A first-class thriller that launched the film noir genre and redefined detective stories
Forget straightforward realism. Forget intensely profound revelations about life or people. It’s time to get lost in a sharply stylized world populated by an impressive array of eclectic characters in pursuit of a black bird. Spectacularly crafted, the entertaining “The Maltese Falcon" elevates what could be just another detective story into movie magic - as only classic Hollywood can do. Greed and the murder, mistrust, and betrayal it begets were never so marvelously exciting. If you are looking to this site for film classics to watch, “The Maltese Falcon” is definitely one for your list. Nominated for three Academy Awards (including Best Picture), the American Film Institute has named it the 23rd Greatest American Movie Of All Time, the 6th Greatest Mystery Movie, and the 26th Most Thrilling American Film ever made. This film created a legendary star, launched a blue-ribbon film director, is credited with creating a movie genre, and has become one of cinema’s most beloved treasures.
Set in San Francisco, “The Maltese Falcon” follows a coolly headstrong private investigator named “Sam Spade”. As the film opens, he is approached by “Brigid”, a woman his secretary describes as “a knockout”, who is looking for help in finding her missing sister. Before long, “Sam” finds himself caught in the middle of the shady “Brigid”, an eccentric little man, and an imposing fat man - each desperately hunting for a sixteenth century, black enamel-coated falcon stuffed with rare jewels. Two murders occur within the film’s first fifteen minutes- and just about everyone seems to be accusing “Sam”. Caught between this unscrupulous bunch and some suspicious cops accusing him, he plays along in the search for the jeweled bird while trying to solve the murders and clear his name. As “Sam” puts the pieces of this mysterious and deadly chase together, it creates one heck of a thrilling ride.
The stark, high-contrast world of “The Maltese Falcon” was brilliantly pieced together by its director John Huston along with the consummate work of the film’s cinematographer Arthur Edeson. Their use of lighting, strong camera angles, darkness and shadows all invoke the tension and ambience of the murky, seedy side of life. The atmosphere they created was so potent it became the archetype for just about all cinematic detectives stories that followed. Many books and film historians cite “The Maltese Falcon” as the first film noir (I explain film noir in my "Double Indemnity" entry), but I think a more accurate take is that this film was the one that crystalized noir as we know it today. Noir’s roots can be found in the stylized dark side of life depicted in the German Expressionist films of the 1920s (which I explain in my post on "M"), the horror films of the 1930s, and the popular hardboiled crime fiction novels in both decades. Drawing from those wells, this film put an amoral anti-hero and a femme fatale inside a grim urban setting, and unlike most prior Hollywood films, left no happy ending - each of which became the foundation of noir. After this film came a multitude of Hollywood crime dramas emulating and expanding on these qualities, which we now refer to as “true” film noir.
This film was based on a novel, “The Maltese Falcon”, written by real-life detective-turned-writer Dashiell Hammett, who became the king of hard-boiled detective fiction (he also wrote the bestselling novel, “The Thin Man”). Two previous film versions were made - “The Maltese Falcon” in 1931, and a comedic version, “Satan Met a Lady” in 1936 starring Bette Davis. Accomplished studio screenwriter John Huston wanted to try his hand at directing and selected the book for his debut. Unlike the two previous film versions, he chose to closely follow Dashiell’s book and include much of its dialogue. Even though it was a low-budget film with no major stars, Huston had the utmost confidence his script would make a successful film, and one can sense his bold self-assuredness by his daring directing choices - including dramatic camera movements that swing around for close-ups, and gutsy, low angles and composition showing ceilings which enclose his characters in their oppressive world. Huston’s work is artfully entertaining and emotionally evocative, and it has been lauded as being one of cinema’s greatest directorial debuts. For his script he received a Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination (he was also nominated that year for a Best Screenplay Oscar for co-writing "Sergeant York”).
A writer, director, actor, and producer, Huston is one of cinema’s legendary figures and greatest talents. After quitting school at fourteen years old to become an amateur lightweight champion boxer, followed by acting onstage, making it to Broadway, moving to Mexico and becoming an honorary cavalry officer, writing plays, moving to New York to write for newspapers and magazines, appearing as an extra in films, John Huston finally chose to focus on writing. After receiving no work as a writer while under contract to Samuel Goldwyn Productions, he moved to Universal Studios (where his father Walter was a prominent character actor), and began writing dialogue starting with the 1930 film “The Storm”. With a penchant for liquor, he hit an actress while driving drunk (though rumors to this day say Clark Gable was the driver and Huston took the fall to protect the star), after which he left for Europe and studied painting. Broke, he returned to Hollywood in 1937 as a scriptwriter at Warner Brothers Studio with a desire to eventually direct. Huston wrote or co-wrote scripts for films such as “Jezebel”, “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse", "Juarez", "High Sierra”, and "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet", for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination (for Best Original Screenplay). With “The Maltese Falcon” he became a full-fledged director, and went on to direct films for the next forty-six years, many of which have become classics including such iconic films as "The Misfits", "The Night of the Iguana", "Reflections in a Golden Eye", "Fat City", "Prizzi's Honor", and his final film "The Dead" in 1987. He wrote and directed classics which include "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Key Largo", "The Asphalt Jungle", "The African Queen", "Beat the Devil", and "Moby Dick”. As an actor he appeared in just over fifty films and TV shows, including "Casino Royale", "Myra Breckinridge", "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean”, "The Wind and the Lion”, and most famously "Chinatown" and "The Cardinal” (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination). Huston was nominated for a total of fifteen Academy Awards (eight for writing, five for directing, one for producing, and one for acting), winning two - for writing and directing “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. In 1983, he was honored with a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. He was married five times (divorced four and widowed once), including a marriage to actress Evelyn Keyes. He often cast his father Walter in his films, including “The Maltese Falcon” where he plays "Captain Jacoby” in an uncredited role (I’ll talk about Walter Huston when we watch him in a more prominent role). John was a colorful character who bred horses, was an expert rider, loved Mexico, and famously disliked Hollywood. As he watched many of his talented industry peers become blacklisted as alleged communists during the McCarthy Era, he was vocal against what he called a “witch-hunt" by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and in response established a Committee for the First Amendment with director and friend William Wyler. Among his children are actors Anjelica Huston, Danny Huston, and Tony Huston, and one of his grandchildren is actor Jack Huston. John Huston died in 1987 at the age of 81.
Another major reason this film is so highly cherished is its tight collection of stellar performances. Every face that appears in this film is so perfectly cast, they come together like facets of a magnificent showpiece diamond. It is among the most memorable ensemble in any film in cinema history. Leading the way in a star-making and career defining performance is Humphrey Bogart as the cold, cynical, resourceful detective “Sam Spade”. “Sam” doesn’t react when he learns of his partner’s death and is willing to lie, cheat, and have sex to achieve his goals. In the midst of his immoral behavior, it becomes apparent that “Sam” lives by his own code of ethics which he never crosses no matter how dire the consequences, and under no circumstances will he play the fool. “Sam” is tough, but Bogart’s performance humanizes him into a regular guy who can get rough when needed and can take as good as he gives. We see his human side at our moment of introduction, as he uses his teeth to roll a cigarette followed by his use of charm to obtain work from the seemingly wealthy “knockout”. Much later in the film “Sam” has a violent outburst in front of the fat man, immediately followed by a privately knowing smile, and then a trembling hand - all letting us know he’s dangerous, cunning, and yet vulnerable. Bogart inhabits this role, and “Sam” became the quintessential film detective, and defined the type of character with whom Bogart became known - a tough yet tender, cynical antihero - ultimately earning him the American Film Institute’s pick as the #1 greatest male American Screen Legend of classic Hollywood. Years later Bogart said this role was one of a few accomplishments of which he was proud, and when watching him, it is more than evident he is having a great time. He finds amusement playing opposite just about everyone in the film, and as such Bogart helps keep the film exciting and completely captivating. Two films earlier (but the same year), Bogart appeared in “High Sierra” which was written by Huston. During that film the two became friends, and against studio wishes, Huston wanted Bogart to star in “The Maltese Falcon”. The studio wanted bona fide star George Raft, but to Huston’s delight (and Bogart’s luck) Raft turned it down because he didn’t want to work with a first time director. “High Sierra” took Bogart’s persona from bad guy to likable bad guy, and “The Maltese Falcon” put that “likable bad guy” on the right side of the law. It made Bogart a star. The following year came “Casablanca”, which injected romance into his persona, making him a top leading man. Bogart worked under the direction of Huston in a total of six films, including two more top-tier classics, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” (for which Bogart won his only Oscar). The two remained very close friends until Bogart’s death in 1957, and Huston gave the eulogy at his funeral. You can read more about Humphrey Bogart’s life and career in my entry on “Casablanca”.
Mary Astor is tantalizing as “Brigid O’Shaughnessy”, the “knockout” that comes to seek “Spade’s” help - and a knockout she is. This mysterious, ostensibly mild-mannered beauty has so many secrets, it’s hard to tell if she actually knows truth from lies. Astor gives “Brigid” a coolheaded, heartfelt teariness, and one can’t keep but feel for her and want to help. I can’t think of another performance in which someone walks a delicate line between vulnerable and lethal that can top this one, so it’s no coincidence “Brigid” has become thought of as the mother of femme fatales. Astor’s acting in the last emotion-filled scene with “Sam” is nothing short of perfection. Though Mary Astor was a star since the silent films (becoming a certified star in the early 1930s), “The Maltese Falcon” has become her best remembered role. She won the Best Actress Academy Award that year - not for this film, but instead for "The Great Lie” in which she practically steals the film from Bette Davis (a monumental feat to say the least). It was Astor's only Oscar win or nomination. Astor was riding high at this point in her career as she had an increase in popularity due to a recent notorious situation. Shortly after losing her first husband in a plane crash, she married again and the two had a daughter. It was an unhappy union, both had affairs, and they divorced after nearly four years. They had a very public battle over their daughter, and her ex swiped her diaries in which she wrote of extramarital affairs, wanting to use them in court as evidence that she was an unfit mother. The press got wind, and newspapers created salaciously fake dairy entries which circulated everywhere. Opposing the advice of every major studio head in Hollywood, Astor refused to back down and give up her daughter. When the judge ruled her diaries were inadmissible, her ex’s lawyers leaked excerpts of her actual diaries to the press in which she wrote of her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman. The whole scandal went "1936 viral" (so to speak), even knocking Adolf Hitler from newspaper headlines. Because of the media frenzy, the judge ordered them to reach an agreement and Astor gained custody of her daughter for nine months each year. Instead of hurting her career, all the publicity seemed to help, and by 1941 she was at the height of her popularity, and her racy notoriety seemed to add just the right color to “Brigid”. After a bout with alcohol, two more failed marriages, a suicide attempt (which she claimed was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills), and a nervous breakdown, she didn’t appear in films from 1949 until 1953, working primarily on television for the remainder of her career. She also took to writing, and published five novels and two autobiographies (“My Story: An Autobiography” in 1959 about her troubled life, and “A Life on Film” in 1971 about her film career - both best-sellers). Her final film appearance was in 1964’s “Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (again with Bette Davis). Once her fourth marriage ended in 1955, she never remarried. Mary Astor died in 1987 at the age 81. I previously wrote a bit about her in my post on another of her classics, “Red Dust”. Please check it out.
Peter Lorre is so much fun to watch as “Joel Cairo”, a quirky little man with roving eyes, desperate to find the falcon. Lorre adds so much mystery in his performance, you can’t take your eyes off him. In Hammett’s novel, “Cairo” was gay, but due to the Motion Picture Production Code, a gay character was forbidden in films. Huston and Lorre got around it through behavior and codes -such as having the scent of gardenia precede him when he first meets “Sam”, and how he seems to have a slight oral fixation with the handle of his umbrella. He is an odd sort, well-dressed, and often primping, but just devious enough to be dangerous. Lorre’s distinct speech, flamboyant emotions, and strangely creepy yet likable demeanor make “Cairo” unforgettable, and made Lorre an official movie star. Peter Lorre was already a known actor, having gained international fame when starring in the monumental 1931 Fritz Lang German Expressionist film, “M”. Since then he had been working steadily (most recently in Hollywood B-movies), and Huston knew from the start he wanted Lorre for the role. Lorre plays off everyone in the film to great effect, and this is his first pairing with Sidney Greenstreet. The juxtaposition of the two opposites in size and personality was so enthralling, they became a famous onscreen pair, making a total of nine films together. I’ve written more about Peter Lorre in my posts on “Casablanca” and “M”, where you can find out more about the life and career of this talented and fascinating actor.
Sydney Greenstreet is fabulous as “Kasper Gutman”, the one they call the “fat man”. Possibly the most jovial villain in movies, one can easily imagine a coldblooded killer underneath his maniacal giggles. This is a man obsessed by greed. Confident and seemingly untouchable, “Gutman” allows himself to express joy over his greedy obsession. Greenstreet makes this sinister man quite arresting. He is imposing, confident, easily amused, and filled with passion. Just watch the zeal with which he explains the history of the falcon to “Sam” - it is completely infectious. Greenstreet was 61 years old and this was his first film. For it he earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). After a successful decades-long stage career, Huston saw Sydney Greenstreet in a play and cast him in “The Maltese Falcon”, and this film established Greenstreet as a formidable film character actor. His film career lasted only eight years (before he retired), and though he appeared in other classics, this is the film for which he is most remembered. He teamed again with Bogart and Lorre in “Casablanca”, and I also wrote more about him in that post.
Another face you might recognize in “The Maltese Falcon” is that of Ward Bond, who plays “Detective Tom Polhaus”. He is completely convincing as the detective on the side of the cops, but with a friendly fondness for “Sam” He is the one who feeds the question, “What is it?”, at the end of the film, in which “Sam” answers with one of the most famous lines in cinema history (which I’ll cover in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section). A prolific character and supporting actor who later became known primarily for westerns, Ward Bond appeared in over 300 films and TV shows. Bond has appeared in a record six films so far on this blog (albeit that includes some bit parts), the others being “Bringing Up Baby”, “Gone with the Wind”, “It Happened One Night”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and “The Searchers”. You can read more about him in my “It’s a Wonderful Life” post.
Elisha Cook Jr. plays “Wilmer Cook”, “Gutman’s” gunsel. Cook is spot-on in his portrayal as a mere boy trying to appear tough in his overgrown trench coat. He has just the right amount of youthful innocence of someone in over their head. It’s a fun part, and his clashes with “Sam” are highly entertaining. A bit more insight can be learned about “Wilmer” in Hammett’s book and by the use of the word gunsel (which characters use to describe him). In the novel, it was inferred that both “Wilmer” and “Gutman” (in addition to the more obvious “Cairo”) were gay. At the time, gunsel was slang for a homosexual boy who was kept by an older man. According to an article in World Wide Words, the meaning of gunsel changed with Hammett as unsuspecting people (including the Motion Picture Production Code’s office) believed the word meant a man carrying a gun rather than a kept boy. And thus, a man carrying a gun has since become its meaning. Elisha Cook Jr. began his career onstage, debuting on Broadway in 1926 where he worked steadily for several years. His film debut came with the 1930 film “Her Unborn Child”, reprising his role from the stage. Cook began a steady film career in 1936, and eventually found himself primarily playing some sort of fall guy, weak henchman, or villain, and “The Maltese Falcon” contains perhaps his best known role. Come the 1950’s he began to work extensively in television and periodically on Broadway. Another prolific actor, he amassed over 200 film and TV credits, ending with a recurring role in the 1980’s TV series, “Magnum, P.I.”. Cook’s other classic films include "The Killing", "The Big Sleep", "One-Eyed Jacks ", "Ball of Fire", “Hellzapoppin", and "Rosemary's Baby “. He was married three times. Elisha Cook Jr. died in 1995 at the age of 91. He was the last surviving major cast member of “The Maltese Falcon”.
Another sign of how much love there is for "The Maltese Falcon" is that the falcon prop used in the film sold at a 2013 Bonhams auction for $3.5 million ($4.1 million after fees and taxes). It became the highest selling movie prop of all-time (to date), and the fourth highest priced movie memorabilia item in history (behind Robbie the Robot from “Forbidden Planet”, James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from “Goldfinger”, and Marilyn Monroe’s dress from “The Seven Year Itch”). I guess it really was a priceless bird and the stuff that dreams a made of after all. In case you’re wondering, the falcon was bought by Las Vegas hotel and casino billionaire Steve Wynn.
This week’s recommended classic film represents Hollywood in its prime and at its best. This film about greed is captivating from the second it starts until the second it ends. You are in for an intoxicatingly fun time. Enjoy, “The Maltese Falcon”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Referring to the falcon in hand at the very end of "The Maltese Falcon", “Tom” asks “Sam”, “What is it?”, to which “Sam” replies, “The stuff that dreams are made of”. That powerful line, implying the unquenchable greed that drives people to do anything, has become immortal. The American Film Institute named it the 14th greatest movie quote of all-time. The line was a paraphrase from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, when “Prospero” says, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep".