The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Maltese Falcon banner image.

John Huston’s script and direction owes more to the conventions of stage performance than to the still developing craft of film-making, relying heavily on static indoor dialogue, though there are innovative crossovers, such as the seven-minute, single-take scene showing Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) perform a perfect ‘walk ‘n’ talk’ through four sets.

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.

Meta Wilde, Huston’s long-time script supervisor.

Cinematographer Arthur Edesons’s low-angle work is unobtrusive if you don’t look for it too hard, and can summon the vague discomfort of a claustrophobia not quite realized in framing ceilings and walls as containers. More obvious are his exaggerated shots of Greenstreet’s already considerable girth, and the angular shadows, or patterns, he used in various places to resemble the steel cage of a jail cell. The visualization bears watching with the sound off just for its own sake. As pictures in a gallery.

John Huston (1906-1987), American and Irish film director, screenwriter, actor, and artist.
John Huston (1906-1987), American and Irish film director, screenwriter, actor, and artist.

Less obvious is the lighting, which is quite subdued in most scenes, and almost subliminal in others, such as the scene where O’Shaughnessy appears in striped pyjamas, backdropped by striped upholstery on furniture, and framed by the severe striped shadow of the room’s blinds. I did not recognise the connotations until I read about them, but the stripy PJs are very much prison chique, and the shadows cast by the venetian blinds could easily be seen as looming steel bars of a gaol cell.

The story is pretty straight forward. Three confidence tricksters chasing a legendary and valuable statue of a falcon come to private investigator Sam Spade’s attention because one of them, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (played by Mary Astor), hires his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), as a bodyguard. Archer is killed for his troubles. Spade investigates the murder and encounters, in short order, Brigid herself, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), Kasper Goodman, and his henchman Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr), all chasing the statue, and each other.

O’Shaughnessy, obviously less than forthright about her history and intentions, attempts to play Spade off against the others, who seem not at all opposed to the notion of murdering Spade to get what they want. However, street-smart and tough-as-nails Spade comes up with his own scheme to trap the murderer of his partner, outwitting the confidence tricksters.

The finale reveals that all the plotting and scheming has been in vain, and two men were murdered for nothing. The fabled falcon statue is unearthed, but turns out to be a fake, rather like the people chasing it.

Maltese Falcon lobby card.

There has been much speculation about sexual deviance in this film. In Hammett’s novel there’s no secret about Joel Cairo’s homosexuality, but in Hollywood that was still a ‘love that dare not speak its name’. What Huston gives us as clues are a scented card and handkerchief, and some rather effeminate flourishes from Peter Lorre. There is also some suggestion that Wilmer and Gutman are lovers, spelled out in the novel by the use of the term ‘gunsel’ to describe Wilmer; gunsel was a colloquialism of the time for homosexual toyboy. In the film we get nothing more than a suggestion of platonic father-son love during the haggling to find a fall-guy for the Archer-Thursby murders. However, there is a suggestion by James Berardinelli that Wilmer and Gutman are immortalised elsehow: ‘history buffs will note that that the first two atom bombs, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” were named after Gutman and Cook’.

The character Sam Spade is modelled by Hammett on himself. He had been a Pinkerton detective from 1915 to 1921. Spade is hard-drinking (modified in the film due to censorship restrictions), ruthless, self-serving, manipulative, but smart enough to be no one’s fall guy, and principled enough to observe: ‘When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t matter what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.’

Spade, though appearing to be manipulated variously by O’Shaughnessy, Cairo, and Gutman, emerges at the conclusion as the one who manipulated the others. He is no angel. There is a scene in which he overtly demands sexual favours from O’Shaughnessy in return for his services. She demurs, presumably having been no stranger to this kind of bargain in her past.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), American author, screenwriter, and political activist.  One of the originators of 'hard-boiled' detective fiction.
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), American author, screenwriter, and political activist. One of the originators of ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction.

Bogart made the rôle his own. At 42, he was still a B-grade film actor, but shortly after The Maltese Falcon he became a cinematic icon, and a screen legend to this day. Some say it was Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra in the same year that elevated him to stardom, but I think The Maltese Falcon is the more memorable of the two films. It is difficult not to see some of Bogart’s Sam Spade in much of the work he did in his career afterwards, particularly while he was playing Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), but also in completely unrelated rôles, such as Steve Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944).

O’Shaughnessy is convincing: duplicitous, manipulative, deceitful, amoral, conniving, call her what you will, it all fits with the femme fatale formula. And the appellation fatale is literally earned. The scuttlebutt of the times has it that Mary Astor was not the first choice for the rôle, but was picked, in part, because her own private life had been ‘tarnished’ by the scandal of adultery and wild, drunken parties. ‘Good on her’, I say, and perhaps good schooling for a rôle she played almost too convincingly – the damsel in distress, used to being able to wrap men around her little finger, but ultimately helpless without a protector.

The Maltese Falcon was Sidney Greenstreet’s first film, after a long stage career. The 60-something-year-old did a marvellous job as the corpulent and colourful adventurer with genteel mannerisms that disguised a strong mercenary streak.

Peter Lorre delivered a convincing performance as the mannered, buttoned-down Cairo, his distinct accent adding to the image of international dandy, in over his head in conspiracies and intrigue.  But maybe born to it.

John Huston was a relative newcomer in film when he sold Jack Warner on the idea of letting him script and direct the Hammett story, but he was meticulous in his planning and insisted on the dialogue he had written, allowing the actors freedom only in mannerisms and gestures. He completed the film on budget ($300,000, which was a low budget even then) and on time (he had a six-week shooting schedule). Attention to detail paid off for Huston, who went on to become a landmark in film in his own right. He was ably assisted by Edeson’s subtle and unobtrusive, but atmospherically effective cinematography.

There has been criticism of Huston’s editing for overlooking continuity inconsistencies, but as far as I’m concerned, the editing served its purpose: to gradually but steadily increase the tempo of the story, reflecting the thrill of the chase and the increasing desperation, and agitation, of the key characters.

A message Hammett may have intended for his story came across pretty powerfully, too: sometimes people do extraordinary things and create desperate situations chasing figments of their own imaginations. It resonates with American folklore about gold rushes, and fool’s gold as the reward for many an adventurer.

Regardless of Hammett’s intentions, the film did paint all of its leading characters as unscrupulous, cynical, and willing to resort to subterfuge and violence in order to attain their goals. The characters are the kind you meet in the street and don’t look at twice, but the synchronicity of circumstance makes them larger-than-life, and their actions, or, more precisely, the way we relate to them, becomes starkly revealing about the base instincts that motivate us all.  The stuff of history and fiction.

The film was a critical and box office success, even if it did miss out on awards. I believe that it left an indelible mark on the portrayal of tough-guy private eyes ever since, and on many of the films labelled film noir that followed it.


Warner Bros, 1941, 101 minutes, black and white.

Written and Directed by John Huston, based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Produced by Hal B Wallis. Cinematography (as Director of Photography) by Arthur Edeson. Music by Adolph Deutsch.With Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, Gladys George as Iva Archer, Elisha Cook Jr as Wilmer Cook, Ward Bond as Detective Tom Polhaus, Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer.

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