Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4)

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is one of the most popular and best classic detective mysteries ever made, and many film historians consider it the first in the dark film noir genre in Hollywood. It leaves the audience with a distinctly down-beat conclusion and bitter taste. The low-budget film reflects the remarkable directorial debut of John Huston (previously a screenwriter) who efficiently and skillfully composed and filmed this American classic for Warner Bros. studios, with great dialogue, deceitful characters, and menacing scenes.

The precocious director Huston was very faithful to Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, that had originally appeared as a five-part serialized story in a pulp fiction, detective story magazine publication named Black Mask. However, for an early preview audience, the film took a different, short-lived title, The Gent From Frisco. There were two major differences between the book and film: (1) Gutman was killed by Wilmer, and (2) the last quotable line of dialogue, with a Shakespearean reference, was thought up by Bogart on the set.

Hammett's murder mystery novel had previously been filmed twice:

  • The Maltese Falcon (1931), a low-budget, pre-Code film (directed by Roy Del Ruth) - renamed for TV as Dangerous Female - with Ricardo Cortez as the gumshoe opposite femme fatale Bebe Daniels; it was faithful to Hammett's novel, although its pre-censorship status allowed for steamier scenes (a nude bathtub shot, a portrayal of Spade as a womanizing Latin lover, and a clearly homosexual relationship between Casper "Fat Man" Gutman (Dudley Digges) and 'fall guy' Wilmer (Dwight Frye))
  • Satan Met a Lady (1936), a remake directed by William Dieterle) with Warren William and rising star Bette Davis as the femme fatale, but without the 'black bird' (a ram's horn was substituted)

Huston was convinced that he could remake the film with a more precise screenplay and better acting than the other two adaptations. The idea of a sequel following the film's success, to be titled The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, was scrapped when Huston became unavailable and when Hammett demanded an exorbitant financial guarantee.

As a footnote, it was refilmed 34 years later (a record for an interval of time between a sequel and its original) in the mid-70s as the satirical Black Bird (1975) with George Segal as son Sam Spade, Jr., and two appearances by original cast members (Elisha Cook, Jr., and Lee Patrick). The classic mystery film has also been spoofed in The Maltese Bippy (1969) with TV-show stars Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Murder By Death (1976), and The Cheap Detective (1978).

The bejeweled, priceless 'Maltese Falcon' [a 50-pound plaster cast, seven in all, made by the Props Department at Warners] is at the center of the intriguing film as an elusive but valuable object that is greedily desired, for different reasons, by all the principals, in the labyrinthine, noirish plot. [The black bird serves as the film's McGuffin, a plot device that propels the story forward but is proven ultimately worthless - although it wasn't termed that at the time. Hitchcock would later popularize the use of a McGuffin in his films.]

The stylistic film is a mixture of mystery, romance, and thriller. It is mostly known for a number of memorable portrayals of corrupt, deceitful, hard-nosed villains ("The Fat Man" or Gutman by Sydney Greenstreet), low-life quirky crooks (Peter Lorre and 'gunsel' Elisha Cook, Jr.)) and tough heroes, interwoven complex interactions between vividly-played characters, double-crossing intrigues and deceptions (e.g., the treacherous, lying Mary Astor character identifies herself with three aliases - as Miss Ruth Wonderly, Miss Leblanc, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy), posturings, betrayals and materialistic greed. Everything is contained in marvelous characterizations and lines of dialogue.

[Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett was reportedly the first to use the word 'gunsel' - meaning a gun-toting felon - and to transform the old meaning (a young, passive, and inexperienced male homosexual) into a new one. In the film's conclusion, Gutman is willing to sacrifice his own gun-wielding lover Wilmer to the police -- and that parallels Sam Spade's response to Brigid! Lorre and Greenstreet would go on to star in many films together, most notably Casablanca (1942) - also with Bogart.]

B-movie lead character Humphrey Bogart, now introduced as a 'good guy', presented the definitive anti-hero Sam Spade in the mystery thriller classic - as a cynical, cool San Francisco sleuthing private-eye who lives by his own code of ethics. Bogart had just finished another Warner Bros. film High Sierra (1941), in a role that was also turned down by WB's contract player George Raft. Geraldine Fitzgerald was originally chosen to play the role that Mary Astor eventually portrayed.

The film received three nominations, but no Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (almost 300 lb. Sydney Greenstreet in his talkie film debut), and Best Adapted Screenplay (by the director - John Huston). Competition from John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) took the Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor Oscars (Donald Crisp), and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) took the screenplay honors. However, in the same year, its un-nominated star Mary Astor, in the best performance of her career, was actually the recipient of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Great Lie (1941). Neither Astor nor Bogart were nominated for their immortalized roles. Bogart would go on to make more films with Huston: the director's Oscar-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951) - bringing Bogey his only Oscar, and Beat the Devil (1954).

Plot Synopsis

The credits wash down the screen over a view of the legendary Maltese Falcon - a black figurine that casts a dark shadow from an angular source of light. [All four major stars' names, Bogart, Astor, George, and Lorre - in that order - appear on the second screen, following the film title.] The mysterious legend of the fabled, treasured statuette (a fictional account) scrolls up the screen (above the falcon) to set the stage: :

In 1539, the Knights Templar of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels- - - - - but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.

[Note: it was a significant deviation from the actual annual tribute (a live falcon bird) paid each year (until the year 1798) by the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem to the Spanish emperor.]

Familiar locations in a grayish 1940s San Francisco are viewed with a slow pan - the Golden Gate Bridge, the Ferry Building, the Transbay (Oakland Bay) Bridge, and a few skyscrapers. The camera views the San Francisco office window (with backwards lettering of the names Spade and Archer) of cynical, realistic, and tough detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer. The two detectives share the same sparse office [and, behind the scenes, the same woman - Archer's wife Iva.] Spade's loyal, wholesome blonde secretary/'Girl Friday' Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) enters his office where he is alone rolling a cigarette. She tells him that there is a new "customer" - a Miss Wonderly - to see him, and the prospective client is a "knockout."

Spade is confronted by an innocent-looking, stunning brunette beauty, a nervy but cool client named "Ruth Wonderly" (Mary Astor). She has a fur draped over her left shoulder and part of it rests on her right arm. In a desperate and tense mood, Wonderly tells Spade that she is from New York and that her younger sister (Corinne) is missing. The client ostensibly asks Spade for help in locating her sister, who vanished after writing that she was in San Francisco (she had left General Delivery as her only address). Supposedly, she had been seduced by a mysterious, menacing man named Floyd Thursby while her wealthy parents were in Honolulu, and then ran away with the man. Miss Wonderly claims that she is hoping to find Corinne before her parents return. She met Thursby at the post office when he was picking up her second (and last) letter to Corinne. She explains what Thursby said: an appointment-date had been arranged to meet her sister that evening (after 8 o'clock) at the St. Mark Hotel:

He wouldn't tell me where Corinne was. He said she didn't want to see me. I can't believe that. He promised to bring her to the hotel [The St. Mark] if she'd come this evening. He said he knew she wouldn't. He promised to come himself if she didn't.

Just then, Spade's less brainy partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) enters the room and is filled in on the details of Miss Wonderly's story:

Miss Wonderly's sister ran away from New York with a fellow named Floyd Thursby. They're here in San Francisco. Miss Wonderly is seeing Thursby and has a date to meet him tonight. Maybe he'll bring the sister with him. The chances are he won't. Miss Wonderly wants us to find the sister, get her away from him and back home...If - after we've found her - she still doesn't want to leave him, well, we have ways of managing that.

Breathlessly, Wonderly tells them about Thursby's violent tendencies: "Oh, but you must be careful. I'm deathly afraid of him. What he might do. She's so young and he's bringing her here from New York for such a serious...Mightn't he...Mightn't he do something to her?" She believes he is a "dangerous man" who wouldn't stop at anything - he might even kill her sister. Archer asks if Thursby could cover up by marrying her sister. She replies that he has a wife and three children in England, to which Sam comments sardonically: "As they usually do, though not always in England." Thursby is identified as a dark-haired gentleman with thick bushy eyebrows: "He gives the impression of being a violent person."

Stepping up to claim the case (and eager to get to know the pretty client personally), the wolfish and gallant Archer quickly volunteers to shadow Thursby and Miss Wonderly that night and then free the sister. Spade receives a substantial fee from the appealingly-feminine Miss Wonderly - $200 for the job. Archer promises he will be at her service: "You don't have to look for me. I'll see you all right."

After Miss Wonderly has left the office, Miles asserts his salivating interest in the striking, rich, and helpless woman who hires them to rescue her sister:

Archer: Oh, she's sweet. Maybe you saw her first, Sam, but I spoke first.
Sam: (with irony) You've got brains. Yes, you have.

[Archer also claimed his wife first, but Spade ultimately took her as his own.] The camera pans to the floor of the office, where the window lettering is boldly projected - with Spade's name on top.

After a dissolve, the next scene is on a dark street at the corner of Bush and Stockton Streets. [This is the ONLY scene in the film without the presence of Sam Spade.] The half-smile of recognition on Archer's face as he approaches the camera [and an unknown person] quickly turns to a look of disbelieving horror as an unseen assailant [suspect Thursby never appears in the film] pulls a gun and shoots him dead at close range. Miles is blown backwards through a fence barrier and he tumbles down a steep hill.

The camera cuts to an indoor shot, a close-up of a telephone ringing urgently. An alarm clock shows 2:05 am in the background, blowing curtains flutter. A hand gropes for the receiver, and a grunting, sleepy voice responds off-camera to the call. Spade is informed of his partner's death [from Police Sergeant Tom Polhaus, we learn later] at the corner of Bush and Stockton. After receiving the news, Spade seems unaffected and unmoved. With an impassive face, he phones his secretary to notify Iva, Miles' wife:

Now Effie. It's me...Now listen, Precious. Miles has been shot...Yeah, dead. Now don't get excited...Now, you'll have to break the news to Iva. I'd fry for it...And keep her away from me...That's a good girl...Now get right over there...You're an angel. Bye.

After a dissolve, Spade arrives in a taxi at the street corner of the film-noirish murder scene - a deserted blind alley, one lone street lamp, dark shadows against a brick wall (displaying a dilapidated poster for Swing Your Lady (1938) - a comedy starring Humphrey Bogart), and a broken fence. There, a cool-headed Spade talks with plainclothes Police Sergeant Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), who shows him the location of Miles' body sprawled near some rocks and the murder weapon. They rehearse the crime - the evidence reveals that Archer was caught off guard - he was shot at close range with one bullet, and his overcoat ("the blast burnt his coat") was buttoned with his gun unfired and tucked away on his hip. Someone he trusted must have fired the shot. Polhaus asks Sam if Miles was working, but Sam refuses to tell the police much about their case - and is in too much of a hurry to view his dead partner's body closeup.

Private detective Spade only reveals that Miles was tailing a guy named Thursby to find out where he lived. "Don't crowd me, Tom," Spade demands, revealing that they are long-time adversaries and acquaintances as cop and detective. Knowing that Spade was having an affair with his partner's wife, Polhaus suspects a crime of passion although it is not mentioned. The police sergeant comments on Miles' demise - providing his only epitaph:

Polhaus: It's tough, him getting it like that, ain't it? Miles had his faults just like any of the rest of us, but I guess he must have had some good points too, huh?
Sam: (dispassionately and detachedly) I guess so.

Spade telephones Miss Wonderly's hotel, but finds that she has checked out without leaving any forwarding address. He returns to his dingy apartment, where he sleeps in the living room. He is visited in the dark, early morning by Polhaus and his superior, Lieutenant Dundy (Barton McLane). Surrounded by the two cops, he is grilled and forced to repeat that Miles was tailing Thursby for an unnamed client. The cops, especially the Lieutenant, act suspicious for a number of reasons:

  • he refuses to identify his client or provide details about the case
  • he didn't go to Miles' house to break the news to his wife Iva as he said he did (he gave the job instead to Effie, his efficient assistant)
  • he has no witnesses to support his whereabouts for the last hour

And then they divulge the reason for their visit - Floyd Thursby was murdered in front of his hotel only a half hour after Sam left the Archer murder scene. When Dundy points at Spade and implicates him in the murder, Spade bursts back: "KEEP YOUR PAWS OFF ME." But then Spade cleverly eases off and rationalizes:

Sorry I got up on my hind legs, boys, but you fellas tryin' to rope me made me nervous. Miles gettin' bumped off upset me, and then you birds crackin' foxy, but it's all right now, now that I know what it's all about.

Thursby was shot four times in the back with a .44 or .45 from across the street, with no witnesses. [By the end of the film, it is revealed that a gunsel named Wilmer killed Thursby.] Spade proclaims his innocence: "I've never seen Thursby dead or alive." But Dundy, a tough uncompromising cop, suspects that Sam is now involved in two murders - he possibly killed Thursby to avenge his partner Archer's death:

Well, you know me, Spade. If you did it, or if you didn't, you'll get a square deal from me and most of the breaks. Don't know as I blame you much - a man that kills your partner, but that won't stop me from nailing ya.

"Fair enough," Spade replies. They share a drink, toasted by Spade: "Success to crime!"

The morning headlines of the San Francisco Post-Dispatch broadcast the news:

Thursby, Archer Murders Linked! - Private Detective Was Shadowing Thursby Miles Archer, private detective of the firm of Spade and Archer, murdered last night, had been shadowing the mystery man, Floyd Thursby, who shortly afterwards met the same violent fate outside the Hotel Florence.

That same morning, a grieving, black-clothed Iva (Gladys George), Archer's widow, is waiting for Spade in his office the day after the murders - Effie had unsuccessfully tried to keep her away. After closing the door to his PRIVATE office, the two embrace passionately - they have been having an affair for quite a while, but Spade has obviously lost interest. Through her tears, a half-hoping Iva asks Spade if he killed Miles so that they could marry:

Iva: Sam, did you kill him?
Spade: Who put that bright idea in your head?
Iva: Well, I thought you said if it wasn't for Miles, you'd --- Be kind to me, Sam!
Spade: (He smiles broadly, laughs, and claps his hands.) (mockingly) You killed my husband, Sam. Be kind to me.

He hurriedly comforts her and brushes her off - not wanting anything more to do with her. He dismisses her out the door and gives her a half-hearted promise to see her later. [Despite their obvious past, he is now sickened by the widowed woman (dressed to resemble the black, lead falcon revealed at the end). His newfound curiosity for the elusive Brigid O'Shaughnessy replaces his desire for Iva - a woman now uninteresting because of Archer's murder.]

Effie enters his one-person office, and in a comfortable pose, sits up on his desk to light his cigarette. He asks for her opinion about his guilt: "Who do you think I shot?" She avoids his question with another query: "Are you going to marry Iva?" When Effie hypothesizes that Iva killed Miles, Spade calls Effie "an angel, a nice, rattle-brained little angel...You're a detective, darling, but she didn't kill him." Their conversation turns to her concern about the many risky predicaments he often finds himself enmeshed in - but he evades her devoted worry:

Do the police really think you shot this 'what's-his-name'? Do they? Look at me, Sam. You worry me. You always think you know what you're doing but you're too slick for your own good.

While they talk, Spade receives a call from 'Miss Wonderly.' She has left the St. Mark Hotel and is now at the Coronet Apartments (#1001) on California Avenue, under the name of Miss Leblanc. As he burns the phone message in his hands (Effie wrote down the details of the call as he dictated them), Sam asks Effie to have Miles' desk moved out of the office and Miles' name removed from the office door.

At the Coronet when he sees his client again, she is wearing a striped robe (in her room heavily striped by venetian blind shadows). She confesses immediately: "That story I told you yesterday was just a story." Spade has already assumed as much, knowing that the deceptive schemer was lying from the start about both her story and her real name:

We, we didn't exactly believe your story, Miss, uh...What is your name, Wonderly or Leblanc?...We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy; we believed your two hundred dollars...I mean, you paid us more than if you'd been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

Spade reassures her that he doesn't even consider her indirectly at fault for Miles' death, since she did warn them about how dangerous Thursby was. When she expresses regret at the murder, Spade doesn't want to hear it: "Stop it. He knew what he was doing. Those are the chances we take." The detective explains how the remorseless widow will benefit from his life insurance policy:

With ten thousand in insurance, no children, and a wife that didn't like him.

Spade tells her he hasn't told the police about her identity - he has been stalling until now, but he must know the real truth about her and Thursby. Still remaining obscure and vague, Brigid - with a trembling, helpless voice - entreats him to protect her with his "courage and strength." Manipulative, slippery and full of cunning, Brigid pleads for help from an admiring Spade:

Do they have to know about me, I mean - can't you shield me so that I won't have to answer their questions...I can't tell you now. I will later when I can. You've got to trust me, Mr. Spade. Oh, I'm so alone and afraid. I've got nobody to help me if you won't help me. Be generous, Mr. Spade. You're brave. You're strong. You can spare me some of that courage and strength surely. Help me, Mr. Spade. I need help so badly. I've no right to ask you, I know I haven't, but I do ask you. Help me.

He compliments her convincing sincerity act - knowing that he can't trust her or believe her:

You won't need much of anybody's help. You're good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like 'Be generous, Mr. Spade.'

She admits she was putting it on too thick, but he is obviously attracted and allured to her anyway:

Brigid: I deserve that. But the lie was in the way I said it. Not at all in what I said. It's my own fault if you can't believe me now.
Spade: (smiling and grinning) Now you are dangerous.

Fearful and in trouble, Miss O'Shaughnessy explains the story of her association with Thursby, whom she met in the Orient: "He first came to the Orient as bodyguard to a gambler who had to leave the States. The gambler had since disappeared and Floyd knew about the disappearance." She had hired the treacherous man to protect her ("only that sort could have helped me"), but he presumably betrayed her. Thursby came to San Francisco from Hong Kong a week earlier and probably killed Archer - Thursby was always "heavily armed" and carried an extra revolver in his overcoat pocket. She feels threatened by the circumstances:

Spade: How bad a spot are you actually in?
Brigid: As bad as could be.
Spade: Physical danger?
Brigid: I'm not heroic. I don't think there's anything worse than death.
Spade: Then it's that?
Brigid: It's that as surely as we're sitting here - unless you help me.
Spade: Who killed Thursby? Your enemies or his?
Brigid: I don't know. His, I suppose. I'm afraid, I don't know.

She is concerned that Spade will tell the police about her. Although he is the one who is the prime suspect in two murders, she holds the real key to the two deaths. He is confused by her motives and her story, and is about to give up on her case. When she pleads: "I'll have to take my chances," he sympathetically relents to her manipulations and promises to conceal her existence from the police and look after her interests (whatever they are!). Spade demands to be paid to find out who is behind the killings. He takes all of her alleged money - an additional $500 that he forces out of her. As she retrieves the money, he notices the label from her fashionable hat: "Lucille Shop, Queen's Road C, Hong Kong." He advises her to pawn her furs and jewelry. And he takes her apartment key: "I'll be back as soon as I can with the best news I can manage. I'll ring four times - long, short, long, short - No, you needn't bother to come to the door. I'll let myself in."

Next Page