by Mark Richardson
I should start by saying that I am not predisposed to pulling off heists in broad daylight (or at night, for that matter). But there the black bird The Maltese Falcon stood, just inches in front of me. It was one of 62 artifacts that made up the exhibit The Maltese Falcon: An American Classic at 75 held at the San Francisco main library. And although the other items, including the typewriter author Dashiell Hammett used to write his book, original copies of the novel from 1930, and Hammett’s Pinkerton Detective Agency badge, were of interest to me, it was the statue that led me to consider a life of crime.
The display case where the bird was perched was protected by a square plastic case, which was locked tightly to the desk. But I was confident I could break the lock with my car keys, force the case loose with my shoulder, secure the bird under my arm, and race for the door. I would perhaps need to overpower the library guard, but I would have the element of surprise, a firm blow to his jaw would secure my freedom, allowing me to escape to the streets of San Francisco. There would be no pursuit by the seductive Brigid O’Shaughnessy, shifty Joel Cairo, or even Gutman (a.k.a. the fat man). The Maltese Falcon would be mine!
Of course, there would be no point in the crime. The statue used in the library’s exhibit is worthless, a fake, neither the solid gold, jewel-encrusted treasure that O’Shaughnessy, Cairo and Gutman schemed after in Hammett’s novel, or even the lead prop used in John Huston’s classic 1941 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade.
Although it is unlikely that a real Maltese Falcon exists (the gold and jeweled treasure was a creation of Hammett’s imagination), the movie statue has become a prize among collectors. It is the stuff that dreams are made of, says Gary Milan, a retired Beverly Hills dentist and collector of movie artifacts. Milan bought the 12-inch, 50-pound statue over 20 years ago. He won’t disclose the amount of the purchase (I paid a lot of money), but the falcon is insured for $2 million.
Milan, who also owns the piano used in Casablanca, argues that his black bird is the most prized artifact of all movie collectables. It is the title of the book, the title of the movie, and the plot revolves around it. You can’t say the same thing about the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, or even my Casablanca piano. (Note: I argue that you can make the same claim about the ring from The Lord of the Rings). But Milan has a point.
According to Milan, other would-be treasure collectors eager to cash in on the value movie buffs place on the statue used in The Maltese Falcon have been trying to sell off imposters for years, often claiming that their statue was used in the film. Most of the fakes are clay replicas that Warner Brothers created in the 1970s as part of a publicity stunt. The statue displayed at the SF Library is one of those replicas. “There was only one bird used in the film and I own it,” says Milan. “Warner Brothers has authenticated my statue as the real falcon.” Milan went on to say that at the end of the movie, when Bogart is holding the bird, you can clearly see that its tail is bent; Milan’s statue is bent in the same way.
The Maltese Falcon was Dashiell Hammett’s third novel. Pulp-fiction magazines were very popular back in the 1920s and 30s, and the book was originally published serially in five parts in Black Mask magazine. In its exhibit, the SF Library states that, With his third novel, Dashiell Hammet reached the pinnacle of his literary achievement, creating a work that presents a memorable series of dramatic conflicts resonating with timeless signature. Modern Library lists it as one of the best 100 novels of the twentieth century. The 1941 movie is also consistently ranked as one of the 100 best American movies ever made. I recently re-read the book in just one night; I couldn’t put it down.
Hammett’s life was as colorful as any of his novels. As a young man he was employed by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The time that he spent there had a huge influence on the shady world depicted in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett lived in San Francisco from 1921 to 1929, writing four of his five books in that city. Like many famous authors of his era Hammett was a heavy drinker, perhaps even an alcoholic. His last novel, The Thin Man which starred the charming couple Nick and Nora Charles, was published in 1934.
Throughout the 1930s, Hammett split his time between New York and Hollywood. During this time he became a member of the Communist party. Despite this affiliation, in 1942, at the age of 48, Hammett enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to the Aleutian Islands where he edited an Army newspaper. Years after the war Hammett was called in front of Congress to testify as part of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts. Throughout his life Hammett was a strong proponent of civil rights and fought against the lynching of blacks. He died in 1961, at the age of 66.
Legend has it that Hammett wrote at least part of The Maltese Falcon at John’s Grill, a restaurant near Union Square where the fictional detective Sam Spade dines (He orders chops, a baked potato and sliced tomatoes). Earlier this year at the restaurant, Milan’s movie statue made a now rare public appearance, displayed for a one-night celebration of Dashiell Hammett. The bird made the trip up north in an armored car and was protected throughout the evening by an armed security guard. The falcon is back in the Beverly Hills vault where Milan has it stored, safely out of my grasp.