film/classic logo

The Maltese Falcon

Directed by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., Ward Bond and Mary Astor, black and white, 1941

Dingus - The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

DVD cover

Cover of 3-disc DVD

"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."

By Carter B. Horsley

The "priceless token" mentioned in the opening of the movie "The Maltese Falcon" conjures idylls of the golden fleece and the romance of knights in shining armor.

Alas, such grand scenarios are not the stuff of this movie, but rather the dingy offices of a private detective in San Francisco. This is distinctly a low-budget movie and glamor was not affordable and the plot is not as important as the characters.

Welcome to the world of film noir - black film, dark film, the underbelly of the Depression era, a time when hopes were not high and one settled for meager scraps and had little energy for humor. Life is decidedly downbeat and without rhythm and melody. One tried to stay away from the bottom of the barrel. It may not be a dog-eats-dog world, but trust and sympathy are in short supply. Hard times produce some hard people and the lead character in the movie, a private detective, Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, is cold and cynical, mean and menacing. He is not, however, without a touch of sophistication, if not humor. He calls the statue a "dingus" and describes it as "the thing that dreams are made of."

"The Maltese Falcon" is a good-sized gold statue covered in black paint that supposedly was made a few hundred years ago in the movie of the same name although it resembles a classic, few-thousand-year-old Egyptian bronze sculpture of a falcon.

The falcon

It is in the dreams of the corpulent Kaspar Gutman, played by Sydney Greenstreet, and the female lead, who goes by the names by Ruth Wonderly, Miss LeBlanc and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, played by Mary Astor.


Sydney Greenstreet (The Fat Man)

In his first movie role, Greenstreet is stupendous, wallowing rather gracefully like a well-dressed hippopotamus with a parrot's face. He is one of the great characters in the history of movies. Malicious, but mirthful and damnably beguiling and intriguing. He is undeniably a traveler of worldly means and nefarious deals and deadly charm. His henchmen, Joel Cairo, a swarmy small man played by Peter Lorre, and Wilmer, the "gunsel," played with glaring but anonymous intensity by Elisha Cook Jr., are not stereotypes.

Bogey in a "Breathless:" moment

Bogart in a "Breathless" moment

Mary Astor, a bit puffier than in her prime years, is not your typical femme fatale, at least based on looks. She could pass for a middle-aged school teacher, but she does manage to exhibit considerable feminine guile. Given that Bogart was not a matinee idol, it is conceiveable that he might have some interest in her as a dame, a member of the opposite sex, against his better instincts as a judge of character, however.

With the exception of Greenstreet, none of the characters are likeable or lovable, although Lorre is definitely curious.

Ruth Wonderly shows up at Spade's office and asks him to find her younger sister from New York, Corrinne, who is missing after writing that she was in San Francisco and had been seduced by a man named Floyd Thursby whom she describes as violent but plans to meet that night. Spade's partner, Miles Archer, played by Jerome Cowan, takes a shine to Miss Wonderly and offers to take the job.

We next see Archer recognizing someone only to be shot by the unseen figure. When police sergeant Tom Polhaus, played by Ward Bond, informs Spade of his partner's death, Spade rather calmly phones his secretary, Effie, to notify Archer's wife, adding "keep her away from me."

Spade tries to reach Miss Wonderly but she has checked out of her hotel and not left a forwarding address. The next morning Sergeant Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy, played by Barton McLane, arrive at his apartment with more questions such as what was the name of his client and they inform him that Thursby was murdered a half hour after Spade left the scene of Archer's murder. Spade gets annoyed at the implication he is involved and states that he was never seen Thursday "dead or alive."

A little later, Archer's widow, Iva, played by Gladys George, arrives at Spade's office and they embrace and she asks him if he murdered her husband so they could get married. He comforts her but dismisses her, promising to see her later. Effie enters his office and he asks her "Who do you think I shot?" She asks if he is going to marry Iva, suggesting that Iva killed her husband. Spade tells her that Iva did not kill her husband and she tells him that "you always think you know what you're doing but you're too slick for your own good."

The phone rings and it's Miss Wonderly who tells Spade she left the St. Mark Hotel and is now at the Coronet Apartments on California Avenue under the name Miss Leblanc. Spade tells his secretary to move Archer's desk out of the office and have his name removed from the front door.

He goes to see Miss Wonderly who tells him right away that the story she had told him was not true. Spade tells her that "we didn't exactly believe your story," adding that "we believed your two hundred dollars." He said he did not give her identity to the police but he must know the facts.

She says she can not tell him now: "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."

Bogey tells the woman "You're good"

Bogey tells the woman "You're good...."

"You won't need much of anybody's help," he replies, adding "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 tells him that she met Thursby in the Orient where he was a gambler's bodyguard.

Spade asks her who killed Thursby, "your enemies or his?" She replies that she does not know. He asks for more money and she gives him five hundred dollars and he tells her to pawn her jewelry and takes her apartment key telling her he will ring four times when he returns.

He returns to his office where a man named Joel Cairo gives Effie a gardenia-perfumed business card and offers Spade condolences on his partner's death and while fondling a cane says he is searching for a statue of a black bird. "I'm trying to recover an ornament that, ah, shall we say has been mislaid," he explains and offers $5,000 for its recovery. Effie leaves the office and Cairo then draws a gun on Spade so he can search the office. Spade, however, disarms him and knocks him out.

Cairo recovers and offers Spade a retainer of $100 but Spade insists of $200 and claims he does not have the black bird or know where it is but would try to get it back "in an honest, lawful way." Cairo tells him he sincerely expects "the greatest mutual benefit from our association" and then pulls a gun again on Spade in another effort to search his office.

After Cairo leaves, Spade goes out and senses he is being followed and eventually visits O'Shaughnessy who admits to him that she has not "lived a good life - I've been bad, worse than you could know." "That's good," Spade comments, "because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere." He tells her about his meeting with Cairo and then compliments her on her penchant for deception: "You're good. You're very good!"

Brigid asks about Cairo and learns that he "offered $5,000 for the black bird." She says that is more than she can offer and asks what she can offer. He kisses her and declares that he cannot proceed "without more confidence in you than I've got now." She agrees to speak to Cairo and he leaves a message for him at his hotel to meet them in his apartment later. Cairo shows up and tells Spade that a "boy" is watching the apartment and Cairo tells Brigid he's "delighted" to see her again. She says that she doesn't have the black bird but promises she will get in about a week from where Floyd Thursby hid it and says she will sell it because she's worried about how it was involved in Thursby's murder.

Cairo inquires why she would sell it to him and she says that she's afraid "to touch it except to turn it over to somebody else. Cairo asks what happened to Thursby and she says "The Fat Man" and says that he is in San Francisco.

Brigid slaps Cairo and he draws a gun but is disarmed by Spade and as Brigid reaches for the gun there is knocking at the door and Spade goes into the hallway and talks with Detectives Polhaus and Dundy who tell him that an anonymous tip claimed that he was involved with Archer's wife, Iva, and killed him to marry her.

Brigid reaches for the gun as they are interrupted by loud knocking at the door and the sound of the buzzer. In the hallway, Spade talks to police detectives Polhaus and Dundy in a second after-hours call. The cops are there because an anonymous phone-caller [later discovered to be Iva Archer] has informed them that Spade was romantically involved with Iva - and killed Miles to marry her:

"Your first idea that I killed Thursby because he killed Miles falls to pieces if you blame me for killing Miles too," Spade asserts just as sounds of a scuffle come from inside the apartment.

Cairo and Brigid exchange accusations but Spade tells the police that she is "an operative in my employ" and that "Cairo is an acquaintance of Thursby and had hired him to find something that Thursby had. Spade then maintains that the scuffle was a plan, that the gun was his, and gets Cairo to confess that it was merely a joke. The police are not satisfied but leave.

Cairo leaves soon thereafter and Spade interrogates Brigid about the black bird that "everybody's all steamed up about." She tells him she was offered 500 pounds to steal it in Turkey and that Cairo and Thursby were part of the plan to steal it but she and Thursby leaned that Cairo planned to trick them so they double-crossed him. Thursby, however, according to Brigid, wanted it for himself.

Spade says she's a liar and she agrees and they kiss.

The next day Spade goes to Cairo's hotel and sees the "boy" in the lobby and asks him the whereabouts of Cairo and threatens that he is going to have to tell him, adding "you can tell the 'Fat Man' I said so"

Wilmer, the "boy," tells Spade to shove off but Spade calls over the hotel detective and asks why he lets "these cheap gunmen hang around the lobby,...with their heaters bulging in their clothes."

Cairo comes into lobby, disheveled, and Spade tells him he wants to talk with him, explaining that the previous night he had to "throw in with" Bridgid since she knows the location of the black bird. "You always have a very smooth explanation ready, huh? Cairo declares. "What do you want me to do - learn to stutter?" Spade replies.

Spade goes to his office where his secretary says he's had a call from a Mr. Gutman, whom Spade guesses is the "Fat Man," and finds Brigid who complains that her apartment has been searched. His secretary offers to let her stay at her apartment when she refuses to return to her own place. The phone rings and it is Gutman who invites Spade to his hotel room where he is met by Wilmer.

Gutman pours Spade a drink and remarks "We begin well, sir. 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. Well, sir, here's to plain speaking and clear understanding. You're a close-mouthed man." Spade says, no, and Gutman says, "Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things."

Spade asks about the black bird and Gutman says "You're the man for me, sir. No beating about the bush, right to the point." Gutman asks if Spade is Miss O'Shaughnessy's representative or Mr. Cairo's, asking "who else is there? "There's me," Spade replies."

"Ah. That's wonderful sir, wonderful. I do like a man who tells you right out he's looking out for himself. Don't we all? I don't trust a man who says he's not," Gutman responds.

Spade smashes his glass on the floor and insists that Gutman to stop waisting his time and to keep his gunsel away from him.

On his return to his office, Spade is confronted by Gutman and two of his henchmen, Joel Cairo, a swarmy small man played by Peter Lorre, and Wilmer, a "gunsel" played by Elisha Cook Jr. Greenstreet and Lorre would also appear with Bogart in "Casablanca" (see The City Review article). (The title track in "The Friends of Mr. Cairo," the great recording made more than a generation after this movie was released, by Vangelis and Jon Anderson, the lead singer of Yes, is a fabulous homage not only to this movie but to the myths and magic of movies.)

Gutman finds Spade "a chap worth knowing, an amazing character" and tells him that the story of "the black bird": It was made from the coffers of the crusading Knights of Rhodes (the order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem) and was robbed by pirates while en route to Emperor Charles V of Spain who had granted the knights the island of Malta. The black bird turns up in 1713 in Sicily and again in Paris in 1840 when it had acquired its black enamel coat "so that it looked nothing more than a fairly interesting statuette" and it was "kicked around Paris for over three score years by private owners too stupid to see what it was under the skin." A Greek antique dealer discovers it in 1923 and recognizes its real value but he was murdered and it was stolen again.

Gutman admits that he has searched for it for 17 years: "I'm a man not easily discouraged when I want something."

Gutman says he traced the statue to the home of a Russian general in a suburb of Istanbul and offered to buy it but his agents betrayed him. Thursby was one of his agents.

The police bring Spade in for more questioning and he tells that his "best chance of clearing myself from the trouble you're trying to make for me is by bringing in the murderers all tied up."

On the street, Wilmer tells Spade Gutman wants to meet with him and threatens Spade that if he keeps "ridin'" him "they're going to be picking iron out of your liver." Spade laughs and says "the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, huh?" Spade quickly disarms Wilmer and gives the guns to Gutman, who eventually offers Spade $25,000 for the bird and another $25,000 or a quarter of the proceeds from its sale, that, he says, "would amount to a vastly greater sum." Spade asks him how much he thinks "the dingus" is worth and Gutman says there's "no telling how high it could go."

Spade, however, soon passes out from a drugged drink given him by Gutman and when he wakes up he calls his secretary who tells him Brigid did not show up. He does find a newspaper clipping in Gutman's room on which the arrival of a ship from Hong Kong that day is circled. He races to the dock to find the ship on fire and returns to his office where a man, played by Walter Huston, the director's father, staggers in with something wrapped in newspapers and just before he dies he says "...the falcon." The man who died was the captain of the ship.

Brigid calls and says she is in Burlingame but then screams. Spade takes the wrapped falcon and checks it at the Union Bus Terminal and mails the claim stub to his post office address and then goes to rescue Brigid only to discover that the address she gave on the phone is an empty lot.

He goes to his apartment and finds Brigid hovering in a doorway nearby and they go to his apartment where Wilmer is waiting with a drawn gun and Gutman and Cairo are also in the room.

Spade asks Gutman for the $25,000 installment but Gutman gives him an envelope with only $10,000. Spade then suggests that Wilmer becomes the fall guy for the murders. "By gad, sir, you are a character, that you are. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing. I feel towards Wilmer here just exactly as if he were my own son," Gutman remarks.

Wilmer is not amused by Spade's suggestion and Spade then suggests Cairo and even Brigid. Eventually Spade disarms Wilmer and the others agree to make him the fall guy and Spade says he will deliver the falcon the next morning.

Gutman tells Spade that Thursby was Brigid's ally and that Wilmer killed him to convince her to make a deal and that the death of ship's captain was "entirely Miss O'Shaughnessy's fault."

The Far Man discovers the bird is a fake

The Fat Man discovers the bird is a fake

The next morning Spade's secretary delivers the bundled statue and Gutman takes out his penknife to scrape away the enamel and reveal the jeweled surface. There is no jeweled surface and Gutman in complete exasperation realizes it is a fake. Cairo goes into a rage and yells at Gutman, "You, you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead!" Gutman eventually composes himself and states that rather than stand there "and shed tears and call each other names" they should go off to Istanbul in search of the real falcon. He pulls a gun on Spade and asks for the $10,000 back but Spade keeps $1,000 for his time and effort. Gutman asks Spade to join his troop: "You're a man of nice judgment and many resources." Spade declines. Gutman leaves the fake falcon as a "momento" and also says there will be no fall guy.

Wilmer has sneaked out of the room and after Gutman and Cairo leave, Spade calls the police to pick them up.

He then turns to Brigid and says "we've only got minutes to get set for the police." He grills her intensely and finally she admits that she killed Archer, but she claims she loves him and begs for him not to turn her in.

He tells he she will be "taking the all," adding that he will not "play the sap for you."

To save herself, Brigid attempts to throw herself at Spade once again, hoping that he will continue to protect her and conceal her crime. With a fluttery, bogus innocence, she wildly professes the existence of her love for him and begs him not to turn her in. Relishing her fear, he coldly and flatly tells her:

"You know down deep in your heart and in spite of anything I've done I love you," Brigid protests, but Spade says he doesn't "care who love who," adding "You killed Miles and you're going over for it."

Spade indicates that he does have feelings for her in addition to the fact that "when a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it."

"I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you, and, if I do this and get away with it, you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me some day. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant - I won't argue about that - but look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you."

Brigid argues that he knows "whether you love me or not."

"Maybe I do," he replies. "Well, I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over, but that will pass. If all I've said doesn't mean anything to you, then forget it and we'll make it just this: I won't because all of me wants to, regardless of consequences, and because you counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with all the others."

He turns her over to the police.

In his May 13, 2001 review of the movie, the great critic Roger Ebert noted that Spade "set the stage for a decade in which unsentimental heroes talked tough and cracked wise." When Ms. O'Shaughnessy tells Spade that she loves him and pleads that he not turn her over to the police for his partner's murder, Spade tells her "I hope they don't hang you, precious by that sweet neck," adding that "the chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

The movie is based on a 1929 novel by Dashiell Hammett that first appeared as a five-part story in a magazine called "Black Mask" and when the movie was first previewed its title was "The Gent from Frisco." It had first been made a movie in 1931 when it was called "Dangerous Female" starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. It was remade in 1936 as "Satan Met A Lady" with Bette Davis and Warren William.

In Huston's film, George Raft had been scheduled to play the lead but he opted out and was replaced by Bogart who had appeared in numerous "B" movies and quickly became a major star in the anti-hero mode. The first choice for the role played by Mary Astor was Geraldine Fitzgerald. A sequel that was to be titled "The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon" was planned but Huston became unavailable and Hammett wanted a lot of money.

The film was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay (Huston) and best supporting actor (Greenstreet) but lost out to "How Green Was My Valley," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and Donald Crisp, respectively. Mary Astor was not nominated for this film but won Best Supporting Actress that year for "The Great Lie."

Sam Spade is not your average hero and that is what makes "The Maltese Falcon" work so well. He's unpredictable and not always pleasant and honorable. It is a little hard to believe he would fall for Brigid and Mary Astor was past her prime of attractiveness. The convolutions of the plot become a bit annoying as they occur with conniving timeliness. What escalates "The Maltese Falcon" is the sharp dialogue and, most importantly, the magnificent Sydney Greenstreet and the weasly Peter Lorre, who give two of the most memorable, if not finest, "character" performances in film history.

We've been had and it wasn't so bad.

In his review at, James Bernardinelli provides the following commentary:

"The Maltese Falcon is among the most important and influential movies to emerge from the Hollywood system - as significant in some ways as its contemporary, Citizen Kane. In addition to providing the cinema with a new kind of private investigator (move over, Nick and Nora Charles), The Maltese Falcon supplied an entirely new style by which to tell these kinds of stories: film noir. It was the directorial birthplace of John Huston, who would become one of the dozen-or-so most revered American-born filmmakers, as well as the picture that transformed Humphrey Bogart from a B-level supporting villain to an A-level leading man. At the same time, it tells a twisty, compelling story that holds up reasonably well more than 65 years after being committed to film.

"For The Maltese Falcon, the third time was a charm. Warner Brothers optioned the Dashiell Hammett potboiler and had a version of the story on the screen within two years after its publication. The 1931 adaptation portrayed Sam Spade as more of a playboy than a hard-nosed tough guy; it was met with critical derision to go along with its moderate commercial success. Five years later, Satan Met a Lady was released. That was a comedy reworking of the story starring Bette Davis as the femme fatale. The names were changed to protect the guilty but Hammett was given his due credit. The movie bombed. Then, in 1941, the Huston/Bogart collaboration - a production made on the cheap with contract players and a short shooting schedule - changed the direction of Hollywood.

"By the time The Maltese Falcon arrived, audiences had become used to a certain kind of private investigator - usually someone with independent wealth who cooperated with the police and avoided too much dirtying of hands. The Thin Man and its sequels are perfect examples. (It's worth noting that The Thin Man was also based on a Hammett property.) The Maltese Falcon introduces Sam Spade - an antihero with a penchant for fast dialogue and faster women. He'll do anything to make a buck or bed a dame, and is likeable only because of his frankness about the world and his role in it. He doesn't carry a gun but isn't afraid to use one if presented with the opportunity. This was not how movie detectives were expected to act before 1941. After the release of The Maltese Falcon, that became pretty much the only way they were expected to act.

"As the story opens, P.I. Sam Spade (Bogart) is in his office, engaging in banter with his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick). Enter the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She wants to hire Sam and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She spins a story about her sister having been led astray by a man and brought to San Francisco against her will. For $200, Spade is to liberate the sister from this man, but it may be dangerous. Miles takes the point on the case and is killed during the stakeout. Sam doesn't show much remorse about this development - it's an opportunity for him to change the name of the agency. Plus, he has been having an affair with Miles' wife. Nevertheless, the code by which Sam lives requires that he find Miles' killer and bring the man to justice. His best lead is Brigid, so he starts there. It turns out there is no "sister." This is all about the black statuette of a falcon, possibly a priceless artifact whose current whereabouts are unknown. Sam is only one of a few seeking the falcon. His rivals include the urbane Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the larger-than-life 'Fat Man' Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet); and Gutman's muscle, 'Little Boy' Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.). It takes a while before the full truth about the falcon and Brigid's involvement is revealed, but Sam eventually gets to the bottom of the caper....

"All these years later, it's tough to imagine anyone but Bogart playing Spade, so watching either of the earlier versions is an odd experience. Bogart embodies Hammett's detective: so calloused by life that he won't become a 'sap' even for love, yet hiding a core of humanity that occasionally peeks through via haunted eyes. Bogart's clipped, rapid-fire delivery of Spade's lines has become iconic. When we think of the actor, we most often envision Rick from Casablanca, but that character has more than a few echoes of Spade in him. Before The Maltese Falcon, Bogart was not a big star; this movie elevated him into the stratosphere. For the next fifteen years, he would dominate Hollywood both on and off the screen.

"Bogart was a package deal with first-time director John Huston, who would go on to work with the actor five more times (including Key Largo and The African Queen). Huston did not single-handedly invent film noir, but he combined elements of German Expressionism with Hollywood techniques to form a style that relied on shadows, light, and atmosphere to go along with dark plots and shady characters. Film noir became the only way to make crime films and detective stories during the '40s and '50s and its essential elements are still used today, even though the medium has changed from black-and-white to color.

"...Mary Astor had not been the top choice to play Brigid (that had been Geraldine Fitzgerald) but her off-screen notoriety enhanced her portrayal since it 'bled' into the character...."

This film is ranked 23rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

Click here to order the DVD version of the film, which contains commentary by Spielberg, from

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review