Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Maltese Falcon”

In 1539 the Knight
Templars 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 – – –

Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born in 1899. The son of a surgeon, he actually studied medicine himself for a brief while. He was a poor student, however, and a trouble-maker. After being expelled from prep school, he wound up doing a stint in the Navy. When that finished, Bogart turned to acting. He began acting on Broadway in the early 1920s. However, after the stock market crash of 1929 plunged the country into depression and reduced demand for plays, Bogart was forced to turn to films for work.

After five years of minor film roles, Bogart had his breakthrough role in “The Petrified Forest” (1936). He nearly lost the role to Edward G. Robinson, but the film’s star, Leslie Howard, told Warner Brothers he would walk unless Bogart was given the key role of Duke Mantee. Bogart had played the same role alongside Howard in the Broadway play. Bogart got the part, the film was a major success, and he was given a long-term contract with Warner Brothers as a result. Bogart would eventually name his daughter Leslie out of gratitude to Howard for helping him get his big break.

He was a prolific, hard-working actor. In the thirteen odd years he had been working in movies prior to “The Maltese Falcon”, Bogart amassed 43 film credits on his resume. But with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” released in the same year, 1941 is considered the year he became a superstar. He would go on to an illustrious career. He has 81 credits to his name on IMDb, including such legendary films as “Casablanca”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen”

AFI would eventually rank him as the greatest star in the history of American cinema.

The movie was based on the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was a detective, himself… a Pinkerton. He drew on his own experiences to create the characters in his novels. Perhaps that’s why they seemed so authentic. His character Sam Spade is widely considered to be the progenitor of the “hard-boiled detective”. Outside of “The Maltese Falcon”, Spade only appeared in a few other Hammett short stories, and yet he’s considered the start of an entire character archetype.

“The Maltese Falcon” is actually a remake. Warner Brothers released a version in 1931 that was a critical and commercial success. Yet when the studio attempted to rerelease the movie in 1936, they ran into difficulties with the “Hays Code” (the ancestor of the MPAA), which had been implemented since the film’s initial release. The film was now considered to contain “lewd content”… So instead they greenlit a new, loosely based adaptation of the material: “Satan Met a Lady” with Bette Davis. That version is widely regarded as a cheap knockoff at best.

With two previous versions having been released within the last decade, Warner Brothers wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to make a third. But Jack Warner had been given an exciting new treatment by an up and coming screenwriter. It stayed more closely to the novel. It kept much of Hammett’s dialogue. It kept the darker tone. The only thing is, the screenwriter wanted his first shot to direct. So Warner took a chance…

On John Huston.

John Huston was a legendary Hollywood director. His career spanned five decades, over the course of which he directed 37 films. He was nominated for 15 Oscars: 8 times for his screenwriting, 5 times as Best Director, once for Best Supporting Actor, and once as producer for Best Picture nominee “Moulin Rouge” (1952). He would win Oscars for both his screenplay for and his direction of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). He directed 15 actors and actresses to Academy Award Nominations… including Oscar wins for his father, Walter (“Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) and his daughter, Anjelica (“Prizzi’s Honor”).

AFI awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1982.

He would do a remarkable job here. He extensively storyboarded and planned the shooting, so that the film could be shot in sequential order, which in turn would help the performances. He utilized dim, low-level lighting to highlight the film’s dark tones, and cutting edge camera work to emphasize the off-kilter world.

With such classic source material, one of the greatest stars of all time ready to break out, and one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors taking the reins for the first time in his career, “The Maltese Falcon” was primed for greatness.

And it did not disappoint.

It’s the story of a private detective who gets involved with a “femme fatale” (Mary Astor)… a woman who comes to his office with ulterior motives, resulting in fatal consequences. Shortly after accepting her case, Spade’s partner is killed while surveilling the man she had hired them to tail. Spade is quickly embroiled in a complicated situation. As he tries to uncover the truth behind the killing of his partner, the police suspect his involvement, he’s followed, drugged, people are drawing guns on him, and his client constantly keeps lying to him…

But Sam Spade is more than up to the challenge. More than up to it. He’s observant, quick witted, and tough. He speaks rapidly, with a machine-gun like staccato. Even though HE’S the one trying to figure things out, he seems a step ahead of everyone. He’s sarcastic, self-interested, roguish. Mischievous. He’s got nerves of steel… he doesn’t flinch when guns are drawn on him, he just snatches the weapon and smacks his assailants around. His moral compass is often drawn into question. It occasionally seems as if he’s extorting people, at times you wonder what side he’s on, and at the end, you’re certainly wondering if he’ll actually do the right thing.

He’s up against collection of fantastic villains. Peter Lorre is one of the most weaselly henchmen of all time. As the short, big eyed, accented, untrustworthy Joel Cairo, Lorre creates an unforgettable character. Initially he appears with a cash offer for Spade, asking him to turn over the statue of a black bird, should he find it. It’s the first time the Maltese Falcon is mentioned. Later it becomes obvious that Cairo and his cohorts are willing to do anything to obtain it.

His “employer” is the mysterious Fat Man. Not shown for the first half of the film, Kasper Gutman turns out to be the driving force behind the search for the Maltese Falcon. Played by Sydney Greenstreet, Gutman is smug, yet polite. A menacing man. Shrewd and calculating, he tries to cut Spade in on the plot, gambling that Spade’s self-interest would win out and that he would succumb to the large sums of money involved. Though a veteran stage actor, this role was Greenstreet’s first on film. He would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Together, Cairo and the Fat Man make an incredible villain/henchman team-up. The skeevy errand boy and the rotund, over-confident boss.  

Lorre and Greenstreet would collaborate on nine films together over the course of their careers.

This motley cast of characters engage in a chase for the priceless statue that winds up involving theft, arson and multiple homicides. Spade, in the middle of it, plays coy with the villains, convincing them that he’s for sale. The dame falls for him. The goons tail him. The DA and the cops are on his back. But every step of the way, he gets closer to discovering the truth about what happened to his partner…

And more than anything, the answer is that his partner became a victim of people’s greed. Its revealed that Gutman and Cairo have dedicated years of their lives to the pursuit of the statue, committing untold crimes over that time. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Spade’s femme fatale client, is herself driven to murder. The crooks turn on each other, they lie, they try to set each other up. Lucrative offers of partnership are made that, one gets the feeling, would never be honored. It’s dog eat dog as the greed blinds the players to their unconscionable actions.

Spade eventually gets to the truth. It was O’Shaughnessy who killed his partner, in an attempt to frame her accomplice for murder, freeing her to make her own play at the bird. She pleads with Spade not to turn her in, playing on the feelings they’ve been developing for each other. And he actually weighs the options… but in the end, he sends her to her justice. Potentially to capital punishment. The cops arrive to take her away, and the elevator gates close in front of her like the doors of a jail cell.

It’s a film with a dark heart. No one is innocent, and the greed takes an enormous toll on the movie’s world. The hero is a man with a hardened heart. When the truth is discovered, it’s bitter and painful. All the more so in light of the fact that the sought-after statue was actually a replica. A fugazi, a fake. Instead of chasing a priceless artifact, the suspects had in fact been futilely jumping and grasping at air, trying to capture “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

“The Maltese Falcon” defines “classic”. It’s done more than withstand the test of time, its come to represent timelessness. It clocked in at #23 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies and stayed strong at #31 on the tenth anniversary edition. It ranks as their #6 Mystery of all time, and “The stuff that dreams are made of” cracks their top 20 Movie Quotes, coming in at #14. It was nominated for three academy awards in 1941, including Best Picture, but like “Citizen Kane” that same year, it wound up losing to “How Green Was My Valley”.

The Library of Congress selected “The Maltese Falcon” for inclusion and preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989, so that future generations will be guaranteed the opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest mystery movies ever.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.


33 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Maltese Falcon”

  1. One Of My All-Time Classic Faves!!!
    Though, I Must Admit…
    “THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE” (1948) Is My Fave-Fave Bogey Flick Of ALL-TIME.
    “The Maltese Falcon” Would Easily Be In The Top 3, However.
    Excellent Post, Sir, Fo SHO!!!

    • Fo. Sho. 😀

      I think I would prefer this one to “Sierra Madre”, but obviously they’re both great flicks.

      That one will get its day in this column eventually… absoLUTEly. 😀

      Glad you approve of this selection!

      • Totally!
        I Look Forward To Your Showcasing Of “Sierra Madre” Fo SHO. And I Loved This Review Anyway.
        A Great Film Gets Its Due! hehehe
        You Just Keep Crankin’em Out…
        …And I’ll Keep Comin’ Back To Read What You’re Crankin’!!!
        Or Something Like That 😉

      • Glad to hear it.

        You’re like the EE Cummings of our commenters here! A style and form all your own. 😀

        Its a great addition… so I’m glad you enjoy the reads.

  2. Nice post. The problem with recommending this movie today it that most people find it disappointing given its classic status. This is probably because the straight up plot isn’t nearly as intricate or exciting as the film’s genre leads to believe. But what it really gets across well is tone, atmosphere, and theme. Its not about the Falcon, its the goal of acquiring it that’s important.

    • Well, if people get let down by THIS movie, then that’s their issue… this movie holds up just about as well as any classic film ever can, especially in light of what you point out with the tone, atmosphere and themes.

      I’d disagree that the plot isnt complex though, it’s not exactly an easy flick to follow! Especially since most of it is told as opposed to shown. There’s a lot revealed during the dialogue that needs to be kept track of…

      • Yeah, that’s true. And maybe the fact that its told and not shown is the problem, which is why most audiences today don’t embrace it as much as they should.

      • I know no one who has ever been disappointed by their first viewing of The Maltese Falcon. No one. Ever.

        It’s only one of the best films ever made.

        My only slight qualm with it is the female lead, Mary Astor, who I’ve never really found that compelling an actress, at least not as compared to the rest of the cast.

        But the climax of the film, when Spade gives his reasons for doing what he’s going to do… absolutely stunning bit of movie making magic.

        “I wont play the sap for you.” Man, I get chills.

        Great write up Fogs, and a great MTESS

      • Thanks Ogre.

        Yeah, Astor’s not exactly bringing the the same amount to the table as everyone else. It’s a valid point.

        But as you mention, the end of the flick is just sick. I think Spade actually does weigh the options though, lol…

        The fact that the statues a fake is still awesome to me, even on my umpteenth viewing. Love this flick…

    • Think about the fact that every detective since has been hard boiled, wise crackin’ like Spade. 70 years of noir fliks have made us use to this, but in 1941, well every dick before that was like Nick Charles(The Thin Man). A regular Mr. NIce Guy! This film is a fulcrum!

  3. Totally agree. Bogart is one of the great actors, probably in my top five, and he looked so fantastically cool with his cigarette hanging from his lip (shame he died of lung cancer!) This is an absolute classic film, no doubtin’.

  4. Man oh man, shame I haven’t seen this yet. It’s another of Bogart’s movies I really want to see, but hey I just saw Casablance for the first time a few months ago so clearly I have tons of catching up to do 🙂

    • This is another great one to look forward to, look at it that way. 😀

      But I totally know what you mean, this blogging thing makes you feel like you have to see ’em all doesnt it?

  5. Great choice! So timely for me, as I just saw Altman’s The Long Goodbye last night, which I liked much, much more than I expected to. (And I expected to like it.) I know, Elliot Gould plays an updated Phillip Marlowe not Sam Spade but I was immediately thinking about the Bogart w/ Brigid O’Shaughnessy conclusion compared to Marlowe’s with his quarry at the end. Maltese Falcon is just an awesome film all around and I love the link between Huston as first time director to later be the tremendously villainous villain in Chinatown, so many years later.

    • I’ve never seen “The Long Goodbye”, but I have heard about it. And now I want to see it. I like Elliot Gould, for sure. He’s great. 😀

      Huston is so freaking evil in Chinatown. Isnt he? Good grief. sickening. LOL. Great flick though, that’s got a future column one day in this series for sure. 😀

      Thanks for checking this one out Jan!!

  6. Excellent selection, Fogs. I wholeheartedly agree. I saw this several years ago… in fact, I think it was one of the first movies I saw once I started putting my list together of movies I needed to see. I haven’t seen it since, but I keep feeling like I should look it up again, just to watch it again. Bogart is fantastic, and of course Lorre makes a great weasel.

    I love the fact that the statue is worthless, too (though my father sometimes jokes about Spade scraping the lead off the statue…) Just drives home how utterly futile all the treachery and infighting really is.

    • Bogart is fantastic here, this is probably my favorite role of his… tough call, maybe I shouldnt commit. LOL

      But Lorre is great, and so is Greenstreet. LOVE the Fat Man

      And you’re right, the fact that the statue is worthless just drives the thematic points home with a bang. It is futile. So poigniant. Great flick. Great detective story, great acting, great didrecting… this one is a classic for sure!

  7. Easy classic. Maybe Bogart at his best (though Casablanca is a strong contender too), and I love, love, love this film as an example of how to do a MacGuffin perfectly. Want to explain the value of an object that’s utterly valueless, except in how it drives the events of the plot, to a friend who’s asking for film education? Point them to The Maltese Falcon.

    • I have to rewatch Casablanca soon (although I try to space out the classics here) because I found myself with the same question. Favorite Bogart role…. hmmmm? Such a tough call, and its unfair to answer coming fresh off of seeing one of the two but not the other.

      It IS the greatest McGuffin ever, isnt it? And probably the Hollywood prop I would want the most. 😀 On Hollywood Treasures they just sold the “Ruby Slippers” for $2mil, but I was thinking “Id rather have the Maltese Falcon”

  8. Oh hell yeah. I love when you go old school with these entries, and The Maltese Falcon is easily one of the all-time greats. An unforgettable noir. Awesome writeup, Fogs.

    • LOL!

      Ohhh good. Cool. 😀 Gotta juggle ’em you know, mix it up. Like a baseball pitcher, I gotta keep the hitters on their toes.

      This is a classic for sure. Pretty undeniable. That’s probably one of the reasons that it works out well when I DO go classic. I’m not well versed enough to go astray. 😀 If I know about it? Its because its pretty time honored. 😀

      Appreciate you taking the time to check it out man!

  9. Fantastic write up. I love the hard-boiled detective genre — read my fair share of Daschiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — but I still haven’t gotten around to seeing this movie. It must be because the movie I’ve painted in my mind always turns out to be the ideal version, and the movie almost always never lives up to it. I’ve seen Bogart’s role in “The Big Sleep,” for example, plus the “Thin Man”, and I always find myself missing the prose a little, just because the authors do such a fantastic job of painting the noir environment.

    You’re write-up, though, makes the movie sound endlessly intriguing, so I’m going to have to give it a spin one of these days. 🙂

    • Oh, yeah Santo… You should definitely see this one. It’s a total classic. You’d probably love it, they keep so much of the dialogue from the novel (I’ve heard, haven’t read it, myself)

      I like those other movies you mention, too for full disclosure’s sake… But I like this one a lot more.

  10. OK, I have no story about seeing this in it’s first run, I’m not that ancient. I can say that I have been fortunate enough to see it at least four times on the Big Screen. In the 1970s, revival houses would program a night of Bogie or noir or Huston, and this would always be on it. I also went to a Warner Brother’s Film Festival at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in the late 1990s. Each day for a week they played Warner’s films from a different decade. For the 1940s we got The Maltese Falcon, Now Voyager, Mildred Pierce and Casablanca.

    Bogart was perfect, he had the insolent tone and banter that has come to define gumshoes for ever after. Peter Lorre plays Cario as an effeminate sociopath. Watch as he practically has oral sex with his walking stick in one of the early scenes he is in. Sydney Greenstreet was a find, as I recall this was his first film and he dominated every scene he was in, a pretty amazing feat considering the company he was keeping.

    Anyone who complains about the plot not being complex enough or having surprise twists, has simply got to have been tainted before they saw it. The plot structure is nearly perfect. You won’t find a better told detective story until “Chinatown” forty years later. If someone wants a puzzle that is unsolvable, they should catch “The Big Sleep” a Marlowe story with Bogie that makes no sense at all but still works as an entertainment.

    • Bogart was perfect here, he was awesome. Definitely did, as you say, set the tone for that archetype of character… no doubt. This is the grandfather of all “Hard Boiled Detective”.

      This was Greenstreet’s first role, as cited in the post. He was a veteran stage actor though. Just his first jump to the big screen… He was perfect though. That character is awesome. Make this flick so awesome. Totally deserved the nomination he got.

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