“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”
Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a private detective working in San Francisco. A woman named Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) comes to his office looking to hire him. She is looking for her sister who came to San Francisco with a man name Floyd Thursby. She is worried about her sister since she believes Thursby is disreputable and dangerous. She is supposed to meet Thursby that night. While she is explaining her problem Sam’s partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) comes into the office. Miles says he will follow her when she has her meeting to keep an eye on things.
Later that night Sam is awakened by a phone call from the police. Archer has been killed. Sam goes to the scene and talks to Police Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond). Archer was shot in the heart. Sam tries to call Wonderly. The hotel desk says she checked out. Sam goes home. Tom shows up with Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane) in tow. They start interrogating Sam. Eventually Sam finds out that the man Thursby that Miles was following is now dead himself. Four shots in the back with a 44. They think maybe Thursby killed Archer and Sam killed Thursby for revenge.
When Wonderly finally gets in touch with Sam he finds out that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She tells him that Thursby was her partner at one time and she thinks that he is the one who killed Archer but also claims that she doesn’t know who killed Thursby.
Soon there are more characters that enter this mystery. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a short effeminate dandy offers Sam $5000 thinking he has something that Cairo is looking for. A statue of a black bird. Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who is also known as the fat man, and his minion, a squirrely kid called Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), who thinks he’s a tough guy are also looking for the statue. Everybody thinks that Sam has it.
“The Maltese Falcon” was released in 1941 and was directed by John Huston. It was Huston’s directorial debut. It is a mystery and a film noir based on the book by Dashiell Hammett. It is one of the first films admitted to the National Film Registry in its inaugural year, 1989.
This is the second film done based on Hammett’s book that carries the same title. The first was done in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez playing Sam Spade and, one of my faves, Dwight Frye playing Wilmer Cook. Because of the 1931 film Warner Brothers wanted to call their film “The Gent from Frisco”. Eventually they gave in to John Huston’s insistence that they keep the original book title. Both movies follow the book closely. The main differences can be attributed to the fact that the 1931 version is pre-code and there were a few aspects of the book that were not allowed in the 1941 version.
The opening of the film contained the following scroll: "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." The opening scroll about the history of the Maltese Falcon is pure fiction.
A prominent stage actor for forty years, this was Sydney Greenstreet’s film debut. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
This is also the first film that Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre did together. They would appear in nine movies together. Ten if you count “This is Our Life” 1942 where they both had uncredited parts. Greenstreet, Lorre and Bogart did three movies together.
Sam Spade refers to Wilmer as a "gunsel". The term is Yiddish for “little goose”. Some think it is code for gay although the word “faigle” or “little bird” was the normal term used. It would have gotten by the censors because they would have thought gunsel meant gunman. More commonly it is a term that refers to a person who is either a "fall guy" or a "stool pigeon", in which case Spade would be making both a direct and an indirect reference to Wilmer's character. I don’t know how true that all is since Cairo is the token gay character in the film. Wilmer, at least to me, is just a punk. However, when you compare it to the pre-code 1931 film, everybody is gay.
My favorite thing about “The Maltese Falcon” is the fabulous script. Especially Bogart’s monologue at the end. You can see the fog laden city streets and smell the cigarette smoke when he talks. It’s no wonder many consider it the first film noir. The plot may be a little intricate but it’s the characters and the dialogue that make the film a classic.
“I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” “You're not...” “Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. If you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.”