Sunday, 29 May 2011

Game theories

In The Maltese Falcon (1941), there's a scene when Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) goes to a hotel room to have a talk with Kasper Gutman, aka the fat man (Sydney Greenstreet). During the meeting Spade gets very angry and starts to shout. Then he leaves the room. But when he's out in the hall, he stops for a moment, and laughs. It's apparent that he wasn't angry at all, it was just a game he was playing.

This game playing is one of the reasons why I like The Maltese Falcon so much, because in a sense it is a visual statement of one of my central philosophical beliefs. The belief that life is a game, or rather that it is a multitude of games, which we all have to play, and the better the player the better the life. You might call it my own kind of game theory. What you do, how you behave, how you interact with other human beings, how society functions, it's all different games. Life games are not necessarily zero-sum games, so there might be multiple winners. But a combination of luck and skills are essential in order to really prosper. Some might call it cynical, but it needn't be. It is often unfair perhaps, but then life is unfair, and besides, what is fair and what is not is not that straightforward, and too complicated an issue to discuss here. But even if you don't play the game well you will still be able to live a good life, at least tolerable, as long as you've got friends, family and a social safety net.

Let us return to the film instead, because one thing that films can do is embody a philosophy, and it doesn't matter whether or not this was consciously done on behalf of the filmmakers. I don't think they were thinking about my ideas when they made The Maltese Falcon but it's still all about the game, and Sam Spade plays it better than anyone else, that's why he's left standing after the 100 minutes of screen time. It's not because he's got a gun, or physical strength, or people to back him up, it's because he knows how to play. Towards the end Sam Spade, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), Gutman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) and Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) are all more or less trapped in the same apartment, and Gutman threatens to kill Spade. Spade answers that it would be foolish of Gutman to kill him, since Spade knows things Gutman wants to know, so it's an empty threat. Gutman replies that in the heat of the moment people might do foolish things, to which Spade replies "Then the trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgement." This is not exactly the same as the prisoner's dilemma, which is one of the most famous practical models of proper game theory, but it is still a fascinating example of game playing, with the highest of stakes.

In the same scene Spade also tries to convince the others that they need a fall guy, somebody to give to the police. Nobody of course wants to be that person, but Spade's reasoning is solid. Someone has to give.

It should be remembered that the film is based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, and he should be given credit for the original ideas and for the dialogue, John Huston (writer and director) has "only" done a very good and faithful interpretation of it, aided by the great performances and Arthur Edeson's photography. It is very much the stuff that dreams are made off.

This link goes to a good scene, with Spade teasing Wilmer (it's not possible to embed it)

More on proper game theory here and here. A basic explanation is that it is a theory about interactions between agents, and how these interactions decides the outcome, intended or not. It's today used in many disciplines, like economics, physics, biology, sociology and so on. A key factor is equilibrium, in many different shapes, such as Nash equilibrium.

The prisoner's dilemma is when two prisoners are both, independently of each other, given a choice by a judge. If they both deny the charges, they will both be given, say, 2 years. If both confess they will both be given 5 years. If one confess and the other denies, the one who confess will go free and the one that denies will get 10 years. How shall they respond?

The first film version of The Maltese Falcon came in 1931, but it is much less striking. There's also a version with Bette Davis from 1936 called Satan Met a Lady. Neat title.


  1. I absolutely agree with your analysis of game theory in regards to The Maltese Falcon. I would argue that it works nicely in relation to most film noir movies, given their heavy existential leanings. I would be curious to hear your take on game theory as it relates to Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita, precisely because the game playing seems to be controlled by some unidentifiable force within the film narrative.

  2. Thanks for the comment! It's been far too long since I saw Lolita to be able to say something about it, but when I re-watch it I'll remember your question.

  3. Interesting! Would you say that Spade is a good player all around or that he only plays this particular game well? Are his skills depending on psychological insight, hard earned experience or something else? And is the (playing of the) game affected by feelings? I would argue that at least the movie implies that Spade falls for Brigid almost against his will, knowing full well what she has done, which to my mind would be a failure to read the playing field.

    1. I think that he is uniquely qualified for this particular game, but maybe not for much else. Psychological insight is probably at the bottom of it, and then sharpened by experience.

      I don't think it's a failure to read the playing field, but an inability, or unwillingness, to emotionally accept the cards he's been dealt when it comes to Brigid.