Maltese Falcon, The (1941): Huston’s Auspicious Directing Debut, Starring Bogart’s First Starring Role

Based on an outstanding detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon is John Huston’s first film as a director–he began his career as a screenwriter–making one of the most auspicious debuts in film history.
The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon (1941 film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Preceding “Casablanca” by two years, the film offers Humphrey Bogart hisirst great starring performance as Sam Spade. Rest of the excellent ensemble includes Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, and Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman.

This movie softened the Spade character, who in the book was tougher and more ruthless, sort of a survivor of the urban underworld.

Private investigator Sam Spade learns that his partner is murdered, and discovers a conspiracy to steal the Maltese Falcon, which is worth a fortune because it is encrusted with jewels. Spade doesn’t allow his personal feelings, and temptations for Brigid O’Shaughnessy, to sway his professional commitment. When Spade deduces that it was Brigid herself who killed his partner, he says in a cold cynical tone that he “won’t play the sap” for her, and he grimly hands her over to the police.

An obsessed professional, Spade is a proud man who will adhere to a principle unto death. His moral code is superior to that of the legitimate order and its representative detectives; society itself is shown to be full of corruption. Yet, at the end, Spade’s code coincides with the law and he turns in the murderess he loves.

Critics continue to hold “The Maltese Falcon” in high regard, not only because it’s the movie that catapulted Bogart into stardom, but also for the high standards of technical filming that director John Huston brought to Hollywood.

The Maltese Falcon was the directorial debut of John Huston. In this picture, Huston boldly explored his style of framing, setting up the shots like canvases of painting. Thus, the characters often face fill half the screen while they are listening, not talking. To Huston, the reactions of the person listening was more important than the one speaking or moving.

The 1941 film is the third version of the novel. The first version (1931), “Dangerous Female,” 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 was prevented by the Hays Office from re-releasing the 1931 version due to its “lewd” content. In 1966, unedited copies of this version were shown in the U.S. for the first time.

Huston’s remake contains some riske elements by standards of the time. When the police implicate Spade in his partner’s murder, Spade asks Detective Polhaus, “What’s your boyfriend gettin’ at, Tom?”

The astute mise-en-scene of Huston, who would become one of Bogart’s most favorite and frequent directors, helped placed Bogart among the top rank of Hollywood stars. Huston was able to show Bogart as a fine, well-rounded actor, instead of just a gangster-villain type that he played in many Warner pictures in the 1930s.

Film Noir

One of the first major film noirs, “The Maltese Falcon” was produced in the same year as Orson Welles’ masterpiece, “Citizen Kane.”

Though considered film noir, the film lacks some of the genre’s conventional elements, such as first-person narrator (or any narration) and no flashbacks.

Critical Status

In 1989, it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry .

Detailed Plot

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–Text appearing after the film’s opening credits

In San Francisco, private investigators Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) meet a new client, Miss Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). She claims to be looking for her missing sister, who is involved with Thursby.

After receiving a retainer, Archer agrees to help get her sister back.  That night, Spade is awakened by a phone call and informed that Archer has been killed. He meets his friend, Police Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), at the murder scene. He then calls Wonderly’s hotel, but she has checked out. Interrogated by Polhaus and supervisor, Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), he is informed that Thursby was also murdered that same evening. Dundy suggests that Spade had the motive to kill Thursby, who likely killed Archer. Archer’s widow Iva (Gladys George), with whom Spade had an affair, believes that Spade shot his partner so he could have her.

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.

Gutman and Cairo meet with Spade.
Spade confronts O’Shaughnessy.



At his office, Spade meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who offers him a $5,000 fee to find a “black figure of a bird,” then pulls a gun to search the office. Spade knocks Cairo out and goes through his belongings. When Cairo revives, he hires Spade. Cairo becomes agitated when O’Shaughnessy reveals that the “Fat Man” is in San Francisco.

Spade goes to Cairo’s hotel, where he spots Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a man who had been following him. He gives Wilmer a message for his boss, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the “Fat Man.”

Wilmer takes Spade at gunpoint to see Gutman. Spade remarks, “the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” Spade overpowers Wilmer, but meets with Gutman anyway. Gutman relates the history of the Maltese Falcon, and offers Spade $25,000 for the bird and a quarter of the proceeds from its sale. Spade passes out; his drink was spiked. Wilmer, Gutman and Cairo depart.

When Spade awakens, he 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. Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma (Walter Huston) staggers into Spade’s office before dying. The bundle he was clutching contains the Maltese Falcon.

Spade stashes the package in a bus terminal, then goes to the address given by O’Shaughnessy, which turns out to be an empty lot. Back home, he 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 threatens to turn them over to the police for the murders of Archer, Thursby, and Captain Jacobi.

Spade suggests Wilmer as the best choice, since he killed Thursby and Jacobi. After some negotiation, Gutman and Cairo agree; Wilmer is knocked out in a scuffle. Spade calls his secretary, Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick), to bring him the bundle. However, when Gutman inspects the statuette, he declares it a fake. He invites Cairo to return with him to Istanbul to continue their quest, but Spade calls the police.

In the last scene, an angry Spade confronts O’Shaughnessy, accusing her of killing Archer to implicate Thursby, her unwanted accomplice. She cannot believe Spade would turn her over to the police, but he does, despite his feelings for her.


Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade

Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy

Gladys George as Iva Archer

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo

Barton MacLane as Lt. Dundy

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine

Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutma

Ward Bond as Detective Tom Polhaus

Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer

Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer Cook

James Burke as Luke

Murray Alper as Frank Richman

John Hamilton as Bryan

Walter Huston as Captain Jacobi (John Huston’s father, uncredited)