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Film / The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 Warner Bros. Film Noir directed by John Huston and based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, with Huston's screenplay using most of the book's original dialogue. 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 Spade'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.

Actually the third screen version of Hammett's novel, which had previously been filmed in 1931 as The Maltese Falcon and more loosely in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady.

The movie's success was big enough that Classic Radio Drama, The Adventures of Sam Spade, was made from 1946-1951, starring Howard Duff doing a credible Bogart impression.

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, and the famous Flitcraft Parable, which is one of the most oft-quoted parts of the text.
  • Affably Evil:
    • Kasper Gutman is almost always cheerful and polite. He's so amiable and good-humored that you almost don't notice that he's a total sociopath.
    • 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.
  • Alliterative Name: Sam Spade.
  • 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 gardenia, 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.
    Sam: When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's - it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere.
  • 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.) All the more glaring because Gutman mentions the correct order while explaining the Falcon's history to Spade in the film proper.
  • Asshole Victim: Wilmer is set to be the fall guy by the other crooks. He was a Jerkass the entire time.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: Spade.
  • 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 / Dead Star Walking: Walter Huston, John Huston's father and a big movie star, appears here as Capt. Jacobi, the Almost Dead Guy who delivers the Falcon.
  • Camp Gay: Joel Cairo.
  • Central Theme: Can matters of the heart override one's sense of justice?
  • Criminally Attractive: Spade is in love with Brigid in spite of the fact that she's been murdering and manipulating everyone around her.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Mockingly offered by Spade to Dundy as a possible reason for a cut on Cairo's head.
  • Dame with a Case: Probably the Trope Codifier. In the opening scene, private detective Sam Spade is sitting at his desk, rolling a cigarette. He is shortly told by his secretary Effie that a girl wishes to see him - and that she is worth seeing just for the sake of her looks. In walks the well-dressed Ruth Wonderly, who claims that her sister is missing and is involved with a certain man. He and his partner, Miles Archer, agree to take her case. The next morning, though, Spade learns that Archer has been killed. Moreover, when Spade next sees Ruth, she is calling herself Brigid O'Shaughnessy and is breeding distrust. The story develops from there. She is eventually revealed to be one of the antagonists and the murderer of Sam's partner.
  • Dead Partner: Spade notes that one has to avenge one's dead partner, regardless of one's personal feelings towards the partner.
  • Decoy Damsel: Brigid O'Shaughnessy.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: When Sam Spade is asked why he doesn't carry a gun, he simply replies that he doesn't like them.
  • Every Man Has His Price:
    Sam: Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy, but a lot more money would have been one more item on your side of the scale.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Related to Every Man Has His Price:
    Sam: When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's - it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere.
  • 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.
  • Fat and Skinny: Kasper Gutman and Joel Cairo.
  • Fat Bastard: Kasper Gutman. Bonus points for his being referred to "The Fat Man".
  • Femme Fatale: Brigid. It doesn't work on Spade though, to the point where it's almost a Defied Trope; no matter how much he loves her, he's ultimately smart enough to realise that he can never trust her and that she'll betray him in a second if she thinks its to her advantage.
  • 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 movie dodges the Hays Code's rule against "sex perversion" by only subtly implying the homosexuality of Wilmer Cook and Joel Cairo. Cairo kisses his phallic cane lovingly at one point. 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.note 
  • 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.
  • Good with Numbers: Gutman's response after the initial shock of the Falcon fakery: "For seventeen years I have wanted that little item and have been trying to get it. If I must spend another year on the quest — well, sir — that will be an additional expenditure in time of only...five and fifteen-seventeenths percent."
  • 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 conflict over the Falcon, and is seldom seen without a cigar or cigarette in his mouth and a drink in his hand.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Floyd Thursby, the murder victim.
  • Hitler Cam: Gutman is introduced from a very low camera angle, to emphasize not only emphasize his girth but power over the situation.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Capt Jacobi stumbles into Spade's office with the Falcon.
  • Impairment Shot: Spade's vision blurs as the drug Gutman gave him kicks in.
  • 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.
  • I Reject Your Reality: Gutman and Cairo would rather believe Kemidov is a brilliant schemer than think that the Falcon is nothing more than a worthless dingus that they have spent their entire lives (and lots of money, and many dastardly acts) getting. The movie leaves open whether or not this is the actual reality.
  • It Must Be Mine!: Most of the characters will go to any lengths, including murder, to get the Falcon.
  • I Will Wait for You: At the end, Spade promises to wait for Brigid.
  • Knight in Sour Armour: Spade.
  • Like a Son to Me: Subverted. Gutman treats Wilmer as such, even stating "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.
  • A MacGuffin Full of Money: The Maltese Falcon looks like an ordinary statue, but only a few people know that it holds gems under its skin.
  • 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).
  • Manipulative Bastard: Brigid O'Shaughnessy. As Sam Spade says at the end of the film, he wants more than anything else to believe her version of events, and that's why he doesn't.
  • 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.
  • MockGuffin: 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.
  • No MacGuffin, No Winner: The bad guys get hold of the Falcon, but it turns out to be a fake. It's left open whether it was fake all along, or there's still a real Falcon out there somewhere.
  • 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.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The murder of Spade's partner Archer sets the plot in motion.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Spade does not strip Brigid to search for the missing bill, since this scene could not be filmed under The Hays Code.
  • Pretender Diss: Sam Spade has venomous contempt for wannabe tough-guy and "gunsel", Wilmer.
  • Pretty in Mink:
    • Brigid wears at least 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.
  • Replaced with Replica: The bad guys finally get their grips on the eponymous falcon statue, only to find that it is a worthless replica, not the golden statue encrusted with jewels that they've been hunting for years. They think this means that General Kemidov tricked them and made off with the bird before the events of the film. Sam, however, is obviously skeptical that the real statue ever existed in the first place.
  • Riddle for the Ages: We never do find out what happened to the original falcon, or if it even existed in the first place.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The Maltese Falcon itself is rumored to be a solid gold statue encrusted with jewels hiding under a coat of black enamel. Gutman is willing to pay huge sums of money for it because he knows he can receive even more in exchange. The Falcon's backstory is long and convoluted, involving Knights Templar, Charles V of Spain, and a tribute made of jewels. It also doesn't matter one bit. The backstory adds to the "thrilling" part of the story, but in actuality, it's ridiculous. Lots of suspense is built around the falcon, and it's not actually seen until almost the end of the movie. The film runs 1 hour and 41 minutes, and we see the Falcon around 1 hour 27 minutes, barely ten minutes before the credits. The newspaper is torn from the bird like a sort of striptease, and Gutman caresses his treasure, except... the falcon was fake. So, in a way, the Falcon was a MacGuffin bringing the entire cast together. When Sam Spade says that the Maltese Falcon is "the stuff that dreams are made of," he's alluding to the fact that it's insubstantial (worthless) and to the fact that everywhere the Maltese Falcon goes, death follows it.
    • If the curly hair, the gardenia-scented calling card, or Cairo briefly touching Spade's rear end when he frisks him doesn't tip you off that Cairo's gay, he also has his umbrella. When we first meet Joel Cairo, he makes himself at home in Spade's office, and he appears to use the cane handle of his umbrella to flirt with Spade, or to feel out what the other man's sexuality might be. Cairo fiddles with the handle, strokes it, and even holds it up to his lips in a way it's amazing got past the censors. A nice way to indicate just who's side he's on.
  • Schiff One-Liner: "The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of." This is one of the few famous quotes from the film that is not a line from the novel.
  • 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 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 MockGuffin 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.
  • True Companions: If you're a detective, it doesn't matter that you hated your partner and were sleeping with his wife — he's your partner, and if he's killed you have to do something about it.
  • 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.
  • Visual Pun: During the Dénouement, the elevator gate resembles jail cell bars for the Femme Fatale.
  • Wicked Cultured: Gutman.
  • Worthless Treasure Twist: The titular falcon statuette is only a big hunk of lead under the ebony enamel, leading to a moment of Villainous Breakdown. The Trope is played with in that fact that this discovery only makes the bad guys do an "I Reject Your Reality" (believing that maybe it was switched with a replica) and decide to continue their quest.