The Maltese Falcon is a 1931 film directed by Roy Del Ruth, starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. It was the first of three film adaptations of the 1929 novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett.
Sam Spade (Cortez) is a private investigator in San Francisco, half of the detective firm of Spade and Archer. He's an incorrigible ladies' man, with his partner Archer's wife Ida just one of his many girlfriends. Archer knows about the affair Spade is having with Archer's wife.
Simultaneously, the very attractive Ruth Wonderly (Daniels) comes to the office to enlist Spade and Archer in tracking down her sister, who has run away with one Floyd Thursby. Spade and Archer are skeptical of this excuse but take Ruth's $200. In short order, both Thursby and Archer are killed. With the police zeroing in on Spade as the likely killer, either of Thursby to avenge Archer, of Archer because of the affair with Ida, or both—Spade has to find the real killers. His situation is further complicated when an odd cast of characters appear, in pursuit of what is also Ruth's real goal: an obscenely valuable bejeweled statue called the Maltese Falcon.
This story would be made again in 1936 as a loose comic adaptation called Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis. It would be remade yet a third time in 1941 as The Maltese Falcon, a film that has gone down in movie history as an iconic example of Film Noir, and one that has pretty much completely Covered Up this version in public memory.
Dwight Frye, better remembered as Renfield in the 1931 Dracula and as a wild-eyed psycho in several other horror films of the era, here appears as Wilmer, the part played by Elisha Cook Jr. in the 1941 film. Una Merkel plays Effie, Sam's secretary.
- Adaptation Expansion: This film adds an epilogue not found in the novel in which Spade visits Ruth in prison and she tells him that she really did love him.
- Adaptation Name Change: In the original novel (and in the 1941 film), "Wonderly" is revealed to be an alias for the woman really named Brigid O'Shaughnessy. In this version, Ruth Wonderly is her actual name.
- Almost Dead Guy: As with the 1941 film, a mortally wounded Captain Jacoby staggers into Spade's office with the falcon before he collapses and dies.
- Bathtub Scene: One notable difference of this version is a lot more Fanservice than the 1941 film. Some of it comes when Ruth is depicted in the bath.
- Beard of Evil: This version of Joel Cairo has an Obviously Evil Van Dyke beard.
- Chekhov's Gunman: The Chinese merchant seen chatting with Sam at the murder scene turns out to be an eyewitness who puts Wonderly away.
- Deadpan Snarker: This version of Spade is much more this and not nearly so much of a Knight in Sour Armor as the Humphrey Bogart version.
- Decoy Damsel: Ruth Wonderly, manipulating Spade for her own greedy ends.
- Fanservice: It's a pre-Code film, so, loads. Besides Ruth's Bathtub Scene, there's multiple shots of her in lingerie, as well as some lingerie and She's Got Legs shots of Ina (Thelma Todd).
- Gayngster: This film, being made in The Pre-Code Era, is more explicit about the gay coding of Gutman and his gang. Gutman actually caresses Wilmer's cheek before agreeing to give him over, and Sam later refers to Wilmer as Gutman's "boyfriend." The rather effete manner of both Gutman and Cairo is much more overt in this version as well.
- Girl Friday: Effie, whom Spade is clearly also carrying on with, although it seems to be more of a Friends with Benefits situation than either his messy affair with Ina or his love affair with Ruth.
- High-Class Glass: Gutman sports one of these, which mostly serves to make him look silly.
- I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Capt. Jacoby has a delivery.
- Like a Son to Me: Gutman says this word-for-word of Wilmer before betraying him. This film lacks the ice-cold "if you lose a son, it's possible to get another" line that Gutman follows this remark with in the 1941 film.
- MacGuffin: The Maltese Falcon, worth $2 million.
- MockGuffin: The Falcon is a fake.
- Male Gaze: Sam's lecherous "Yes sir!" when staring at Effie's rear end as she walks away.
- Plot Hole: If the Chinese merchant told Spade what happened at the beginning—they are seen talking—why did he ever take up with Ruth?
- Reality Has No Subtitles: None given for Spade's conversation with the Chinese merchant. This was convention at the time but also avoids a spoiler.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Spade strip-searches Ruth for the missing $1000. The camera stays on Spade while she flings articles of clothing at him from off-screen. This scene comes from the book but was cut from the 1941 film as there was no way to get it past the censors.
- Smoking Is Glamorous: Ruth is seen with a cigarette for the first time when she makes an appearance wearing nothing but a slip and kimono, saying "I love your apartment" to Sam in a bedroom voice. Later she takes the cigarette from Sam's mouth as she seduces him on the couch.
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: Ruth pulls her $500 bankroll out of the Compartment to give to Sam as his fee. Played for a gag when, after trying to withhold the last $100 from Sam while claiming it's all she has to live on, she pulls a much fatter bankroll out of her stocking.
- Villainous Breakdown: Cairo freaks out, shouting about Gutman's stupidity in giving away the secret to Kemidov.
- Worthless Treasure Twist: The Falcon that everyone's been murdering to find is a fake that might or might not have been switched out for the real one by General Kemidov.