As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton point out in "Towards a Definition of Film Noir", prior to World War II convention dictated a beautiful heroine and an honest hero; we expected a clear line between good and bad, as well as clear motives, and the action should develop logically. But the 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 detective novel "The Maltese Falcon" set these expectations on their ears, creating a first installment in the dark and unpredictable film genre called film noir. This is no Superman with a chaste fiancee, but a flawed hero with a depraved, murderous, doped-up, or drunk heroine.
The difference is clear in one of the final scenes in "The Maltese Falcon". The coveted black bird has been revealed a fake, and the crooks have fled. Sam Spade has called the police to tell them the entire story, and he’s left with Brigid O'Shaughnessy. There is no talk of running to some hideaway; he bluntly asks her why she killed his business partner, Miles Archer. At first she seems horrified by the question, but realizes she cannot pretend any longer.
As Borde and Chaumeton generalize of the entire genre, “a sense of dread persists until the final images”. There is no happy ending in sight. Brigid speaks low and flat, with her voice drained of emotion much like her soul seems to have been drained of life; the chaos has gone beyond all limits. She had wanted Thursby, her partner in crime, out of the picture so she could have the falcon to herself, as well as the subsequent reward. She had hired Archer to scare him off, but it didn’t work. She had killed Archer to frame it on Thursby. Then she needed a new protector, and came back to Sam.
But she loves Sam, and says she would have come back anyway. As an audience, we struggle between her ambivalence over her crimes and her love for Sam Spade. All the criminality, all the contradictions, have made us share in her experience, her sense of anguish. Sam loves her too, and we would like them to be together, despite their respective flaws, but our need for justice leaves us with a similar ambivalence; we could go either way, freedom or punishment.
We search her face for a hint of the dishonesty which has characterized her behavior up until now, but we cautiously surmise it seems to be gone. Spade’s voice is tense, he speaks quickly, suppressing all emotion, but we see it in his face; this is difficult for him, he loves her. This woman has murdered, lied, cheated, and played the whore. But a part of us wants her to go free, to live happily ever after with Spade.
We are disoriented and seem to have misplaced our moral compass, but that disorientation and alienation is the work, and the aim, of film noir.