Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Real Life Maltese Falcon

Yesterday one of two statuettes of the Maltese Falcon made for the 1941 film of the same name, and the only one to actually appear in the film, sold for $4,085,000 at Bonhams. Described in the film by detective Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) as the "stuff that dreams are made of," it has certainly proven to be that. It is one of the most expensive movie props of all time, more expensive than Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (which sold at auction for $4.1 million in 2012).

Of course, the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, as well as the previous version from 1931 and the 1936 film Satan Met a Lady (in which the famous bird is replaced by a rather mundane ram's horn filled with jewels), was based on Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. What many do not realise that in writing The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett may have taken his inspiration from real life.

Part of that inspiration came from the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon, a yearly tribute the Knights Hospitaller made to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The tribute consisted of one falcon (an living bird instead of a statue) given to the Emperor each year on All Saints Day in return for the grant of Tripoli, Malta and Gozo to the Knights Hospitaller. It is from the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon that Mr. Hammett took the name of both the novel and the priceless statuette.

The other part of Mr. Hammett's inspiration for the Maltese Falcon may have come from an actual, priceless figure of a bird dating to the 17th century. The Kniphausen Hawk is a ceremonial drinking vessel made for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1697. It portrays a hawk standing atop a rock. It is covered in a large number of jewels, including amethysts, emeralds, red garnets, and blue sapphires and stands nearly one foot in height. In 1819 it was purchased by William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1819. The Kniphausen Hawk is still in possession of the Cavendish family, and is currently on display at their house Chatsworth.

Regardless of the real life inspiration for the novel The Maltese Falcon, both it and the 1941 film based upon it would prove very influential. The novel proved to be a pivotal work of hard boiled detective fiction, and would have a lasting influence on the genre. The 1941 film would also prove extremely influential. While it is debatable whether The Maltese Falcon can be considered film noir, it was certainly one of the films that would lead to the genre's development and that would have lasting impact upon it. It would seem that both the novel and the 1941 film would prove to be "the stuff that dreams are made of."

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