- The Maltese Falcon (1941 film)
The Maltese Falcon
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Huston Produced by Hal B. Wallis (executive) Written by John Huston Based on The Maltese Falcon by
Starring Humphrey Bogart
Music by Adolph Deutsch Cinematography Arthur Edeson Editing by Thomas Richards Distributed by Warner Bros. Release date(s) October 3, 1941 Running time 101 minutes Country United States Language English
The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 Warner Bros. film based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and a remake of the 1931 film of the same name. Written for the screen and directed by John Huston, the film stars Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade; Mary Astor as his femme fatale client; Gladys George; Peter Lorre; and Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. The film was Huston's directorial debut and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
The story concerns a San Francisco 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, the first major work on film noir, as the first film of that genre.
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 rarest jewels——but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day——
—Introductory text appearing after the film's opening credits
In 1941 San Francisco, private investigators Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) meet prospective client Miss Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). She claims to be looking for her missing sister, who is involved with a man named Floyd Thursby. Wonderly is to meet Thursby and hopes her sister will be with him. After receiving a substantial retainer, Archer volunteers to follow her that night and help get her sister back.
That night, Spade is informed that Archer has been killed. He meets his friend, Police Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) at the murder scene. He then calls Wonderly's hotel, but she has checked out. He is grilled by Polhaus and his supervisor, Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), who inform him that Thursby was also murdered that same evening. Dundy suggests that Spade had the opportunity and motive (an affair with Archer's wife, played by Gladys George) to commit both crimes.
The next morning, Spade meets Wonderly, now calling herself Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She explains that Thursby was her partner and probably killed Archer, but claims to have no idea who killed Thursby. Spade agrees to investigate the murders.
At his office, Spade meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who first offers him a $5,000 fee to find a "black figure of a bird," then pulls a gun on him in order to search for it. Spade manages to knock Cairo out and go through his belongings. When Cairo revives, he hires Spade. Later that evening, Spade tells O'Shaughnessy about his encounter with Cairo. When Cairo shows up, it becomes clear that Spade's acquaintances know each other. Cairo becomes agitated when O'Shaughnessy reveals that the "Fat Man" is in San Francisco.
In the morning, Spade goes to Cairo's hotel, where he spots Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a young man who had been following him earlier. He gives Wilmer a message for his boss, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the "Fat Man". Spade meets Gutman. Gutman begins to talk about the Falcon, but becomes evasive, causing Spade to storm out, giving Gutman a deadline to be more forthcoming. Later, Spade is taken by Wilmer at gunpoint to see Gutman. Spade overpowers Wilmer, but meets with Gutman anyway. Gutman relates the history of the Maltese Falcon. He offers Spade $25,000 for the bird and a quarter of the proceeds from its sale. Then Spade passes out; his drink was spiked. Wilmer, Gutman and Cairo (who had been in the other room) depart.
When Spade awakens, he searches the suite and finds a newspaper with the arrival time of the freighter La Paloma circled. He goes to the dock, only to find the ship on fire, so he returns to his office. A man (Walter Huston) clutching a bundle wrapped in newspaper bursts in and staggers toward Spade before dying. The contents of his wallet identify the dead man as Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma. The bundle contains the Maltese Falcon.
The phone rings. O'Shaughnessy gives an address and then screams before the line goes dead. Spade stashes the package in a bus terminal baggage room, then goes to the address. It turns out to be an empty lot. Spade returns home and finds Brigid hiding in a doorway. He takes her inside, and finds Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer waiting for him, guns drawn. Gutman gives Spade $10,000 for the Falcon, but Spade tells them that part of his price is someone he can turn over to the police for the murders of Archer, Thursby, and Captain Jacobi. Spade suggests Wilmer as the best choice, since he certainly killed Thursby and Jacobi. After some intense negotiation, Gutman and Cairo agree; Wilmer is knocked out in a scuffle. Spade gets the details of what happened and who killed whom, so that he can present a convincing story to the police along with Wilmer.
Just after dawn, Spade calls his secretary, Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick), to bring him the bundle. However, when Gutman inspects the black statuette, he discovers that it is a fake. He suggests that he and Cairo return to Istanbul to continue their quest. After they leave, Spade calls the police and tells them where to pick up the pair. Spade then angrily confronts Brigid, telling her he knows she killed Archer to implicate Thursby, her unwanted accomplice. Brigid cannot believe that Spade would turn her over to the police, but he does, despite his feelings for her.
- Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
- Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy
- Gladys George as Iva Archer
- Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo
- Barton MacLane as Lt. of Detectives Dundy
- Lee Patrick as Effie Perrine
- Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman
- Ward Bond as Detective Tom Polhaus
- Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer
- Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer Cook
- James Burke as Luke
- Murray Alper as Frank Richman
- John Hamilton as Bryan
- Walter Huston as Captain Jacobi
The antihero protagonist of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, private investigator Sam Spade, is based on the author's experiences as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco. Hammett not only invested Spade with characteristics drawn from his own personality but also gave him his own first name, Samuel, which Hammett had discarded when he launched his career as a writer.
Hammett also drew upon his years as a detective in creating many of the other characters for The Maltese Falcon, which reworks elements from two of his stories published in Black Mask magazine in 1925, "The Whosis Kid" and "The Gutting of Couffignal". The novel itself was serialized in five parts in Black Mask in 1929-30 before being published in book form in 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf.
The 1941 film is the third film version of the novel. The first, released in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, while the second, called Satan Met a Lady, was a loose adaptation that turned the story into a light comedy, with the characters renamed. It was released in 1936 and starred Warren William and a young Bette Davis, only five years into her long film career.
Warner Brothers had been prevented by the Hays Office censors from re-releasing the 1931 version due to its "lewd" content, which is possibly what caused them to go into production in 1941 with a new, cleaned-up version. (It was not until after 1966 that unedited copies of the 1931 film could be shown in the U.S.) The 1941 film still featured some adultery and managed to sneak some homosexual innuendo past the censors.
First-time director John Huston was very careful when casting The Maltese Falcon, but Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice to play Sam Spade. Producer Hal Wallis initially offered the role to George Raft, who rejected it because he did not want to work with an inexperienced director, choosing instead to make Manpower, opposite Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich, with director Raoul Walsh. Raft had earlier turned down the lead role in Walsh's High Sierra, the film that effectively launched Bogart's career as leading man rather than chronic supporting player, and is believed by many[who?] to have passed up the role of "Rick", the cynical hero of Casablanca. The 42-year-old Bogart was delighted to play a highly ambiguous character who is both honorable and greedy. Huston was particularly grateful that Bogart had quickly accepted the role, and the film helped to consolidate their lifelong friendship and set the stage for later collaboration on such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), and The African Queen (1951). Bogart's convincing interpretation became the archetype for a private detective in the film noir genre, providing him near-instant acclaim and rounding and solidifying his onscreen persona. It was The Maltese Falcon that Ingrid Bergman watched over and over again while preparing for Casablanca, in order to learn how to interact and act with Bogart.
The role of the deceitful femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy was originally offered to Geraldine Fitzgerald, but went to Mary Astor when Fitzgerald decided to appear in a stage play. Hammett remembers that the character "had two originals, one an artist, the other a woman who came to Pinkerton's San Francisco office to hire an operative to discharge her housekeeper, but neither of these women was a criminal."
The character of the sinister "Fat Man" Kasper Gutman was based on A. Maundy Gregory, an overweight British detective-turned-entrepreneur who was involved in many sophisticated endeavors and capers, including a search for a long-lost treasure not unlike the jeweled Falcon. However, the character was not easily cast, and it took some time before producer Hal Wallis solved the problem by suggesting that Huston give a screen test to Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran stage character actor who had never appeared on film before. Greenstreet, who was then 61 years old and weighed between 280 and 350 pounds, impressed Huston with his sheer size, distinctive abrasive laugh, bulbous eyes, and manner of speaking. Greenstreet went on to be typecast in later films of the 1940s such as Casablanca (1942), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), The Verdict (1946), and Three Strangers (1946).
Greenstreet's characterization had such a strong cultural impact that the "Fat Man" atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II was named after him. The appellation "Fat Man" for Gutman was created for the film; in the novel, although he is a fat man, he is referred to as "G".
The character of Joel Cairo was based on a criminal Hammett arrested for forgery in Pasco, Washington, in 1920. In Hammett's novel, the character is clearly homosexual, but to avoid problems with the censors, this was downplayed considerably, although he is still noticeably effeminate. For instance, Cairo's calling cards and handkerchiefs are scented with gardenias; he fusses about his clothes and becomes hysterical when blood from a scratch ruins his shirt; and he makes subtle fellating gestures with his cane during his interview with Spade. By contrast, in the novel, Cairo is referred to as "queer" and "the fairy". The film is one of many of the era that, because of the Hays Office, could only hint at homosexuality. It is mentioned by The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about how films dealt with homosexuality.
Elisha Cook Jr., a well-known character actor, was cast by Huston as Wilmer. Like Cairo (and even Gutman), the character of Wilmer has also been seen by many commentators as homosexual, primarily because of the use of "gunsel", meaning a young homosexual in a relationship with an older man, to describe him.
Gladys George had made her mark on Broadway with her starring role in Lawrence Riley's Personal Appearance (1934) (adapted for the screen in 1936 as Go West, Young Man); this comedy's huge success had been credited in great part to her comic performance. Her role as Archer's wife thus displays her versatility.
The unbilled appearance of the character actor Walter Huston, in a small cameo role as the freighter captain who delivers the Falcon, was done as a good luck gesture for his son, John Huston, on his directorial debut. The elder Huston had to promise Jack Warner that he would not demand a dime for his little role before he was allowed to stagger into Spade's office.
During his preparation for The Maltese Falcon, first-time director John Huston planned each second of the film to the very last detail, tailoring the screenplay with instructions to himself for a shot-for-shot setup, with sketches for every scene, so filming could proceed fluently and professionally. Huston was adamant that the film keep to schedule, and that everything be methodically planned to the fullest to ensure that the film never went over budget. By providing the cast with a highly detailed script, Huston was able to let them rehearse their scenes with very little intervention.
Such was the extent and efficacy of his preparation of the script that almost no line of dialog was eliminated in the final edit of the film. Except for some exterior night shots, Huston shot the entire film in sequence, which greatly helped his actors. The shooting went so smoothly that there was actually extra time for the cast to enjoy themselves; Huston brought Bogart, Astor, Bond, Lorre and others to the Lakeside Golf Club near the Warner lot to relax in the pool, dine, drink and talk until midnight about anything other than the film they were working on.
Huston used much of the dialog from the original novel. The only major section of the novel which wasn't used at all in the film is the story of a man named "Flitcraft", which Spade tells to Brigid while waiting in his apartment for Cairo to show up. Huston removed all references to sex that the Hays Office had deemed to be unacceptable. Huston was also warned not to show excessive drinking. The director fought the latter, on the grounds that Spade was a man who put away a half bottle of hard liquor a day and showing him completely abstaining from alcohol would mean seriously falsifying his character.
With its low-key lighting and inventive and arresting angles, the work of Director of Photography Arthur Edeson is one of the film's great assets. Unusual camera angles—sometimes low to the ground, revealing the ceilings of rooms (a technique also used by Orson Welles and his cinematograher Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane)—are utilized to emphasize the nature of the characters and their actions. Some of the most technically striking scenes involve Gutman, especially the scene where he explains the history of the Falcon to Spade, purposely drawing out his story so that the knockout drops he has slipped into Spade's drink will take effect. Meta Wilde, Huston's longtime script supervisor, remarked of this scene:
It was an incredible camera setup. We rehearsed two days. The camera followed Greenstreet and Bogart from one room into another, then down a long hallway and finally into a living room; there the camera moved up and down in what is referred to as a boom-up and boom-down shot, then panned from left to right and back to Bogart's drunken face; the next pan shot was to Greenstreet's massive stomach from Bogart's point of view.... One miss and we had to begin all over again.
Film critic Roger Ebert says of this scene:
Was the shot just a stunt? Not at all; most viewers don't notice it because they're swept along by its flow. And consider another shot, where Greenstreet chatters about the falcon while waiting for a drugged drink to knock out Bogart. Huston's strategy is crafty. Earlier, Greenstreet has set it up by making a point: "I distrust a man who says 'when.' If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does." Now he offers Bogart a drink, but Bogart doesn't sip from it. Greenstreet talks on, and tops up Bogart's glass. He still doesn't drink. Greenstreet watches him narrowly. They discuss the value of the missing black bird. Finally, Bogart drinks, and passes out. The timing is everything; Huston doesn't give us closeups of the glass to underline the possibility that it's drugged. He depends on the situation to generate the suspicion in our minds. (This was, by the way, Greenstreet's first scene in the films.)
Very nearly as visually evocative are the scenes involving Astor, almost all of which suggest prison: In one scene she wears striped pajamas, the furniture in the room is striped, and the slivers of light coming through the Venetian blinds suggest cell bars, as do the bars on the elevator cage at the end of the film when she takes her slow ride downward with the police, apparently on her way to execution. Huston and Edeson crafted each scene to make sure the images, action and dialog blended effectively, sometimes shooting closeups of characters with other cast members acting with them off camera.
Props and costumes
The "Maltese Falcon" itself is said to have been based on the "Kniphausen Hawk", a ceremonial pouring vessel made in 1697 for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire. It is modeled after a hawk perched on a rock and is encrusted with red garnets, amethysts, emeralds and blue sapphires. The vessel is currently owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and is an integral piece of the Chatsworth House collection.
Several 11.5-inch (29 cm) tall falcon props were made for use in the film because Humphrey Bogart dropped the original during shooting. The original is on display to this day in Warner Brothers' film museum, its tail feathers visibly dented from Bogart's accident. Two 47-pound (21 kg) lead falcons and one five-pound, 5.4-ounce (2.4 kg) resin version are known to exist. One lead falcon has been displayed for years at various venues. The second, which was marred at the end of the film by Sydney Greenstreet, was given to William Conrad by studio chief Jack L. Warner. It was auctioned off in December 1994, nine months after Conrad's death, for $398,500 to Ronald Winston of Harry Winston, Inc. At that time, it was the highest price paid for a film prop. It was used to model a 10-pound gold replica displayed at the 69th Academy Awards. The lead and resin falcons are valued in excess of $2 million. Adam Savage, co-host of Mythbusters, has gone to great lengths to create an accurate replica.
The revolver used to shoot Miles is correctly identified by Spade as a Webley-Fosbery. The revolver was available in an eight-shot .38 calibre version and a six-shot .455 calibre version. In the film, the .455 version was incorrectly described as the eight-shot weapon.
Bogart (as Spade) does not wear a trench coat in this film, although he does wear an unbelted wool overcoat in outdoor scenes. The popular association of the trench coat with Bogart began when he wore one as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, and as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.
Following a September 1941 preview, Variety called it "one of the best examples of actionful and suspenseful melodramatic story telling in cinematic form":
"Unfolding a most intriguing and entertaining murder mystery, picture displays outstanding excellence in writing, direction, acting and editing—combining in overall as a prize package of entertainment for widest audience appeal. Due for hefty grosses in all runs, it's textured with ingredients presaging numerous holdovers in the keys—and strong word-of-mouth will make the b.o. wickets spin."
Upon its release, Bosley Crowther called it "the best mystery thriller of the year", saying "young Mr. Huston gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field"; according to Crowther, "the trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school—a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos."
As a result of the film's success, Warner Brothers immediately made plans to produce a sequel entitled The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, which Huston was to direct in early 1942. However, due to Huston's high demand as a director and unavailability of the major cast members, the sequel was never made.
In 1989, The Maltese Falcon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going in the first year of voting.
American Film Institute recognition
- 1998 - AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies - #23
- 2001 - AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills - #26
- 2003 - AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains:
- Kasper Gutman - Nominated Villain
- 2005 - AFI's 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes:
- "The stuff that dreams are made of." - #14
- "You're good, you're very good." - Nominated
- 2007 - AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - #31
- 2008 - AFI's 10 Top 10 - #6 Mystery Film
The DVD was re-released on June 1, 2006, with a new Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. It includes the original theatrical trailer. The DVD also includes an essay, A History of the Mystery, examining the mystery and film noir genres through the decades.
Also included on a second and third disc are two previous film versions of the Hammett novel: The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady. In a new documentary, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird, a blooper reel, makeup tests and three radio show adaptations — two featuring the film's original stars — are also present.
Another special feature is a Turner Classic Movies documentary, Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart. Hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne, the 45-minute feature traces Bogart's evolution from a heavy in the 1930s to a romantic leading man in the 1940s, and his return to playing bad men late in that decade.
The film was colorized for VHS home video, but that version is no longer available.
Adaptations and parodies
The CBS radio network created a 30-minute adaptation of The Maltese Falcon on The Screen Guild Theater with actors Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet and Lorre all reprising their roles. This radio segment was originally released on September 20, 1943, and was played again on July 3, 1946. On May 18, 1950, another adaptation was broadcast on The Screen Guild Theater starring Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall. In addition, there was an adaptation on Lux Radio Theater on February 8, 1943, starring Edward G. Robinson, Gail Patrick, and Laird Cregar.
In 1975, Columbia released a spoof sequel of The Maltese Falcon called The Black Bird, starring George Segal as Sam Spade, Jr., with Patrick and Cook reprising their roles as Effie and Wilmer from the 1941 version. In 1974, during production for this film, one of the seven plaster figurines of the original 1941 Falcon on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was stolen, and it was alleged that the "disappearance" of the figurine was staged as a publicity stunt for the Segal film. If it was, it backfired, since news accounts of the missing Falcon exceeded those of the Segal film.
In 1988, the film was homaged in "The Big Goodbye", a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is a fan of detective stories of the early 20th Century, including the fictional Dixon Hill, a stand-in for Sam Spade. In a holodeck simulation, Picard-as-Hill is opposed by Cyrus Redblock, whose name is a play on "Sydney Greenstreet". Redblock is looking for "the item", which is never identified, standing in for the Falcon.
The film was parodied in the first-season episode of Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries entitled "The Maltese Canary" in which Tweety is mistaken for the rare statue and chased after by various shady characters, including Sylvester.
In 2001, the film was paid homage again in "Charmed Noir", a seventh-season episode of Charmed. In it, two siblings at Magic School write an immersive novel in which all characters are seeking the "Burmese Falcon". The boys become inadvertently trapped in the novel for decades, though time basically stands still for them. Paige Matthews, played by Rose McGowan, and an associate become trapped in the book as well many years after the boys do. Matthews asks one of the boys if the Burmese Falcon is "Like the Maltese Falcon?" in an attempt to understand the situation in which she finds herself. The boy replies that everyone knows that the Maltese Falcon was a fake, and that the Burmese Falcon is the genuine article.
Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, a 2011 science fiction/noir novel by Australian author Andrez Bergen, heavily references the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon along with the original Hammett novel, paraphrasing quotes, scenes and room numbers from both.
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- ^ Talks|TED Partner Series: Adam Savage's obsessions
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- The Maltese Falcon at the Internet Movie Database
- The Maltese Falcon at Rotten Tomatoes
- Books about The Maltese Falcon from film.virtual-history.com
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