've heard from others who knew him, and from his letters and writings.

What people seem to be surprised to learn is that he was funny and gentle. He loved kids and dogs. He loved gadgets. He was an outdoorsman. He had an extraordinary memory. They are not surprised to learn that he read everything he could get his hands on.

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Gainesville, Fla.: A few days ago I witnessed a documentary made in the late 1990s about the murder of Wobbly organizer Frank Little in Butte, Mont. It mentioned Lillian Hellmann saying of Hammett that Hammett had once been offered $5,000 by the Pinkerton Agency to kill labor organizer Frank Little, and that Hammett became convinced by that incident that America was inherently corrupt. Hammett later refused to cooperate with the HUAC when it investigated "Communist sympathizers" in Hollywood. What, exactly, was Hammett's relationship with Communism, and was his silence before the HUAC out of sympathy with their situation, or out of sympathy with their politics?

Rick Layman: I don't believe Hellman's story about Hammett being and Frank Little. It doesn't make sense. He was in Baltimore and the time, and Little was hanged in Montana, I think it was. The Pinkerton's didn't have to send an operative across the country to deal with labor disputes. Hammett was a Communist, and he believed Americans had the right to their political beliefs. He never testified before HCUA. He did testify before McCarthy's Senate Subcommittee in 1953, and he refused in 1951 to testify in federal court about his political associations

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Silver Spring, Md.: Did your grandfather pattern Sam after anyone? Did he live to see Bogie play him in the films?

Julie Rivett: My grandfather wrote an introduction to Modern Library edition of the Falcon. In it, he discusses his sources for a number of the novel's characters. "Spade," he writes,"had no original." He was what detectives wanted to be and what they thought they could, at their best.

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Leonardtown, Md.: What was Mr. Hammett's opinion of the film versions of his various novels? Specifically Watch on the Rhine, "The Maltese Falcon," "The Thin Man" and "The Glass Key" ('35 or '42 version)?
Also, where in St. Mary's County was he born?

Rick Layman: Hammett didn't have much to say about movies made from his novels. Hellman's play Watch on the Rhine, which Hammett adapted for the movie, apparently grew from an aborted novel of Hammett's called "My Brother Felix."
Hammett was born near Lexington Park. The house he was born in still stands.

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Washington, D.C.: How many serious movie treatments have been made based on "The Maltese Falcon" to date?

Rick Layman: Warner Bros. made three movies from the Maltese Falcon, but I would argue that only two, both with the name of the novel and released in 1931 and 1941, are serious. The 1936 adaptation, called Satan Met a Lady and starring Warren William and Bette Davis, is a silly flop. It was apparently made in response to the 1934 Thin Man, a big hit from MGM. In 1936 Warners tried to make Spade into comic fool.

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Pearlington, Miss.: Was Hammett happy with casting of Bogie and the other actors in the movie version of "The Maltese Falcon?"

Rick Layman: So far as I know, Hammett never mentioned Bogart's role. He is excellent, of course, but he does not meet Hammett's description of Spade. Nonetheless, Bogart was so compelling in the role that it is difficult to imagine Spade any other way.

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Washington, D.C.: I think the Continental Opp character is great and enjoy reading any story that features him. Any chance that this character would be used in a movie or TV film?

Also what were some of the inspriations and influences for this character?

Rick Layman: There is interest in movies based on the op from time to time. I agree with you that several op stories, and especially Red Harvest, could be made into excellent movies. I think TV adaptaion of The Dain Curse with James Coburn as the Op was excellent.
The Op was directly influenced by Hammett's experience as a Pinkerton's agent. Hammett once said he was based on his supervisor in Baltimore named Jimmy Wright. The Pinkerton's records do not show any supervisor by that name, but Pinkerton's operatives often adopted pseudonyms for their work, and Jimmy Wright was one of the names they used.

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Seat Pleasant: I thought Hammet's portrayal of San Francisco in "Maltese Falcon" was quite striking and, I sense, geographically accurate. If I'm not mistaken, there are plaques in the city designating areas in which scenes from the story took place.

Did Hammett live in San Francisco? If so, can you tell us where?

Julie Rivett: Hammett lived in San Francisco from early summer 1921 until the fall of 1929. And you are correct, the novel's setting is quite accurate. While he was writing the novel, my granfather lived at 891 Post St. It is also Spade's apartment. The sites in the novel can be clearly linked to sites around the city, although sometimes the names have been changed.

There is a plaque in the entry to Burritt Street, where Brigid did the evil deed. There is also a plaque marking John's Grill as a literary landmark. On March 19, the apartment at 891 Post will also be designated as a landmark.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Do you think that some of Hammett's more violent books like "Red Harvest" could be made in today's Hollywood? Or any of the Continental Op books for that matter?

Incidentally there is a walking tour here in San Francisco of Dashiell Hammett's references and residences that is a lot of fun. It even includes a few bars.

Rick Layman: Rights to Red Harvest are tied up presently, but we are trying to get a release. I think that novel could make an excellent movie.
The walking tour of San Francisco is run by Don Herron. It is excellent, and I recommend it. On 1 February an exhibit concentrating on The Maltese Falcon opens at San Francisco Public Library, and on 24 February, Julie Rivett will host a program devoted to the novel. On Saturday 19 March the apartment building where Hammett lived when he wrote The Maltese Falcon and where he set Spade's apartment will be dedicated as a national Literary Landmark. The SF Chronicle is sponsoring the event under the auspices of Friends of Libraries USA.

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Washington, D.C.: I hear the Kennedy Center will be showing the movie The Maltese Falcon the 1941 version on Feb. 6th. Will either of you be there?

Rick Layman: I won't be at the Kennedy Center, but I will be at Library of Congress on 15 February talking about The Maltese Falcon at a program sponsored by the National Center for the book. The program is free to the public at 6:30 PM. I think it is in the Jefferson Building. I hope you can come.

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Washington, D.C.: Just curious about the author's first name. Is it a family name? Is he named after anyone? And did he go by "Dash" as I believe I recall from Julia?

Julie Rivett: Dashiell is a family name, his mother's madien name. Originally it was De Cheil, a family of French Hugonots. It is often mispronoucned. Properly, the accent is on the second syllable, Dah-SHEEL, rhyming with neal. Perhaps for simplicity's sake, he was often called Dash.

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Washington, D.C.: So many doubts have been cast on Lillian Hellman's autobiographies. How do her portrayals of her relationship with Hammett compare to the historic record?

Julie Rivett: Any account given by Hellman should be cross-referenced for accuracy. Certainly, some are correct. Others, well, as my mother says, Hellman rewrote life so it played better. Her account of the Hammett-Hellman relationship has been colored and shaped to suit Hellman's singular perspective.

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Washington, D.C.: Interesting that nobody has asked about "The Thin Man" (so far, anyway).

I've often read that Hammett was dismayed that this series was his most successful commercially (although I believe the money was probably welcome).

Care to comment? Always wondered if this was an accurate asessment. Thanks.

Rick Layman: The Thin Man certainly made Hammett a lot of money, and it is still fun to read. I don't think Hammett approached the novel with the same seriousness as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key. He wrote original stories for the second and third of the six movies in the series, but he was drinking hard then, and the success of the movies was attributable largely to William Powell and Myrna Loy.
When Hammett sold the rights to the Thin Man characters to MGM for $40,000 in 1937 or 1938, he wrote to Lillian Hellman, nobody ever created a more smug set of characters, and they can't take that away from me, even for $40,000.

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Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Hammet had a huge effect on me when I discovered him in my teens. After reading the short stories in The Copntinental Op I read everything of his I could get my hands on. I still think he is a major figure in American Lit. Maybe just a tad below Hemmingway (whom Hellman suggested he viewed competitively). Do you have a sense of where he placed himself relative to his contemporaries?

Julie Rivett: My grandfather knew he was a good writer, able to mix with the best of his contemporaries. He was also an astute reader and critic. He admired many of the others, was critical of some, didn't much care for Hemmingway. The frustration was in his inability to move outside the crime genre into the mainstream.

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Columbus, Ohio: "The Maltese Falcon" seems to have a lot of similarities to Hemingway in terms of its narrative rhythm and language. Hammett had begun writing stories before Hemingway became influential, however. Was he consciously affected by the Hemingway style by the time he wrote "Falcon", or had he already arrived at his type of writing?

Rick Layman: My answer to this seems to have gottenlost. I agree with you about the similarities between the two writers, but I thin they are coincidental. Hammett had certainly read The Sun Also Rises, at least, before he wrote MF, but he referred to it a bit disparagingly in a 1927 story called The Main Death. Hammett' ideas for MF can be traced back to 1924 at least, though they didn't coalesce until summer of 1927 or maybe a little later.

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St. Petersburg, Fla.: I believe that the 1941 movie had been shot with two endings -- one in which the falcon turns out to be lead and the other in which the falcon is smashed and gems come tumbling out. Am I right?

Rick Layman: I've not heard that before. I would like to know a source.

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Del Ray, Va.: One of the things I have always found fascinating about Hammett was that he created such a string of unforgettable detectives -- Spade, Nick Charles, etc. -- and with the exception of the Continental Op (I loved the Dain Curse), he never used them more than once. The other thing I have always loved, and the Dain Curse is a good example, is that nothing was too weird or off limits for his plots -- drug use, kinky sexual obession, cults, you name it.

Julie Rivett: That's one the things I like about my grandfather's works--for all that they're hardboiled and crime-ridden, they're just plain fun to read. I'm glad to hear that you appreciate his quirky cast of characters and finely-tuned absurdities.

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Anonymous: Jorge Luis Borges and Hammett -- could you comment on their connection? They are both brilliant! Thank you.

Rick Layman: I know Borges has written perceptively and appreciatively about Hammett.

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Alexandria, Va.: The Thin Man was a good story with interesting characters of Nick and Nora Charles. Why did Mr. Hammett not write any more books or short stories featuring these characters?

I always thought the concept was clever because the detective was married and featured his wife in a favorable way.

Rick Layman: By 1934 when Hammett published The Thin Man, his life was in a shambles. He was drinking hard and overly enjoying the decadent pleasures Hollywood had to offer. It is interesting that you mention the relationship of Nick and Nora. Family scenes in Hammett's fiction are rare, and though Nick and Nora are hardly conventional partners, they are certainly happy--much as Hammett and Hellman were at the time, I suspect.

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Washington, D.C.: Just a quick FYI comment. Outside the Copyright Office on the 4th floor of the Library of Congress Madison Building is a small exhibit of Maltese Falcon statute, film clip, & 1st edition book with details of a copyright dispute Hammett had with Warner Brothers over Sam Spade.

Rick Layman: Thank you. I look forward to checking it out.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: I had heard that Don Cheadle was trying to put together a remake of the movie with an all black cast. Any news of this? Any way we can urge Hollywood to take this on? I think it would be fantastic!

Rick Layman: Sounds interesting, but this is the first I've heard of the project.

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Washington, D.C.:

Were you awhere that the Kennedy Center and the American Film Institute are screening nine 1940's cinematic features. One of which is the Maltese Falcon on Sunday, Feb. 6, at 1 p.m. For more information go to kennedy-center.org or call (202) 467-4600 for more information.

Rick Layman: Thank you.

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