Film / The Maltese Falcon
The...uh...stuff that dreams are made of.

The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 Warner Bros. film directed by John Huston and based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. It stars Humphrey Bogart as Hardboiled Detective Sam Spade, Mary Astor as his Femme Fatale client, Sydney Greenstreet (in his film debut) as the sinister "fat man" Kasper Gutman, and Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr. as Gutman's Ambiguously Gay sidekicks. The story concerns a private detective's dealings with three unscrupulous adventurers who compete to obtain a fabulous jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon.

The Maltese Falcon has been named as one of the greatest films of all time by Roger Ebert, and Entertainment Weekly, and was cited by Panorama du Film Noir Américain as the first major work of Film Noir. (Though today, movie historians generally consider the first noir to be Stranger on the Third Floor, released one year earlier.) The film was John Huston's directorial debut and was nominated for three Academy Awards.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Dye Job: Spade is blonde in the novel.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Spade is less morally ambiguous in the film than in the book. He doesn't strip Brigid to search for the missing money. In general, he's less aggressive and cruel in actions and speech.
  • Adapted Out: Rhea Gutman, Mr Gutman's daughter.
  • Affably Evil:
    • Kasper Gutman is almost always cheerful and polite.
    • Joel Cairo as well. He even asks Sam to "please" keep his hands on the back of his head while holding him at gunpoint.
  • Agent Peacock: For a strongly implied gay man in a pre-gay age and a central antagonist, Cairo is quite fabulous.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Captain Jacobi, who comes staggering into Spade's office with the Falcon before expiring.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Joel Cairo. It's rather less ambiguous in the original novel and in the pre-Hays Code film adaptation (in the 1941 version, you could tell he was gay because he wore white gloves and smelled of lavender, not to mention Hammett's references to Wilmer as the 'gunsel', which is not slang for a gun-toting criminal).
  • Anti-Hero: It's up in the air for much of the story exactly which side of 'right' vs 'wrong' Sam Spade will ultimately fall upon. It's ultimately on the side of 'right'. Turns out you don't kill a private detective's partner, even if the private detective didn't like the partner.
  • Artistic License – History: The opening crawl states that the Knights Templar of Malta created the falcon in 1539. The Knights Templar were dissolved in 1312. (The director had probably confused the Knights Templar with the Knights of Malta, a separate organization that is still around today.)
  • Asshole Victim: Wilmer is set to be the fall guy by the other crooks. He was a Jerk Ass the entire time.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The bad guys are exposed and rounded up, but Spade turns over O'Shaughnessy, with whom he's fallen in love, to the cops to avenge his partner. And it wasn't even the real Falcon to begin with.
  • The Cameo: Walter Huston, John Huston's father and a big movie star, appears here as Capt. Jacobi, the Almost Dead Guy who delivers the Falcon.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Mockingly offered by Spade to Dundy as a possible reason for a cut on Cairo's head.
  • Defensive Failure
  • Detective Patsy: Brigid initially went to Spade and Archer on a pretense to get Thursby into a fight, thereby either getting him killed or slapping him with murder.
  • The Determinator: Kasper Gutman has been chasing the Falcon for 17 odd years; after he finds out that the bird they've stolen is a fake, he's ready in an instant to go back to Istanbul to start the search all over again.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Though he has fallen in love with Brigid, Spade turns her over to the police for murdering Archer, his partner.
  • Fall Guy: Sam Spade turns the criminals against each other by only agreeing to hand over the Falcon if Wilmer takes the fall for the murder of Sam's partner.
  • Fatal Attraction: Spade is in love with Brigid in spite of the fact that she's been murdering and manipulating everyone around her.
  • Femme Fatale: Brigid. It doesn't work on Spade though.
  • Friend on the Force: Sgt. Polhaus is this, in contrast to Lt. Dundy.
  • Gayngster: Implied with Wilmer and Cairo, though more subtly than in the book. this trope is quite common in Film Noir.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film dodges The Hays Code by only subtly implying the homosexuality of Wilmer and Cairo. Spade refers derogatorily to Wilmer as "the gunsel", both in the movie and in the book. "Gunsel" was Yiddish slang for a a male passive sexual partner, but not many people knew that. As the slang was all but forgotten, it was re-imagined as slang for a gunslinger or a gun-toting hitman.
  • The Ghost:
    • General Kemidov, from whom the Maltese Falcon was stolen.
    • Floyd Thursby, one of the thieves after the Maltese Falcon, who was originally Brigid's conspirator and is killed offscreen after the first scene before he ever makes an appearance. A decent amount of time is spent unraveling what happened to him.
  • Girl Friday: Spade's secretary Effie Perine.
  • Guile Hero: Sam Spade.
  • Guns Akimbo: Wilmer has two guns and occasionally has one in each hand.
  • Harbinger of Impending Doom: Captain Jacobi shows up at Spade's office, having been shot multiple times but still carrying the Falcon, and he is only able to mumble a vague explanation before dying. It isn't long before his killer and the men for whom he is working catch up with Spade.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Sam Spade is one of the codifiers. He is cynical but determined, has a prickly relationship with law enforcement, keeps his cards close to his chest regarding whose side he is really on in the Black and Gray Morality conflict over the Falcon, and is seldom seen without a cigar or cigarette in his mouth and a drink in his hand.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Capt Jacobi stumbles into Spade's office with the Falcon.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain:
    • Joel Cairo spends most of the movie getting roughed up. He barely does anything of use.
    • Wilmer is insulted, humiliated and beaten up throughout the film. Offscreen, though, he's a killer.
  • Insistent Terminology: Spade repeatedly refers to the Falcon as "the dingus".
  • Inspector Javert: Lt. Dundy is fairly close in his desire to take Spade down.
  • It Must Be Mine: Most of the characters will go to any lengths, including murder, to get the Falcon.
  • The Knights Hospitallers: The original owners of the fabled bird.
  • Like a Son to Me: Subverted. "I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son." What follows has to be one of the coldest lines in movie history.
    But, well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.
  • MacGuffin: The Falcon, which has little use in the story other than to be something valuable enough to drive the plot.
  • MacGuffin Title: The film is named for the statuette the characters are pursuing, which only actually appears at the end of the film (and isn't even the genuine article).
  • Meaningful Name: "Gutman" is fat, "Cairo" is from abroad, and "Spade" never stops digging for the truth.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: The bad guys take the Falcon. It's fake.
  • Mock Guffin: The eponymous statue. It's not the real Maltese Falcon (if, indeed, there ever was a real Maltese Falcon), but a copy made of lead.
  • Nice Hat: It's a Film Noir, and it stars Humphrey Bogart. Nice Hats are guaranteed.
  • Non-Specifically Foreign: Joel Cairo has three different passports (which are probably all fake), a generic name (alias?) which doesn't betray his ultimate origins, and a bizarre accent which swings between French, Russian, German, and whatnot.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Spade does not strip Brigid to search for the missing bill, since this scene could not be filmed with The Hays Code.
  • Pretty in Mink:
    • Brigid wears at leas four furs in the movie: a silver fox wrap, a Persian lamb coat, a stole of sables, and a mink coat.
    • Mrs. Archer wears a black fox muff and a black fox hat with a veil, as part of her mourning clothes.
  • Repeating so the Audience Can Hear: Used in several of Spade's phone conversations.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Sam is leaning in and kissing Brigid in the window, suddenly it's the next morning and the curtains in the window are blowing gently in the sunlight.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Spade's last line, which provides the photo caption, is a slightly mangled quote from The Tempest.
    "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
  • Sissy Villain: All members of the villain trio have this going to some degree, but Cairo is particularly effeminate.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Gutman does this to Spade during their second meeting.
  • Smoking Is Cool: As in the book, Spade is seen rolling a cigarette in nearly every scene in which he appears (including his very first scene), and the half-smoked cigarette dangling from his lips is one of the defining parts of his image as the classic Hardboiled Detective.
  • Stolen MacGuffin Reveal: This is one of the interpretations. The other is that the Falcon was a Mock Guffin since the very beginning. Notice that Gutman, Cairo and O'Shaughnessy immediately bought the first version, such is the power of the falcon over them.
  • Terrible Trio: Gutman is the leader of the three crooks, and Cairo and Wilmer are his enforcers. Cairo is implied to be the smarter of the two, but Wilmer is the one who actually kills two people during the events of the story.
  • Villainous Breakdown:
    • When Gutman shaves off the black enamel of the Falcon and exposes lead, he begins frantically slashing and stabbing the statue in outrage that it's a fake.
      Kasper Gutman: [scraping the statue more and more frantically] Fake. It's a phony! It's lead! It's lead! It's a fake!
    • Cairo's outburst upon finding out the statue is fake.
      Joel Cairo: [to Kasper Gutman] You! You bungled it! You and your stupid attempt to buy it! Kemidov found out how valuable it was! No wonder we had such an easy time stealing it! You... YOU IMBECILE! YOU BLOATED IDIOT!! You stupid FATHEAD, you— [breaks down crying]
  • Villainous Glutton: Gutman.