The Maltese Falcon (1941)

This probably sounds really weird, but The Maltese Falcon (based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett) reminds me of a landed fish. Fresh out of the water and flapping about like mad, its tail swishing from side to side at breakneck speed. One twist here, another twist there, one turn here and another there, never still for a moment. Possibly not the best simile for a film, but I can’t help it: the speed of this film is just so frenetic. I saw it again last night, and found myself struggling to keep pace.

The Maltese Falcon begins with a quick introduction, a paragraph scrolling down the screen to the effect that 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 jewels—but pirates seized the galley carrying it, and the Maltese Falcon was lost, its fate a mystery.

The action now shifts to San Francisco, to the office of private detectives Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), where the secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) has just shown in an elegant client (Mary Astor) who introduces herself as Miss Wanderley.

Miss Wanderley has a job for Spade and Archer. Her sister Corinne has run away from New York with a man named Floyd Thursby. Miss Wanderley has managed to trace the runaway couple to San Francisco, and has met Thursby, who insists that Corinne doesn’t want to see her sister. He has promised to try and bring Corinne to meet Miss Wanderley at her hotel in the evening—failing which he will come to the hotel on his own.
Miss Wanderley is sure that something’s wrong, and wants Spade and Archer to keep an eye on Thursby when he meets her in the evening. Archer promises to tail Thursby…

…and is shot dead that night. Spade, who arrives at the scene of the crime and has a brief talk with the policemen milling around, comes to the conclusion that Thursby killed Archer.
Back home, Spade telephones Effie to ask her to inform Archer’s wife, Iva (Gladys George). He’s still mulling over the day’s happenings when he receives visitors: two police detectives who come with the news that Thursby has been murdered. They make it pretty obvious that they suspect Spade. After all, it looks like Thursby killed Archer, so Spade probably struck a blow for his slain friend.

Spade denies a hand in Thursby’s death. Though the cops are sceptical, they take themselves off after warning Spade.
At office the next morning, Effie tells Spade that she’d gone to visit Iva Archer late at night to tell her about Archer’s death—and, from what Effie can deduce, Iva had just come in. What was Iva doing out so late on the very night her husband was killed?

As if that isn’t suspicious enough, a weepy Iva has dropped by to meet Spade—and to plead with him to “be kind to her”, now that Archer’s out of the way. Our hero, it seems, is quite a ladies’ man: Iva, at any rate, appears quite enamoured of him, though she does ask if he was the one who killed Miles.
Spade is dismissive, and after booting Iva out, goes to meet Miss Wanderley, who’d phoned to say she wanted to meet him.

The conversation at Miss Wanderley’s is long drawn, with Spade using everything from seduction to sympathy to outright contempt to tease the truth out of her. Much emerges. Firstly, that her name isn’t Wanderley; she’s Bridget O’Shaughnessy. Secondly, there’s no sister, though Floyd Thursby was definitely a part of Bridget’s life. And not a very nice part: they were partners back in Hong Kong, and Bridget thinks he killed Miles Archer.
This is a convoluted, surreal conversation: Bridget O’Shaughnessy switches between vamp, frightened woman and little-girl-lost to tell Spade parts of her story. He doesn’t know what to make of her: he’s attracted, but also mistrustful.

Even at the end of it, though, Spade can’r figure out what’s happening. The only thing that seems certain is that Bridget is scared for her life. Someone’s out to kill her, but why, she won’t say.
Spade gets irritated at all this shilly-shallying, but finally agrees to do what he can to keep Bridget safe—and find out who killed Thursby.

When he gets back to his office, Spade finds a stranger, the gardenia-scented, effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). Cairo indicates that Thursby’s death is linked with that of Archer; he then goes on to say that there’s a valuable ornament—a statue of a black bird—for which the person he (Joel Cairo) represents is willing to pay $5,000.

Spade is puzzled at this sudden new element. Before he can question Cairo further, Effie phones to say she’s leaving for the day. As soon as the office is empty, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade and demands the black bird.
Stupid man, of course, since Spade knocks him out and goes through his pockets (not much emerges, other than multiple passports—British, French, etc). When Cairo comes around, Spade questions him. Cairo finally hires Spade (after paying him an advance of $200) to find the missing bird, and rounds off the evening by once again keeping Spade at gunpoint while he (Cairo) searches the room. In vain, of course: the black bird isn’t there.

Later that night, Spade goes to meet Bridget, and tells her about Cairo, whom she admits to knowing… and when, a little later, Spade fixes up a meeting between Cairo and Bridget, more becomes clear. From the conversation between Bridget and Cairo, it turns out that an unnamed accomplice of Bridget’s is en route to San Francisco with the black bird, bringing it from where Thursby had hidden it. Cairo’s still offering $5,000 for it.

Bridget says she no longer wants to hang on to the bird (by now she’s openly calling it “the falcon”), because of what happened to Thursby. And what happened to Thursby? The Fat Man.

The next day starts off eventfully. Iva drops by, tremulous and unhappy and wondering why Spade has ditched her. Bridget comes to Spade’s office, fearing for her life, and Spade persuades Effie to house her (Bridget) for a few days. The police are getting increasingly suspicious of Spade, whom they think is mixed up in the deaths of Archer and Thursby. And Spade, who’s been followed almost continuously since the previous night, finally manages to confront his tail (an outwardly belligerent but green youth called Wilmer—Elisha Cook, Jr) and asks him to pass on a message to the Fat Man: they’ll have to talk sometime.

And finally, Wilmer acts as escort. He takes Spade to meet Mr Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the Fat Man. This is the man, clad in smart suit and spats, living in apparent luxury, and amused by Spade’s arrogance (“You’re a character, sir,” he says) who knows the answers. He knows what the black falcon is, and why people are willing to pay huge sums—or willing to kill—for it. He knows too the secret behind Bridget and Cairo and Thursby… and why Miles Archer was killed, and by whom.

But are there things the Fat Man knows but isn’t telling Spade? And to what extent can Spade trust any of the people in this strange whirligig of murder and deceit, all of it revolving around that mysterious black falcon? And who really killed Miles Archer?

What I liked about this film:

The acting. Bogart—not an actor I like, but one I admire—is excellent as the cynical, arrogant, yet sometimes-affectionate (see his interactions with Effie), sometimes-passionate, always hard-headed, hard-boiled PI. Mary Astor is equally good as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, acting frightened and helpless one moment, forgetting the act and becoming brisk and business-like the next. And the film has two other character actors I list among my favourites: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, the latter superb as the self-assured, suave and dangerous Gutman.

The dialogue. There are some snappy, witty lines in The Maltese Falcon. Here’s an example:
Wilmer: “Keep on rilin’ me and they’re goin’ to be pickin’ iron outta your liver.”
Spade: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, huh?”

And the camera work—smart angles, interesting frames—is worth a mention. The last scene, for instance, has a fine symbolic shot of the iron grill of a lift door shutting in front of the culprit (who’s flanked by policemen), framing the culprit in what is distinctly reminiscent of a barred cell.

What I didn’t like:

At the risk of being labelled an iconoclast, I’m going to admit that I don’t really like the film that much. True, this is noir at its best (Dashiell Hammett was one of the exponents of the genre), and all the elements are present: the sleaze, the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, the cynical sleuth, the half-romance (as much lust as love?) between the sleuth and one of the prime suspects—it’s all there—but it can get thoroughly confusing. Part of it is possibly because people (especially Bridget, Cairo and Gutman) change loyalties and tales at the drop of a hat. Part of it is also possibly because there are some elements that seem to be there simply for the thrill of it all.

By the way, here’s a question for anybody who’s seen the film and remembers it well: did the question of where Iva had been gallivanting the night of Miles’s murder ever get answered? My DVD jumped at one point and though it didn’t seem as if a scene got cut, I’m not going to pass judgment until I know for sure whether or not that ever got resolved.

Personally, I’d also have preferred it if the history of the falcon hadn’t been explained at the beginning of the film, especially as it’s repeated, in much greater detail, by Gutman later in the film. Giving away the background of the falcon detracted from some of the suspense surrounding the ‘black bird’: I’d have liked to have the reason for its value disclosed through conversations etc, rather than have known from the very start why the Maltese Falcon was so valuable.

Still, a classic, and definitely worth a watch. The suspense is good, but don’t let your attention wander: you can miss important details if you stop listening even for a minute.


13 thoughts on “The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  1. don’t let your attention wander: you can miss important details if you stop listening even for a minute.” – too late! I did let my attention wander in the beginning and as a result, never quite caught up with the plot. To be fair, the print I saw had terrible audio (I saw it years ago when the student’s film club in my grad school put it on) and it was very hard to follow the dialogues. All I remember now is that everybody kept changing sides/loyalty so often that they put Aya Ram Gaya Ram to shame! My first impression of this film was so bad that I never bothered to watch when it played on TCM, either.

    I might get round to watching this, just for Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Their villains always look like they’ve walked straight out of an Edgar Wallace novel!


  2. The first time I watched this, I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should’ve been, either – so a lot of it was lost on me! This time, I was paying attention (and it was an excellent print, so I can’t blame poor audio), and still I had to rewind now and then – “What was that again?”

    The sudden and frequent shifts in loyalties and stories don’t help – and it’s a complicated plot too. What’s worse, a lot of the explanations are in the form of dialogue, not action that you can see. And audio, as an instructional design trainer had told me, eventually begins turning to mere background noise… action has greater staying power.

    Oh, well. Maybe I’m just too much of a fan of the Hitchcock brand of noir to easily adapt to this style.


  3. Repeating myself- but this pace is exactly what I love about these films! Yes, take your eyes/years away for a few seconds means missing the plot.

    I will try and rewatch my copy to answer your question…


  4. “I will try and rewatch my copy to answer your question…”

    Please! I couldn’t find that anywhere, and since the script is fairly watertight otherwise, it seemed odd that one plot element should have been left unresolved.

    Talking of films with good pace, I really liked Charade – though it twisted and turned pretty breathlessly, I thought the plot wasn’t hard to follow. And Hepburn and Grant are two of my favourite actors!


  5. Oh, I think Cary Grant is on top of my list, and Audrey Hepburn is so unique. I don’t remember Charades although i know I have watched it, but I recently re-watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and that was so much fun (and a good storyline too).


  6. I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s years ago, as a teenager – don’t remember much of it except that I thought Hepburn and Peppard looked wonderful, and that I loved the end! I’ve rediscovered Moon River only a few days back, too… must see that film again.


  7. this is a good “reminder game”!

    do watch it, there is no quite as elegantly wacky as Hepburn, and it is a pity that Peppard downgraded to stuff like in the A-Team, although I suppose the latter did make him rich…


  8. Just by the way, another Peppard film I’d recommend is Home From the Hill, also starring Robert Mitchum and Eleanor Parker. Somewhat angst-ridden film of a dysfunctional family centring round an adulterous husband. Good, though parts of it are very violent.


  9. Apart from the African Queen, these black and white noirs are my fave type of Bogey movies. I ADORE them! My absolute favorite is The Big Sleep, a movie so confusing that nobody on set realized that they’d forgotten to explain a significant portion of the puzzle until after it was playing in the theaters. And this in spite of the movie having two endings.

    Gotta love it! :D If you do ever watch it, let me know if you figure out which part they forgot – It took me my second try before I figured it out. And I was paying very close attention!

    The Maltese Falcon is my second fave in Bogey’s series – they’re so much more fun than your standard whodunnit. And it gives me the tingles to hear the dialogue. Once you’re hooked on these 40s movies, everybody else seems to be drawling their lines.

    I’ll rewatch my copy and let you know the answer to your question!


  10. The Big Sleep is on my list, but now you’ve got me worried! I had to see The Maltese Falcon a second time to get all the facts in (and even then I seem to have missed some), so The Big Sleep will probably require half a dozen viewings before I get the story straight. But will persevere! :-)


  11. It did take me several viewings to more completely understand the plot of The Maltese Falcon. But it was worth it since it is such a fascinating and enjoyable film. :)


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