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The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 American Warner Bros. film based on novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. Written and directed by John Huston, the movie stars Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade, Mary Astor as his femme fatale client, Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut, and Peter Lorre. 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.

The film premiered on October 3, 1941 in New York Citymarker and in was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congressmarker' National Film Registry.


"In 1539, the Knights Templar 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."

In 1941 San Franciscomarker, private investigators Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) meet a beautiful prospective client, Miss Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Wonderly 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 her get her sister back.

That night, Spade is informed that Archer has been killed. He tells his secretary Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick) to break the news to Archer's wife, Iva (Gladys George). He meets his friend, Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) at the murder scene. Spade tells Polhaus that Archer was tailing Thursby, but refuses to divulge any more information. Spade then calls Wonderly’s hotel, but she has checked out. He is grilled by Polhaus and his supervisor, Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane). They also inform Spade of the death of Thursby that same evening. Dundy suggests that Spade had the opportunity and motive (Archer's wife) to commit both crimes.

The next morning, Spade has to fend off an amorous Iva. He then meets with 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. Cairo politely asks for his weapon back, then promptly turns it on Spade again to search the office, much to Spade's amusement.

Later that evening, Spade tells Brigid about his meeting with Cairo. When Cairo shows up, it becomes clear that Spade's acquaintances know each other. Cairo becomes agitated when Brigid reveals that the "Fat Man" is in San Francisco. When Brigid insults Cairo, he tries to pull a gun on her, but Spade slaps him down. Polhaus and Dundy arrive to question Spade again. The two police detectives barge into the office when they hear Cairo's cry for help, and are given conflicting accounts about what happened. To avoid trouble, Cairo retracts his story.

In the morning, Spade goes to Cairo's hotel, where he spots Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the 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 in his hotel suite. Gutman begins to talk about the Falcon, but becomes evasive, causing Spade to storm out, giving Gutman a deadline to be more forthcoming. As he enters an elevator, Cairo comes out of another one.

Sam Spade with the Maltese Falcon
Later, Spade is taken by Wilmer to Gutman at gunpoint. Spade overpowers him, but meets with Gutman anyway. Gutman relates the checkered history of the Maltese Falcon. Gutman tried to buy it from a Russian general in Istanbulmarker, but when the general refused to sell, Gutman sent some "agents" to steal it. "Well, sir," Gutman says, "they got it, but I haven't got it." Gutman offers Spade $25,000 for the bird and a fourth of the proceeds from its sale. Then Spade passes out; his drink was spiked. Wilmer kicks Spade in the face, before he, Gutman and Cairo (who had been in the other room) depart.

When Spade revives, he searches the suite and finds a newspaper with the arrival time of the freighter La Paloma circled. When he arrives at the dock, the ship is on fire, so he returns to his office. A man (Walter Huston) bursts in and staggers toward Spade, clutching a bundle wrapped in newspaper, before collapsing and dying. The contents of his wallet identify the dead man as Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma. Looking inside the bundle, Spade tells Effie, "We’ve got it, angel. We’ve got it."

When Effie answers the phone, she hears Brigid give an address and then scream before the line goes dead. Spade first stashes the package in a bus terminal baggage room, before going to the address. After it turns out to be an empty lot, Spade returns home and finds Brigid hiding in a doorway. When he takes her inside, he 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 to get himself off the hook. 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.

Brigid O'Shaugnessy on her way to jail.
Just after dawn, Spade calls Effie, who brings him the bundle. In a frenzy, Gutman, Cairo and Brigid unwrap it, revealing a black statuette: the Maltese Falcon. However, when Gutman inspects the bird, he cries out, "It's a fake!" When Gutman recovers from his disappointment, he suggests that he and Cairo return to Istanbul to continue their quest. He takes back the money he paid Spade at gunpoint, all but $1,000 for his "time and expenses", and tries unsuccessfully to recruit Spade.

After Gutman and Cairo 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 will turn her over to the police, but he is deadly earnest. Spade turns over the fake Falcon, the money Gutman gave him, and last of all, Brigid. Polhaus picks up the statuette and asks what it is. Spade replies, "The stuff that dreams are made of."



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 Franciscomarker. 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 , 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 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 legally be shown in the U.S.) The 1941 film still 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 Marlene Dietrich, with director Raoul Walsh. (Raft had earlier turned down the lead role in Walsh's High Sierra, the movie that effectively launched Bogart's career as leading man rather than chronic supporting player, and is believed by many to have passed up the role of "Rick," the cynical hero of Casablanca, although this remains controversial.) The 42-year-old Bogart was delighted, however, 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 ( ), Key Largo (1948), and The African Queen ( ). 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. 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 The Mask of Dimitrios ( ), The Verdict ( ), and Three Strangers (1946).

Greenstreet's characterization had such a strong cultural impact that the "Fat Manmarker" 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, Washingtonmarker in 1920. In Hammett's novel, the character is blatantly 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 Broadwaymarker 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 to Spade’s office, 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. Like other directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, 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, removing all references to sex that the Hays Office had deemed to be unacceptable. The many "by gad"s Greenstreet utters in the movie were inserted by the censors to replace "by God". Huston was also warned not to show excessive drinking. The director fought this, 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.

Production credits

  • Associate Producer - Henry Blanke
  • Director of Photography - Arthur Edeson
  • Dialogue Director - Robert Foulk
  • Film Editor - Thomas Richards
  • Art Director - Robert M. Haas
  • Sound - Oliver S. Garretson
  • Gowns - Orry-Kelly
  • Makeup Artist - Perc Westmore (credited) and Frank McCoy (uncredited)
  • Music - Adolph Deutsch
  • Musical Director - Leo F. Forbstein
  • Production Management - Al Alleborn (uncredited)
  • Assistant Director - Claude Archer (uncredited)
  • Script supervisor - Meta Carpenter (uncredited)
  • Orchestrator - Arthur Lange (uncredited)


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 movies.)

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

Analysis of the Maltese Falcon dimensions

The falcon

The "Maltese Falcon" itself is reportedly 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 of Devonshire and is an integral piece of the Chatsworth Housemarker collection.

There were several 11-1/2 inch tall falcon props made for use in the film due to the fact that Humphrey Bogart dropped the original during shooting. The original is on display to this day in Warner Brothers' movie museum, its tail feathers visibly dented from Bogart's accident. Some of the copies of the falcon were cast of plastic resin, and some of lead. Only two 45 lb. lead falcons and two 5 lb., 5.4 oz resin falcons are verified to exist today. One lead falcon has been displayed for years at various venues. The second, which was marred at the end of the movie 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 movie prop. It was used to model a 10 lb. gold replica displayed at the 69th Academy Awards. The replica has Burmese ruby eyes, interchangeable claws (one set of gold, one set of coral) and has a platinum chain in its beak with a 42.98 flawless diamond at the end. Its value is estimated at well over $8 million. The lead and resin falcons are valued in excess of $2 million. Adam Savage 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. There was an eight shot .38 calibre version (unusual in itself as most revolvers carry six, or occasionally five, rounds), and a six-shot .455 calibre version. In the film, the .455 version was incorrectly described as the eight-shot weapon and the name mispronounced as "Foresby".
  • Contrary to common conception, 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 in Casablanca.


Soundtrack cover

The music for The Maltese Falcon was written by Adolph Deutsch, who later went on to win an Academy Award for his incidental music for Oklahoma! in .

The recording was re-released in 2002 with the soundtracks to other film works of Deutsch, including George Washington Slept Here, The Mask of Dimitrios, High Sierra, and Northern Pursuit.

DVD release

The DVD was re-released on June 1, with a new Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. It includes the original theatrical trailer, as well as a trailer for the earlier 1936 film adaptation of the novel, Satan Met a Lady, and trailers of other Humphrey Bogart films such as The Petrified Forest, High Sierra, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. 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 2 previous movie versions of the Hammett novel: The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady. A new documentary, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird, a blooper reel, makeup tests and 3 radio show adaptations — 2 featuring the movie's original stars — are also present.

Another notable 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 '40s, and his return to playing bad men late in that decade.


On its release, The Maltese Falcon received significant acclaim from both critics and the public, and its reputation has been growing ever since. In , it was nominated for three Academy Awards: the film was nominated for Best Picture, Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor, and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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 the fact that Huston was now in high demand and the major cast members were unavailable, the sequel was never made.

The Maltese Falcon is considered a classic example of a MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the characters of the story but otherwise has little relevance.

The film has been named as one of the greatest films of all time by Roger Ebert and Entertainment Weekly,

In , The Maltese Falcon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going in the first year of voting.

American Film Institute recognition

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 , Columbia released a spoof 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 , 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 Artmarker 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 , the film was parodied 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, but is meant to stand in for the Falcon.



  1. Ebert, Roger "The Maltese Falcon (1941)." 13 May 2001. 24 February 2007.
  2. Entertainment Weekly. The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. New York: Entertainment Weekly Books, 1999.
  3. Sklar, Robert. Film: An International History of the Medium. [London]: Thames and Hudson, [c. 1990].
  4. List of National Film Registry (1988-2003).
  5. This statement is incorrect, as the Knights Templar, founded in 1119, were disbanded by 1312, after King Philip IV of France had declared them heretics so that he could confiscate their wealth. However, a second order of religious knights, the Knights Hospitaller, were in fact based in Malta from 1530 to 1798 (as a result of their long years on Malta, they were sometimes called the Knights of Malta). The Knights Hospitaller did obtain Malta from Emperor Charles V and they did pay him an annual fee of one Maltese falcon...but not, so far as is known, a jeweled bird as proposed in the book and films. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) refers correctly to the Knights Hospitaller, not the Knights Templar, in a scene with Spade (Humphrey Bogart).
  6. Introduction to The Maltese Falcon (1934 edition)
  7. Lax, Eric. Audio commentary for Disc One of the 2006 three-disc DVD special edition of The Maltese Falcon.
  8. Huston decided that the final scene of the novel and the script, in which Spade returns disgustedly to Iva Archer, would not be filmed, believing the film should end the way it was, and thus making Spade's character more honorable as the story progressed. Lax, Eric. Audio commentary for Disc One of the 2006 three-disc DVD special edition of The Maltese Falcon.
  9. 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.
  10. Kahn, Michael. "Maltese Falcon stolen from San Francisco restaurant." 13 February 2007. 14 November 2009.

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