The film premiered on October 3, 1941, in New York City, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. The Maltese Falcon was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1989.
In San Francisco in 1941, private investigators Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) meet prospective client Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). She claims to be looking for her missing sister, who is involved with a man named Floyd Thursby, whom she is to meet. After receiving a substantial retainer, Archer agrees to follow her that night and help get her sister back.
That night, Spade is awakened by a phone call from the police and informed that Archer has been killed. He meets his friend, Police Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), at the murder scene. He tries calling Wonderly at her hotel, but she has checked out. Back at his apartment, he is grilled by Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), who tell him that Thursby was also murdered the same evening. Dundy suggests that Spade had the opportunity and motive to kill Thursby, who likely killed Archer, immediately after he learned of Archer's death. Archer's widow Iva (Gladys George) believes that Spade shot his partner so he could have her.
Later that morning, Spade meets Wonderly, now calling herself Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She explains that Thursby was her partner and probably killed Archer, but claims to have no idea who killed Thursby. Spade is not convinced, but agrees to investigate the murders.
At his office, Spade meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who first offers him $5,000 to find a "black figure of a bird", then pulls a gun on him in order to search the office. Spade knocks Cairo out and goes through his belongings. When Cairo awakens, he hires Spade. Later that evening, Spade tells O'Shaughnessy about Cairo. When Cairo shows up, it becomes clear that Spade's acquaintances know each other. Cairo becomes agitated when O'Shaughnessy reveals that the "Fat Man" is in San Francisco.
In the morning, Spade goes to Cairo's hotel, where he spots Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a young man who had been following him earlier. He gives Wilmer a message for his boss, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the "Fat Man". Spade meets Gutman, who begins to talk about the Falcon, but becomes evasive, causing Spade to storm out. Later, Wilmer takes Spade at gunpoint to see Gutman. Spade overpowers Wilmer, but meets with Gutman anyway. Gutman relates the history of the Maltese Falcon. He offers Spade $25,000 for the bird and a quarter of the proceeds from its sale. Then Spade passes out because his drink had been spiked. Wilmer, Gutman, and Cairo (who had been in the other room) depart.
When Spade awakens, he searches the suite and finds a newspaper with the arrival time of the freighter La Paloma circled. He goes to the dock, only to find the ship on fire. Later, the captain of the ship, Jacobi (Walter Huston), shot several times, staggers into Spade's office before dying. The bundle he was clutching contains the Maltese Falcon.
O'Shaughnessy calls the office, giving an address and then screams before the line goes dead. Spade stashes the package at the bus terminal, then goes to the address, which turns out to be an empty lot. Spade returns home and finds O'Shaughnessy hiding in a doorway. He takes her inside and finds Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer waiting for him, guns drawn. Gutman gives Spade $10,000 for the Falcon, but Spade tells them that part of his price is someone he can turn over to the police for the murders of Thursby and Captain Jacobi. Spade suggests Wilmer, since he certainly killed Thursby and Jacobi. After some intense negotiation, Gutman and Cairo agree; Wilmer is knocked out in a scuffle.
Just after dawn, Spade calls his secretary, Effie Perine (Lee Patrick), to bring him the bundle. However, when Gutman inspects the black statuette, he finds it is a fake. During the tumult, Wilmer flees. Recovering from his frustration, Gutman invites Cairo to return with him to Istanbul to continue their quest. After they leave, Spade calls the police and tells them where to pick up the pair. Spade then angrily confronts O'Shaughnessy, telling her he knows she killed Archer to implicate Thursby, her unwanted accomplice. She confesses, but begs Spade to not turn her over to the police. Despite his feelings for her, Spade gives O'Shaughnessy up.Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
Mary Astor as Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy
Gladys George as Iva Archer
Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo
Barton MacLane as Lieutenant Dundy
Lee Patrick as Effie Perine
Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman
Ward Bond as Detective Tom Polhaus
Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer Cook
James Burke as Luke, hotel detective
Murray Alper as Frank Richman, taxi driver
John Hamilton as District Attorney Bryan
Walter Huston as Captain Jacoby (uncredited)
Though Hammett worked for a time as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco (and used his birth name "Samuel" for the story's protagonist), Hammett called Spade "a dream man" with "no original". As the author wrote of the character in 1934:
Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.
Hammett reportedly drew upon his years as a detective in creating many of the other characters for The Maltese Falcon, which reworks elements from two of his stories published in Black Mask magazine in 1925, "The Whosis Kid" and "The Gutting of Couffignal". The novel itself was serialized in five parts in Black Mask during 1929 and 1930 before being published in book form in 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf.
The 1941 film is the third film version of the novel. The first version (1931) starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid O'Shaughnessy. The second, titled Satan Met a Lady (1936), starred Warren William and Bette Davis. It was rewritten as a light comedy, with many elements of the story changed.
Warner Bros. had been prevented by the Hays Office censors from re-releasing the 1931 version due to its "lewd" content; it was not until after 1966 that unedited copies of the 1931 film could be shown in the U.S. Though largely compliant with the Production Code, Huston's remake did contain some innuendo: when the police implicate Spade in his partner's murder, Spade asks Detective Polhaus, "What's your boyfriend gettin' at, Tom?"
Reportedly, Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice to play Sam Spade. Producer Hal B. Wallis initially offered the role to George Raft, who rejected it because he did not want to work with an inexperienced director, choosing instead to make Manpower, opposite Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich, with director Raoul Walsh. Raft had earlier turned down the lead role in Walsh's High Sierra, the film that effectively launched Bogart's career as leading man rather than chronic supporting player, and is believed by many to have passed up the role of "Rick", the cynical hero of Casablanca. The 42-year-old Bogart was delighted to play a highly ambiguous character who is both honorable and greedy. Huston was particularly grateful that Bogart had quickly accepted the role, and the film helped to consolidate their lifelong friendship and set the stage for later collaboration on such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), and Beat the Devil (1953). Bogart's convincing interpretation became the archetype for a private detective in the film noir genre, providing him near-instant acclaim and rounding and solidifying his onscreen persona. It was The Maltese Falcon that Ingrid Bergman watched over and over again while preparing for Casablanca, in order to learn how to interact and act with Bogart.
The role of the deceitful femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy was originally offered to Geraldine Fitzgerald, but went to Mary Astor when Fitzgerald decided to appear in a stage play. Hammett remembers that the character "had two originals, one an artist, the other a woman who came to Pinkerton's San Francisco office to hire an operative to discharge her housekeeper, but neither of these women was a criminal."
The character of the sinister "Fat Man" Kasper Gutman was based on A. Maundy Gregory, an overweight British detective-turned-entrepreneur who was involved in many sophisticated endeavors and capers, including a search for a long-lost treasure not unlike the jeweled Falcon. However, the character was not easily cast, and it took some time before producer Hal Wallis solved the problem by suggesting that Huston give a screen test to Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran stage character actor who had never appeared on film before. Greenstreet, who was then 61 years old and weighed between 280 and 350 pounds, impressed Huston with his sheer size, distinctive abrasive laugh, bulbous eyes, and manner of speaking. Greenstreet went on to be typecast in later films of the 1940s such as Casablanca (1942), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), The Verdict (1946), and Three Strangers (1946).
Greenstreet's characterization had such a strong cultural impact that the "Fat Man" atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II was named after him.
The character of Joel Cairo was based on a criminal Hammett arrested for forgery in Pasco, Washington, in 1920. In Hammett's novel, the character is clearly homosexual, but to avoid problems with the censors, this was downplayed considerably, although he is still noticeably effeminate. For instance, Cairo's calling cards and handkerchiefs are scented with gardenias; he fusses about his clothes and becomes upset when blood from a scratch ruins his shirt; and he makes subtle fellating gestures with his cane during his interview with Spade. By contrast, in the novel, Cairo is referred to as "queer" and "the fairy". The film is one of many of the era that, because of the Hays Office, could only hint at homosexuality. It is mentioned by The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about how films dealt with homosexuality.
Elisha Cook, Jr., a well-known character actor, was cast by Huston as Wilmer. Wilmer gets upset when Spade refers to him as a "gunsel", meaning a young homosexual in a relationship with an older man.
Gladys George had made her mark on Broadway with her starring role in Lawrence Riley's Personal Appearance (1934) (adapted for the screen in 1936 as Go West, Young Man); this comedy's huge success had been credited in great part to her comic performance. Her role as Archer's wife thus displays her versatility.
John Hamilton appeared in a minor role as District Attorney Bryan. Ten years later he would portray Perry White in The Adventures of Superman on television.
The unbilled appearance of the character actor Walter Huston, in a small cameo role as the freighter captain who delivers the Falcon, was done as a good luck gesture for his son, John Huston, on his directorial debut. The elder Huston had to promise Jack Warner that he would not demand a dime for his little role before he was allowed to stagger into Spade's office.
During his preparation for The Maltese Falcon, first-time director John Huston planned each second of the film to the very last detail, tailoring the screenplay with instructions to himself for a shot-for-shot setup, with sketches for every scene, so filming could proceed fluently and professionally. Huston was adamant that the film keep to schedule, and that everything be methodically planned to the fullest to ensure that the film never went over budget. By providing the cast with a highly detailed script, Huston was able to let them rehearse their scenes with very little intervention.
Such was the extent and efficacy of his preparation of the script that almost no line of dialogue was eliminated in the final edit of the film. Except for some exterior night shots, Huston shot the entire film in sequence, which greatly helped his actors. The shooting went so smoothly that there was actually extra time for the cast to enjoy themselves; Huston brought Bogart, Astor, Bond, Lorre and others to the Lakeside Golf Club near the Warner lot to relax in the pool, dine, drink and talk until midnight about anything other than the film they were working on.
Huston used much of the dialogue from the original novel. The only major section of the novel which wasn't used at all in the film is the story of a man named "Flitcraft", which Spade tells to Brigid while waiting in his apartment for Cairo to show up. Huston removed all references to sex that the Hays Office had deemed to be unacceptable. Huston was also warned not to show excessive drinking. The director fought the latter, on the grounds that Spade was a man who put away a half bottle of hard liquor a day and showing him completely abstaining from alcohol would mean seriously falsifying his character.
With its low-key lighting and inventive and arresting angles, the work of Director of Photography Arthur Edeson is one of the film's great assets. Unusual camera angles—sometimes low to the ground, revealing the ceilings of rooms (a technique also used by Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane)—are utilized to emphasize the nature of the characters and their actions. Some of the most technically striking scenes involve Gutman, especially the scene where he explains the history of the Falcon to Spade, purposely drawing out his story so that the knockout drops he has slipped into Spade's drink will take effect. Meta Wilde, Huston's longtime script supervisor, remarked of this scene:
It was an incredible camera setup. We rehearsed two days. The camera followed Greenstreet and Bogart from one room into another, then down a long hallway and finally into a living room; there the camera moved up and down in what is referred to as a boom-up and boom-down shot, then panned from left to right and back to Bogart's drunken face; the next pan shot was to Greenstreet's massive stomach from Bogart's point of view. ... One miss and we had to begin all over again.
Wilde's account suggests that the entire scene was edited into the finished film as a long take—an idea that has since been corroborated by numerous film historians, including Roger Ebert, who said in his review, "Consider an astonishing unbroken seven-minute take ... Was the shot just a stunt? Not at all; most viewers don't notice it because they're swept along by its flow."
However, while the scene may have been built around a complicated master shot, in fact no long takes are used in any part of the finished film. Ebert does, however, accurately review Huston's innovative choices during the scene in which Spade is drugged:
... Greenstreet chatters about the falcon while waiting for a drugged drink to knock out Bogart. Huston's strategy is crafty. Earlier, Greenstreet has set it up by making a point: "I distrust a man who says 'when.' If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does." Now he offers Bogart a drink, but Bogart doesn't sip from it. Greenstreet talks on, and tops up Bogart's glass. He still doesn't drink. Greenstreet watches him narrowly. They discuss the value of the missing black bird. Finally, Bogart drinks, and passes out. The timing is everything; Huston doesn't give us closeups of the glass to underline the possibility that it's drugged. He depends on the situation to generate the suspicion in our minds.
Very nearly as visually evocative are the scenes involving Astor, almost all of which suggest prison. In one scene she wears striped pajamas, the furniture in the room is striped, and the slivers of light coming through the Venetian blinds suggest cell bars, as do the bars on the elevator cage at the end of the film when she takes her slow ride downward with the police, apparently on her way to prison and possible execution. Huston and Edeson crafted each scene to make sure the images, action and dialog blended effectively, sometimes shooting closeups of characters with other cast members acting with them off camera.
Fred Sexton (June 3, 1907 – September 11, 1995) was an American artist and sculptor of the Maltese Falcon statuette prop for "The Maltese Falcon." During the 1930s and 1940s, Sexton was championed by Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier, and his work was acquired by Los Angeles-area art collectors including actor Edward G. Robinson and movie director John Huston. Sexton also taught art and headed the Art Students League in Los Angeles between 1949 and 1953.
In August 2013, Michele Fortier, the daughter of Fred Sexton, was interviewed on camera by UCLA Professor Vivian Sobchack, Ph.D. Fortier recounted her father’s creation of the Maltese Falcon prop model for the film, as well as visits to the film set where she interacted with actors Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, and director John Huston.
Fortier recalled that her father made "preliminary sketches" for the Maltese Falcon prop on a "manila envelope", and then sculpted the model for the prop in clay. During visits to the film set, she remembered seeing a prop that was "shiny and black", but "not like patent leather shoes".
Fortier also identified initials inscribed in the right rear tail feather of a plaster Maltese Falcon prop owned by Hank Risan as her father’s. Fortier explained that she owns many of her father’s paintings and commented that many of the signatures share the same idiosyncratic characteristics.
The "Maltese Falcon" itself is said to have been based on the "Kniphausen Hawk", a ceremonial pouring vessel made in 1697 for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire. It is modeled after a hawk perched on a rock and is encrusted with red garnets, amethysts, emeralds and blue sapphires. The vessel is currently owned by the Cavendish family and is part of the collection at Chatsworth House.
Several 11.5-inch (29 cm) tall falcon props were made for the film. A metal falcon was given to William Conrad by studio chief Jack L. Warner and auctioned off in December 1994, nine months after Conrad's death, for $398,500 to Ronald Winston, president and CEO of Harry Winston, Inc. At the time, it was the highest price paid for a film prop. The prop was used to model a 10-pound gold replica displayed at the 69th Academy Awards. In early 1996, Ronald Winston announced that he sold the prop to a mystery buyer for an undisclosed offer "I couldn't refuse." A 45-pound metal prop known to have appeared in the film was sold at auction on November 25, 2013, for over $4 million, including the buyer's fee.
On September 24, 2010, Guernsey's auctioned a 4 lb, 5.4 oz resin falcon for $305,000 to a group of buyers that included actor Leonardo DiCaprio and billionaire Stewart Rahr, owner of pharmaceutical and generics wholesaler Kinray. The prop was discovered at a flea market in New Jersey in 1991 by Emmy-winning producer/director Ara Chekmayan.
Adam Savage, co-host of MythBusters, has gone to great lengths to create an accurate replica.
The Maltese Falcon is considered a classic example of a MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the characters of the story, but otherwise has little relevance.
Following a September 1941 preview, Variety called it "one of the best examples of actionful and suspenseful melodramatic story telling in cinematic form":
Unfolding a most intriguing and entertaining murder mystery, picture displays outstanding excellence in writing, direction, acting and editing—combining in overall as a prize package of entertainment for widest audience appeal. Due for hefty grosses in all runs, it's textured with ingredients presaging numerous holdovers in the keys—and strong word-of-mouth will make the b.o. wickets spin.
Upon its release, Bosley Crowther called it "the best mystery thriller of the year", saying "young Mr. Huston gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field"; according to Crowther, "the trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school—a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos."
The film received three nominations at the 14th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor, and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay.
As a result of the film's success, Warner Brothers immediately made plans to produce a sequel entitled The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, which Huston was to direct in early 1942. However, due to Huston's high demand as a director and unavailability of the major cast members, the sequel was never made.
In 1989, The Maltese Falcon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going in the first year of voting. Roger Ebert added it to his "Great Movies" list.
American Film Institute recognition1998 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies – No. 23
2001 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills – No. 26
2003 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains:
Kasper Gutman – Nominated Villain
Brigid O'Shaughnessy – Nominated Villain
2005 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes:
"The stuff that dreams are made of." – No. 14. The expression is based on Act 4 of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, wherein Prospero says, "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on".
"You're good, you're very good." – Nominated
2007 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – No. 31
2008 – AFI's 10 Top 10 – No. 6 Mystery Film
The DVD was re-released on June 1, 2006, with a new Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. It includes the original theatrical trailer. The DVD also includes an essay, A History of the Mystery, examining the mystery and film noir genres through the decades.
Also included on a second and third disc are two previous film versions of the Hammett novel: The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady. In a new documentary, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird, a blooper reel, makeup tests and three radio show adaptations—two featuring the film's original stars—are also present.
Another special feature is a Turner Classic Movies documentary, Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart. Hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne, the 45-minute feature traces Bogart's evolution from a heavy in the 1930s to a romantic leading man in the 1940s, and his return to playing bad men late in that decade.
The film was colorized for television by Turner Broadcasting System and released on video by MGM/UA in 1989, but that version is no longer available. CBS/Fox Video released a 101-minute black-and-white version of the film on laserdisc in 1982.
The music was written by Adolph Deutsch, who later went on the win an Academy Award. The recording was re-released in 2002 along with other film soundtrack works by Deutsch, including George Washington Slept Here, The Mask of Dimitrios, High Sierra and Northern Pursuit.
- "Main Title" – 2:07
- "Street Scene" – 1:38
- "Door Slam" – 0:28
- "The Deal" – 2:47
- "The Plot" – 3:02
- "Gutman" – 2:08
- "End Title" – 0:54
- "End Cast" – 0:43
- "Main Title – 1:22
- "Arrival at House – 2:06
- "Uncle Arrives" – 0:59
- "The Phone" – 1:48
- "The Letter – Wheelbarrow" – 2:39
- "Locust – End Title" – 2:24
- "Main Title – Deadman" – 2:22
- "Dimitrios Selects a Victim" – 1:43
- "Contract" – 0:35
- "Dirty Spy" – 2:07
- "The Traitor" – 0:43
- "Peter Writes a Letter" – 1:42
- "The Escape" – 1:28
- "Blackmail Letter" – 1:26
- "The Black Hat" – 0:26
- "Struggle for the Gun" – 0:56
- "Revenge" – 0:40
- "Death of Dimitrios – Finale" – 2:01
- "Main Title" – 0:50
- "The Pardon" – 2:57
- "Velma's Plight" – 3:52
- "The Giveaway" – 3:11
- "Apprehended" – 2:26
- "Main Title" – 1:47
- "Nazi Sub – Customs – Train" – 3:29
- "Consultation" – 1:46
- "Planning the Escape" – 1:58
- "Escape" – 1:08
- "Preparation" – 2:04
- "Eavesdropping" – 0:47
- "Gun Battle" – 2:43
- "The Big Battle" – 4:47
- "End Title – What Am I Saying?" – 0:42
Perhaps the earliest radio adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was on the Silver Theater broadcast on the CBS radio network on February 1, 1942, with Bogart as star. Philip Morris Playhouse staged an adaptation August 14, 1942, with Edward Arnold starring. CBS later created a 30-minute adaptation for The Screen Guild Theater with Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet and Lorre all reprising their roles. This radio segment was originally released on September 20, 1943, and was played again on July 3, 1946. On May 18, 1950, another adaptation was broadcast on The Screen Guild Theater starring Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall. In addition, there was an adaptation on Lux Radio Theater on February 8, 1943, starring Edward G. Robinson, Gail Patrick, and Laird Cregar.
In 1975, Columbia released The Black Bird, a parody sequel to The Maltese Falcon starring George Segal as Sam Spade, Jr., with Patrick and Cook reprising their roles as Effie and Wilmer from the 1941 version. In 1974, during production for this film, one of the seven plaster figurines of the original 1941 Falcon on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was stolen, and it was alleged that the "disappearance" of the figurine was staged as a publicity stunt for the Segal film. If it was, it came up short since news accounts of the missing Falcon exceeded those of the Segal film.
In 1969, the film was spoofed in the sixth season of The Avengers television series, starring Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson as John Steed and Tara King. The episode "Legacy of Death" features multiple assassins trying to obtain an ornate dagger known as the Falcon that will unlock a treasure, a black pearl. Near the end, one of the characters called Sidney Street, played by Stratford Johns, says to his partner Humbert Green, played by Ronald Lacey, that there is another treasure they should go after.
In 1988, an homage to the film was presented in "The Big Goodbye", a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is a fan of detective stories of the early 20th century, including the fictional Dixon Hill, a stand-in for Sam Spade. In a holodeck simulation, Picard-as-Hill is opposed by Cyrus Redblock, whose name is a play on "Sydney Greenstreet". Redblock is looking for "the item", which is never identified, standing in for the Falcon.
In 1990 the film was also paid homage in issue 62 of The Transformers called "Bird of Prey!" with the character of Nightbeat in the Sam Spade role which also mentions actor Peter Lorre and shows an image of Humphrey Bogart.
In 2001, the film was paid homage again in "Charmed Noir", a seventh-season episode of Charmed. In it, two siblings at Magic School write an immersive novel in which all characters are seeking the "Burmese Falcon". The boys become inadvertently trapped in the novel for decades, though time basically stands still for them. Paige Matthews, played by Rose McGowan, and an associate become trapped in the book as well many years after the boys do. Matthews asks one of the boys if the Burmese Falcon is "Like the Maltese Falcon?" in an attempt to understand the situation in which she finds herself. The boy replies that everyone knows that the Maltese Falcon was a fake, and that the Burmese Falcon is the genuine article.