“On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in 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 block in 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 around Sam Spade’s neighbourhood, San Franciscans are happy to pretend that Sam, and that motley crew of Falcon hunters, the mysterious Miss Wonderly, oily little Joel Cairo and the chillingly genial Gutman all really travelled the city blocks around Union Square in their pursuit of the shiny black bird.
This pretense requires some effort for Dashiell Hammett was not given to elaborate scene setting. The most detailed description in The Maltese Falcon consists of one sentence: Spade has received the call telling of Miles’s murder; he phones a yellow cab company. The taxi drops him “where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown.”
Sam Spade’s San Francisco ignores everything that the postcards and that song and travellers, including me, associate with the city. “Little cable cars don’t climb halfway to the stars” or anywhere else in Sam Spade’s world. There is hardly a sense of the hills that can turn even a walk up the block for breakfast into a calf-stretching hike. Bush Street’s “roofing” of Stockton just hints at the way this city scrambles up and down Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill – the three heights that separate Sam Spade from a blue ocean, an orange bridge and a beautiful bay that he never seems to see.
As I walk around Sam Spade’s world I realize how small it is. This is dark, busy San Francisco, the part that turns its back on all the blue sea and sky and on all those pastel-painted, gabled Victorian houses that cling so optimistically to those cruel hills. As I ride the Hyde Street cable car from Nob to Russian Hill at that point when it turns to tumble down to the Pacific, San Francisco looks to me as though it has just emerged from the laundry all crisp and blue and white, hung out to dry in the morning sun.
But Hammett’s characters don’t have time to look at such loveliness. They are, after all, in pursuit of a much more elusive beauty – “the stuff dreams are made of” as Bogart said in the film (but Hammett did not in the book): the black-enamelled, solid gold, jewel-encrusted falcon that will consume all their ambition and energy and ultimately escape them all.
Hammett grants his characters a very occasional diversion. Joel Cairo attends a show at the Geary Theatre. They are currently showing Moliere’s Misanthrope; A Christmas Carol is announced for the holidays. It is hard to imagine Joel Cairo attending either one. He wouldn’t have had far to walk from his Hotel Belvedere. In its true incarnation as the Bellevue it was just one block down at Geary and Taylor. These days it has been reborn as the Monaco, a chic boutique “fantasy” hotel where upturned Vuitton trunks serve as the front desk and hot air balloons on the trompe l’oeil ceilings race through fluffy clouds.
There is an occasional mention of San Francisco’s night fog, “thin, clammy and penetrant,” but most of the time, the Falcon’s characters move through a world of interiors: Sam’s office, his apartment, Brigid’s apartment and various hotel suites.
Dashiell Hammett worked for a while as a detective in San Francisco He moved around a lot but lived for a while at 891 Post Street and that is 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 splendid 1926 building at 111 Sutter Street. The marble hall and walls and the beamed, painted ceiling look more like the entrance to a Medici palace. The doorman, the maintenance man, anybody who happens to be around the hallway knows that this is where “Sam Spade had his office – on the fifth floor.”
In another of Hammett’s curt stage directions, he has Spade say: “Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street.” And there, the detective asks the waiter to hurry his order of “chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes.” In 1997, John’s Grill was declared a National Literary Landmark. For $29 dollars, a visitor can still order those chops. If they do, they should try to eat them in the upstairs dining room where Hammett books and a replica Maltese Falcon are kept in a glass case in 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 who lurk outside his office building back up on Sutter, puffing furtively during a short American lunch break are a reminder that Sam and his mink-draped ladies have been left behind in another century.