Hammett: In the Aftermath of Midget Bandit Week

Last Sunday, just as we wrapped up a full week of posts for Midget Bandit Week — seven days, every day — Michael Fitzgerald over at the Stockton Record added a post of his own.

What the hell, let’s make like The Beatles and consider it eight days a week, with Michael’s post as much a part of the “official” Midget Bandit Week as anything else. He was the guy who ransacked Stockton years ago, looking for any trace of The Midget Bandit, and has as much interest in the subject as anybody. You should check out his post — especially intriguing because he quotes one particular line of Wilmer Cook’s dialog from The Maltese Falcon and then ties it back into the life (and death) of Edwin “Midget” Ware, who served as the model for Wilmer. Trust me, it’s worth a look.

Plus, as far as I know, it is the only acknowledgement so far in the wider media of the existence of Midget Bandit Week — I think the good old New York Times missed a bet on this one. It was news — in the right circles, BIG news.

For example, our frequent Guest Blogger Terry Zobeck — King of the Pure Texts — sent in a note: “Just checked into the Mean Streets for the first time in a week or two and was fascinated with the investigation into Edwin Ware. What a superb job of research. The most concrete evidence of Hammett’s Pinkerton’s work to date. I’ve recently read comments that actually cast doubt on whether he really did work for Pinkerton’s.” Yeah, that’s one of the reasons the find was so monumental — since actual physical records of Hammett’s work for Pinkerton’s seem to have vanished (I’ve heard a warehouse fire immolated the files of that era), it ties him into a particular case he claimed familiarity with — and one from the San Francisco period, even better.

Of course, there is solid circumstantial evidence that he worked with Pinkerton’s — an interview with his wife can’t be discounted — but some people will not accept anything short of writing on a piece of paper or an account in a newspaper. Or a mug shot.

I also got an email from Sue Montgomery, who lives in Seattle: “What a super week-long feature! Kudos to Warren Harris for all his great sleuthing of Edwin Ware. I truly enjoyed learning about the Pacific Northwest connection in re: Ware, too. The gas station at Eastlake and Fairview is long gone but I’ll likely never drive through that stretch of streets again without thinking of The Midget Bandit.”

Sue adds: “The other cool thing for me is that he bought the farm in the Walla Walla State Pen. Not only my home town but my grandparents’ house was on the same street as the Pen — North 13th — about 2 or 3 blocks south, where the freeway now runs. When I was a little kid my dad would drive us up the street to the Pen because directly across the street from the Pen entrance — I have no idea why — there was a peacock farm. You could drive in and look at the peacocks in their cages along the little road. They’d get all perky and spread their tails for us. I don’t imagine any other prison facility ever had a peacock farm across the street. That was back in the 1950s, so, of course, that’s gone now too.”

Talk about imagery — caged peacocks making a mockery of caged prisoners!

Or maybe nobody thought about it that way in those days. . . . I guess sometimes a peacock farm outside prison gates could just be a peacock farm outside prison gates. No irony intended.

“The other fall-out of MBW,” Sue mentions, “was that I re-watched my 1931 Maltese Falcon to see Dwight Frye. That movie is a dog for certain. I’d like to reach into the screen to slap the smirk off ‘Ricardo Cortez’s’ face. There’s woefully little screen-time for Dwight.”

Before I did up the post mentioning Dwight, I did a fast-forward through the 1931, too. Yeah, Ricardo as Sam Spade is hard to take — impossible, really — but Dwight is solid. I’d forgotten that he has so little to do.

In the 1941 Bogie version, the film follows the novel quite closely, with Wilmer appearing from time to time, scene after scene, but in the 1931 the young gunsel just shows up for the waiting-in-the-apartment sequence — but the weight given to Wilmer’s presence suggests that the literary character Hammett had drawn grabbed the public’s imagination, enough so that the filmmakers realized they needed to do something with the role.

For all they did with it, they may as well have left the character of Wilmer out completely. But in retrospect the fact that they included Wilmer speaks to the power the character modeled on The Midget Bandit already exerted. In 1931, they completely screwed over the ending of the novel — but they cast Dwight Frye to sell Wilmer in that short compass. Dwight clearly is the best actor at work when he’s onscreen.

A last thought, for this round: Warren Harris narrated how the cops in Fresno tricked Edwin Ware into coming out of his rooms so that they nabbed him without a shot fired, with the suggestion that the ruse made Midget look kind of dumb. I’m not saying that Ware was some kind of rocket scientist when clearly he was not, but that sort of ploy is a time-honored tactic in law enforcement. They caught Ware with it in 1921, and with much the same routine in 2011 grabbed Whitey Bulger after he had been on the lam for sixteen years — twelve of those years on the Feds’ Most Wanted List, second only to Osama bin Laden.

The expectation was that Bulger would go down, guns blazing. If he hadn’t been tricked, would Edwin Ware have filled both hands with hardware in 1921 and made those roscoes bark?

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