Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Maltese Falcon: Fakes, Facts, and Metafiction – A Fabled and Fabulous Prop Sold

Da Black Boid itself sold at Bonham’s Auction in New York on 25 November 2013 for $4,085,000, including the buyer's premium of $585,000.   This recent sale has placed the Maltese Falcon prop as one of the most expensive piece of movie memorabilia every sold.  Other high placers are a couple of cars:  the original 1960s Batmobile which sold for $4.6 million and the Goldfinger Aston Martin which sold for $4.1 million.  An other well known prop went over $576,000 for the original model of the Enterprise from Star Trek and one pair of  ruby slippers from The Wizard of OZ, which went for $2 million.   Kasper Gutman didn’t lie when he said that the black bird was worth a fortune and obviously there is a brisk trade in used cars and old shoes as well.

Interestingly the “real” Maltese Falcon wasn’t real, it also wasn’t Maltese, and it wasn’t a falcon but it’s still worth a fortune to prop collectors – “the things that dreams are made of.”  It’s a fake of an item that never existed at all, which makes it a perfect metafiction prop.  H. P. Lovecraft summed it up pretty well in Notes On Writing Weird Fiction.         
“… present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional 'build-up' —else it will seem flat and unconvincing.”
The establishing open crawl sequence of the 1941 movie sets the stage with the claim that the Knights Templar created the falcon in 1539 as a golden tribute.  The only problem is that the Knights Templar were violently dissolved in 1312.  Clearly poor research led to confusion with the Knights of Malta, which still exists today.  But never let history or facts get in the way of a cracking good yarn, as Commander McBragg might say.   

To quote Kasper Gutman in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon,
These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’s history, but history nevertheless”.

Now there actually was a tribute paid (see Tribute of the Maltese Falcon), although the modeled bird would probably be a peregrine falcon, which is commonly found around the Mediterranean.  I have shown a few historical birds as well as one modern golden copy of the 1941 The Maltese Falcon.

Modern golden copy
For the movie prop a rather chunky and very art deco avian sculpture was chosen to represent the golden bejewled bird.  Two lead birds were made and an unknown number of plaster Maltese Falcons.  To date only the recently auctioned bird can be authenticated as screen used, due to some damage when it was dropped.  The other lead bird, carved upon and scarred in the final scene by Gutman, has long since disappeared.  As for the mold for the bird – nobody has any idea what happened to that.  Keep in mind there are differences between the 1940 movie and the book as well as the two previous Maltese Falcon treatments, The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936).

The falcon was a major “MacGuffin” in the film.   A little more backstory has Kaspar Gutman seeking the falcon for 17 years (he says).  Since Dasheill Hammett’s book was published 1930 that means that  Gutman has been pursuing it since just before WWI, about 1913.  Just after that time, Constantinople was the capital of the Ottoman Empire and was closed to French, Italians, English and later Americans in WWI.  The ensuing Turkish civil war and Greco-Turkish War after WWI made Turkey a dangerous place to travel outside of Constantinople (later Istanbul).  For fans of history, see the Turkish War of Independence and the Greco-Turkish War 

Although they fought over a grimy package, paid for in blood and mayhem, in the end it is revealed as a fake.  Ultimately, it is a copy that “proves” the validity of the original in the sense that one cannot make a copy of something that doesn’t exist.  It’s a kind of physical prop metafiction. 

That all being said, there are in fact a number of golden bejeweled birds littered throughout history and I have peppered this article with some images of fabulous birds.  Clearly, if there had been a medieval Maltese Falcon, it wouldn’t be a classic Art Deco bird, but such is license in film.  Real or not, the Maltese Falcon is truly, “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”


Previous blog entries about prop sales:         

Links of interest to the Maltese Falcon story: