The hard-boiled, street-wise, down-on-his-luck detective, always seen and heard better in black and white. It's the sound of a 20th century, now 21st century, knight in tarnished armor. We know him as much by the way he talks as by his rumpled raincoat. It's one of the most recognizable and durable voices in our culture. The rhythms and beats of that mythic detective are heard in commercials, cartoons, and in practically every cop show ever produced on radio, film or television.
So, where'd that voice come from?
I was listening to a recent (2009) Blackstone Audio/Hollywood Theater of the Ear adaptation of The Maltese Falcon the other day and I can't think of a novel more noir or more influential than Dashiell Hammett's 1930 masterwork. It's got the voice. Actually, it's got all the iconic voices in there: The clueless cop, the gorgeous but dangerous dame, the little squirrelly guy and the fat man.
I couldn't help but compare this new audio adaptation to John Huston's celebrated 1941 film version of the book. I wondered why Edward Herrmann chose to sound so much like Sidney Greenstreet. Michael Saad sounded like Peter Lorre'. And Michael Madsen was vamping on Humphrey Bogart. These are good actors. Didn't they want to make their own choices on how to play the characters? Then I wondered where did Bogart, et al, get their ideas for the characters in the first place?
So, I went to the library and checked out the book. From the wisecracking secretary ushering in a new case to the detective having to make up his own rules as he goes along The Maltese Falcon is a variable template for the entire genre of detective fiction. The book's a script. Like a well-written stage play Hammett's stylish dialogue and character descriptions are so evocative and so well drawn that like Shakespeare good actors and good producers are going to have no choice but to sound like what the characters sound like. It's the only choice.
Some people might say Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe started it all off, but I'm giving Sam Spade the nod. Dashiell Hammett worked as a Pinkerton cop almost a hundred years ago and often said many of his characters were based on people he'd known personally. In other words, in the beginning there was actually a guy who sounded like the guy everybody still wants to sound like.
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