Protagonist private investigator Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired by a mysterious woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, to find her kidnapped sister. Her story is exposed as a lie, Miles winds up dead, and the desperate and dangerous hunt for the black bird of the title is on. In detective fiction, Sam Spade represents the witty tough guy, first-person narrator characteristic of the genre. According to Leon Arden (76), Raymond Chandler developed the genre of detective fiction and the elements he included are also typical of Hammett's style, "vividness and variety of characterization, poetic descriptions, the all-pervasive sharp edge of Marlowe's wit, an encyclopedic knowledge of locale, including the evocation of its climate and the diverse elements of its society."
In Hammett's novel, vividness and variety of characterization and Spade's sharp edge and wit are what make the novel so engaging. Sam's growing relationship with Brigid as he remains one step behind the cops and those who want the falcon carries the novel as it does Huston's film. Showing his tough, hard-boiled nature, even though Sam loves Brigid he ultimately does not trust her and hands her over to the cops. As he tells her before turning her in, "'I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you.' He cleared his throat.
The battles of Molteni and the duality of art versus commerce in the novel are comparable to those of Javal as he flails in the midst of the conflict between producer Jeremy Prokosch, who wants to make a Hercules-like imitation film, and director Fritz Lang (playing himself), who wants to make high art. When the producer insists the film is shot in CinemaScope, Lang maintains, "Cinemascope is fine for snakes and coffins, but not for people" (Godard 1963). At one point when the director films an artsy scene, the Prokosch bellows, "You cheated me, Fritz! That's not what's in the script" (Godard 1963)! The same conflict between art and commerce is a political focus of the novel Contempt that lends it much of its satire and humor.
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