“Around this point, Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer was killed by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” So says a plaque on a building on the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street in downtown San Francisco. This is a pleasant residential neighborhood on a cul-de-sac – not quite the place for a murder but, of course, this murder only happened in the pages of Dashiell Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon”.
As I will discover as I make my way through the Sam Spade neighborhood, the San Franciscans are happy to pretend that Sam, and that diverse crew of hawk hunters, the mysterious Miss Wonderly, the greasy little Joel Cairo and the chilling genius Gutman have indeed traveled. through the city you block around Union Square in search of the glistening black bird.
This claim requires some effort because Dashiell Hammett was not given to work out the setting of the scene. The more detailed description in The Maltese Falcon consists of one sentence: Spade got the phone call about Miles’ murder; he calls a yellow taxi company. The cab drops him “where Bush Street covered Stockton before sliding downhill to Chinatown.”
Sam Spade’s San Francisco ignores everything postcards, that song, and travelers, myself included, associate with the city. “Little Cable Cars Don’t Go Up Halfway to the Stars” or anywhere else in Sam Spade’s world. There’s hardly a sense of the hills that can turn even a stroll up the block for breakfast into a hike to stretch your calves. Stockton’s “roof” of Bush Street alludes to the way this city climbs up and down Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill – the three hills that separate Sam Spade from a blue ocean, an orange bridge and a beautiful bay that never seems to be seen.
As I walk through Sam Spade’s world, I realize how small it is. This is dark and hectic San Francisco, the part that turns its back on all the blue sea and sky and all those pastel-painted Victorian gable homes that cling so optimistically to those cruel hills. As I ride the Hyde Street cable car from Nob to Russian Hill to that point where it turns to plummet into the Pacific, San Francisco feels as though it has just emerged from the laundry all fresh, blue and white, hanging out dry in the morning sun.
But Hammett’s characters don’t have time to look at such beauty. After all, I’m on the hunt for a far more elusive beauty – “the stuff dreams are made of,” as Bogart said in the film (but Hammett didn’t do it in the book): solid black enameled, encrusted gold. of hawk jewelry that will consume all their ambition and energy and eventually escape all of them.
Hammett grants his characters a very occasional diversion. Joel Cairo attends a show at the Geary Theater. They are currently showing Moliere’s Misanthropo; A Christmas carol for the holidays is announced. It’s hard to imagine Joel Cairo attending either. He wouldn’t have much to do on foot from his he Hotel Belvedere. In its true incarnation as the Bellevue it was just a block down from Geary and Taylor. These days it has been reborn like the Monaco, an elegant “fantasy” boutique hotel where upside-down Vuitton trunks serve as a reception and hot-air balloons on the trompe l’oeil ceilings run through soft clouds.
There is an occasional mention of San Francisco’s night fog, “thin, sticky, and piercing,” but most of the time the Falcon characters move through a world of interiors: Sam’s office, his apartment, the Brigid’s apartment and various hotel suites.
Dashiell Hammett worked for a while as a detective in San Francisco. He moved a lot but lived for a while at 891 Post Street and that’s where he put Sam Spade’s apartment. When I ask a restaurant waiter if it’s a safe area to visit at night, he shrugs and says, “It’s a bit of a gay ghetto after dark …”
Hammett gave Spade an office in a beautiful 1926 building at 111 Sutter Street. The hall and the marble walls and the painted ceiling with exposed beams look more like the entrance to a Medici palace. The doorman, the maintenance man, whoever is in the hall knows that this is where “Sam Spade had his office, on the fifth floor”.
In another of Hammett’s brief stage directions, he has Spade say, “Have him pick me up from John’s, Ellis Street.” And there, the detective asks the waiter to rush his order of “ribs, baked potatoes and sliced tomatoes”. In 1997, John’s Grill was declared a National Literary Landmark. For $ 29 dollars, a visitor can still order those prime ribs. If they do, they should try eating them in the upstairs dining room where Hammett’s books and a replica of the Maltese falcon are kept in a glass case at the entrance.
But there is something missing. Sam Spade might recognize the look of the place but probably not the smell. There is no smoke. And the smokers hiding outside his office building on Sutter, sneaking up on a short American lunch break, remember that Sam and his ladies in mink are left behind in another century.
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