San Francisco private detective Sam Spade takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette, with the stakes rising after his partner is murdered.
Here are three lessons I learned from reading The Maltese Falcon screenplay:
- Have other characters label your protagonist for the audience.
- How to write assertive politeness.
- Have characters test each other.
#1. On the following page of The Maltese Falcon, our protagonist is labeled in numerous ways:
HAVE OTHER CHARACTERS LABEL YOUR PROTAGONIST FOR THE AUDIENCE — Brigid tells Samuel Spade, “You’re absolutely the wildest person I’ve ever known. Do you always carry on so high-handed?” She delivers an observation as a way of telling the audience how Spade’s behavior compares to others, then poses a question which keeps the audience wondering how his behavior will continue. Spade is direct with his dialogue, ignoring her question entirely and uses physicality to demand her attention, in turn demanding the attention of the audience.
Later on the page, Brigid murmurs, “You’re altogether unpredictable.” This is a wonderful quality for a protagonist. If Spade were predictable, the story would likely be far less interesting. His active, unexpected choices are what move the story forward and make us want to be inside his head, knowing what he’ll do next.
#2. On the following page of The Maltese Falcon screenplay, Spade has a phone conversation revealing his personality in subtle ways, then takes a limousine to Brigid’s apartment:
HOW TO WRITE ASSERTIVE POLITENESS — There is a fine line between assertive and rude and The Maltese Falcon fleshes out Spade exceptionally well as an assertive character who is likable and polite. In the phone call on the page above, he calls Effie “Precious”, asks questions including “What’s the good word?” and “Everything go okay?” and then tells her to get a good night’s rest. When she (presumably) attempts to continue the conversation, he says, “Save it till tomorrow. Bye.” and hangs up.
The balance of assertiveness and kindness begins with empathy. Does the character care about others and are they treating them with respect? Spade toes this line throughout the script, later using moments of violence, but almost all of his interactions are polite in their alpha intensity. He is in control and we know it, yet this does not mean he needs to bully or put others down. Bullies are unlikable.
A balanced blend of empathy and alpha assertiveness can build characters that the audience wants to follow.
#3. On the following page of The Maltese Falcon screenplay, Spade calls out Gutman for “palming” one of the bills:
HAVE CHARACTERS TEST EACH OTHER — Whether or not Gutman really was testing Spade in the above scene is up for debate but Spade’s response results in a bit of fantastic character development. We continue to develop admiration for Spade’s observational skills and his handling of difficult situations. Once again, he is polite yet firm. What Gutman did could be construed as insulting but Spade kept his cool and handled it in a manner that clearly kept him in control.
These kinds of moments reveal a lot about our characters. On the page above, we see that Gutman is sly and untrustworthy and we see that Spade is an exceptional detective who knows how to handle shifty low-lifes. Huston slowly gets the audience to like one character over the other through simple action and reaction.
On a technical note, The Maltese Falcon screenplay maintains some of of its novelistic roots with long sentences and lengthy, detailed descriptions yet is boiled down to its essence. The balance is handled nicely by the late John Huston.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate you. Come back soon.