Martial Arts: The Maltese Falcon

Why did you strike me after I was disarmed?

– Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1930)

 

The Maltese Falcon (1930) is one of the best of Dashiell Hammett’s novels. It follows private eye Sam Spade in San Francisco as he unravels the mystery of the Maltese Falcon, a jewel-encrusted gold statuette of immeasurable worth. As is typical in a Hammett story, he has to play off several parties against one other to emerge unharmed, if not victorious.

The novel has been made into a motion picture several times, the best rendition being of course the third one by John Huston. His Film Noir classic The Maltese Falcon (1941) boasts, among others, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, one of the shady characters who are after the Falcon.

Both novel and film feature a scene in Spade’s office in which Spade expertly disarms Cairo. Both merit a detailed analysis in GURPS terms. Watch just the scene here (the action starts at 1:57).

This article is part of the Melee Academy.

Stop reading if you want to avoid SPOILERS.

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By the Book

Prelude: In the novel, Cairo holds Spade at gunpoint with a “short compact flat black pistol.” Spade stands with his back towards Cairo. Cairo orders him to clasp his hands behind his neck. Cairo switches his pistol from the right into the left hand and steps behind Spade to search him. Cairo holds his pistol close to Spade’s back and pats Spade down with his right hand. Spade and Cairo are in close combat range (p. B391).

1st Second: Spade and Cairo have both taken Wait manoeuvres; Spade will launch an All-Out Attack as soon as Cairo touches him, allowing him to know exactly where he is, and Cairo will launch an All-Out Attack as soon as Spade does something, but is distracted by wanting to search Spade. This is a Cascading Waits situation (GURPS Martial Arts, p. 108): In order to find out who acts first, they have to roll a Quick Contest. Spade rolls against Brawling; +1 (Combat Reflexes) +Basic Speed +2 (no Move required). Cairo rolls against Guns (Pistol); -2 (distracted) +Basic Speed +2 (no Move required). Spade wins the Quick Contest and acts first. Spade takes an All-Out Attack (Double) manoeuvre divided into a Telegraphic Attack (Martial Arts, p. 113) and a simultaneous Attack. He turns clockwise to change his facing from back to right, ramming his right elbow into Cairo’s face; -2 (elbow strike) (p. B404) -5 (face hit location) +4 (Telegraphic Attack) = -3 to Brawling. Spade succeeds and Cairo fails his defence; +2 (Telegraphic Attack) to Dodge. Cairo takes thr cr damage to his face. This forces a HT roll (p. B420), which Cairo fails; he is stunned but not knocked down (despite p. B420). Simultaneously, Spade grapples Cairo’s foot by putting his right heel on it; -2 (1/2 foot hit location) (pp. B370, 399) to DX. Spade succeeds and Cairo fails his Dodge roll. He cannot move away until he breaks free (p. B370). On his turn, Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well (p. B420).

2nd Second: On his turn, Spade takes an All-Out Attack (Determined) manoeuvre, continuing to turn to change his facing from right to front, taking off his foot, and grabbing the pistol from Cairo with his right hand; -4 (hand hit location) (p. B370) +4 (All-Out Attack) = +0 to DX. He succeeds and Cairo fails his defence; -4 (stunned) (p. B420) to Dodge. Spade grabs the pistol. On his turn, Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

3rd Second: Spade takes an Attack manoeuvre to wrest the pistol from Cairo. This is a Regular Contest of ST (p. B370). Spade wins and takes the pistol away. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

4th Second: Spade takes an All-Out Attack (Determined) manoeuvre to grapple Cairo with his left hand, seizing his lapels; -4 (off-hand) (Martial Arts, p. 124) +0 (torso hit location) +4 (All-Out Attack) = +0 to DX. He succeeds and Cairo fails his defence; -4 (stunned) to Dodge. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

5th Second: Spade takes a Ready manoeuvre and puts the pistol in his right hand coat pocket, still grappling Cairo with his left. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

6th Second: Spade takes a Ready manoeuvre, still grappling Cairo with his left and being occupied with putting away the pistol (p. B383). Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

7th Second: Spade takes an Attack manoeuvre to shove Cairo backwards. This is a Quick Contest of ST, DX or grappling skill (Martial Arts, p. 118). Spade, as the stronger, wins. Cairo is forced to take a step backwards. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

8th Second: Spade takes an Attack manoeuvre to shove Cairo backwards. Spade wins again, and Cairo is forced to take a step backwards, standing now in front of a chair. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

9th Second: Spade takes a Telegraphic Attack manoeuvre and punches Cairo with his right fist “covering for a moment one side of his chin, a corner of his mouth, and most of his cheek between cheek-bone and jaw-bone”; -6 (jaw hit location) (Martial Arts, p. 137) +4 (Telegraphic Attack) = -2 to Brawling. He might have the Targeted Attack (Brawling Punch/Jaw) technique to buy the -6 penalty off. He succeeds and Cairo fails his defence; -4 (stunned) +2 (Telegraphic Attack) = -2 to Dodge. Cairo takes thr+1 cr damage to the jaw. This forces a HT-1 roll (Martial Arts, p. 137). Cairo fails it by 5 or more and falls unconscious.

10th Second: Spade lets Cairo down on the chair.

Picture Time

Prelude: In the movie, Cairo holds Spade at gunpoint, with his .25-calibre Colt Vest Pocket pistol (GURPS High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 15) at hip level (GURPS Tactical Shooting, pp.11, 25). Spade stands with his back towards Cairo. Cairo orders him to clasp his hands behind his neck. Watch how he actually does not do this and just puts them behind his neck. The reason for this is that it is faster to take down the hands when they are not interlocked. Cairo sticks his pistol into Spade’s back. Spade and Cairo are in close combat range.

1st Second: Spade and Cairo have both taken Wait manoeuvres; Spade will launch an All-Out Attack as soon as the pistol’s muzzle makes contact, allowing him to know exactly where it is, and Cairo will launch an All-Out Attack as soon as Spade does something, but is distracted by wanting to search Spade. This is a Cascading Waits situation: In order to find out who acts first, they have to roll a Quick Contest. Spade rolls against DX; +1 (Combat Reflexes) +Basic Speed +2 (no Move required). Cairo rolls against Guns (Pistol); -2 (distracted) +Basic Speed +2 (no Move required). Spade wins the Quick Contest and acts first. Spade takes an All-Out Attack (Double) manoeuvre divided into two Telegraphic Attacks. First he turns clockwise to change his facing from back to front before grappling Cairo’s gun-hand with his left hand: -4 (off-hand) -2 (1/2 hand hit location) +4 (Telegraphic Attack) = -2 to DX. Spade succeeds and Cairo fails his defence; +2 (Telegraphic Attack) to Dodge. As soon as Spade controls Cairo’s hand he punches him with his left hand, while still holding Cairo’s gunhand; -4 (off-hand) -5 (face hit location) +4 (Telegraphic Attack) = -5 to Brawling; Spade probably not only has bought off the -4 penalty but might also have invested into Targeted Attack (Brawling Punch/Face) to buy off the -5 penalty. Spade succeeds and Cairo fails in his defence. Cairo takes thr-1 cr damage (Martial Arts, p. 124) to his face. This forces a HT roll, which Cairo fails; he is stunned and drops the pistol to the ground (p. B420), but is not knocked down (despite p. B420). On his turn, Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

2nd Second: On his turn, Spade takes an Attack manoeuvre and punches Cairo again with his left hand, still holding Cairo’s right hand. Spade succeeds and Cairo fails in his defence. Cairo takes thr-1 cr damage to his face, which forces another HT roll; Cairo stays stunned but on his feet. On his turn, Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

3rd Second: Spade takes an Attack manoeuvre to shove Cairo backwards. This is a Quick Contest of ST, DX or grappling skill. Spade, as the stronger, wins. Cairo is forced to take a step backwards. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

4th Second: Spade takes an Attack manoeuvre to shove Cairo backwards. Spade wins again, and Cairo is forced to take a step backwards, standing now in front of a couch. Cairo is stunned and forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre. He fails his HT roll and remains stunned on his next turn as well.

5th Second: Spade takes a Telegraphic Attack manoeuvre and punches Cairo with his right fist; -6 (jaw hit location) +4 (Telegraphic Attack) = -2 to Brawling. He might have the Targeted Attack (Brawling Punch/Jaw) technique to buy off the -6 penalty. He succeeds and Cairo fails his defence; -4 (stunned) +2 (Telegraphic Attack) = -2 to Dodge. Cairo takes thr+1 cr damage to the jaw. This forces a HT-1 roll. Cairo fails it by 5 or more and falls unconscious onto the couch.

Results

The differences are subtle, yet important. In the novel, Spade takes active control of Cairo’s pistol. This puts Spade in a better tactical position, but is also more difficult and takes more time ‒ time in which your opponent might be able to act or receive assistance from a colleague. Spade is stronger than Cairo, so the outcome of the Regular Contest of ST (p. B370) is no surprise. Considering how often he disarms people in the story, he might actually have the Disarming technique (Martial Arts, p. 70). Realistically, he should be able to apply DX or that technique in the Regular Contest as well, instead of just ST, since weapon disarms after a grab typically rely on leverage rather than brute strength. I hear that GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling provides a solution to that, but have not seen it myself. However, simply using ST, DX, or the technique certainly is in the spirit of the game, which has several similar rulings in similar situations.

Note how Cairo does not manage to do anything in both novel and film. This might be a concession to the plot, but is actually rather realistic. After having literally lost the initiative, Cairo is completely dominated by Spade who is taller, stronger, and more skilled. Spade knows this and keeps grinning throughout the encounter. Hammett calls it “wolfishly,” and Bogart succeeds magnificently in bringing this to the silver screen ‒ never losing the hand-rolled cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

 

 

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6 comments

  1. Douglas Cole · January 14, 2016

    A fairly math-heavy look at disarming knives (which would also apply mostly as-is to a pistol) can be found here: http://gamingballistic.blogspot.com/2014/12/melee-academy-unarmed-vs-knife.html

    This covers the Technical Grappling side of things pretty well, too.

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  2. Pingback: Link to back up the word-of-mouth | Don't Forget Your Boots
  3. giggioz · August 31

    I’m loving all your simulations! Thanks a lot, they give me a way better understanding of this incredibile game.
    Only one note: as far as i know you get the -5 modifier for stun and knockdown checks only if you hit the face with a major wound, otherwise it will be a plain HT check (p. B420). It seems you applied it all the time.

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  4. Thanks!

    Regarding the -5 penalty, this applies whenever you EITHER score a Major Wound OR hit someone in the Face, Eye, Skull, or Vitals location with enough force to cause Shock (p. B420). You don’t need to score a Major Wound in those locations.

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  5. giggioz · August 31

    I read : “Modifiers: -5 for a major wound to the face or vitals (or to the groin, on a humanoid male); -10 for a major wound to the skull or eye; +3 for High Pain Threshold, or -4 for Low Pain Threshold.”

    As you can see it says “-5 for a major wound to the face…” and it makes sense to me otherwise a simple 1 point damage to the face could easily knock a guy down.

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  6. Gah, you’re right. I’ll check the writeups.

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