The Maltese Falcon - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1941

Director: John Huston

Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 100 minutes. Released 3 October 1941. Filmed June-July, 1941 in Warner Bros. studios. Cost: budgeted at $300,000.

Producers: Hal B. Wallis with Henry Blanke; screenplay: John Huston, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett; photography: Arthur Edeson; editor: Thomas Richards; sound: Oliver S. Garretson; art director: Robert Haas; music: Adolph Deutsch; musical director: Leo. F. Forbstein; costume designer: Orry-Kelly.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart ( Sam Spade ); Mary Astor ( Brigid O'Shaughnessy ); Sidney Greenstreet ( Kasper Gutman, the Fat Man ); Peter Lorre ( Joel Cairo ); Elisha Cook, Jr. ( Wilmer Cook ); Lee Patrick ( Effie Perine ); Barton MacLane ( Detective Lieutenant ); Jerome Cowan ( Miles Archer ); Gladys George ( Iva Archer ); Ward Bond ( Detective Polhaus ); James Burke ( Luke ); Murray Alper ( Frank Richman ); John Hamilton ( Bryan ); Walter Huston ( Ship's officer ).



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* * *

The Maltese Falcon opens with credits appearing over the falcon statue, which casts a shadow into the depth of the frame. There follows a printed commentary, over the image, about the falcon's history. A shot of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, establishes location, and we move to the Spade and Archer sign on the window of their office. The shadow letters "Spade and Archer" appear on the office floor throughout the opening scene. Spade and Archer share the same office, are inextricably linked, and, we discover, even share Archer's wife, Iva (Gladys George). John Huston, in his first directing effort, quickly establishes the link between the two men so that later, when Spade (Humphrey Bogart) denounces Brigid (Mary Astor) for Archer's murder, we understand that it has nothing to do with Spade's like or dislike of his partner. The situation and atmosphere have been economically achieved.

To emphasize the construction of investigation, Huston frequently limits the space in which Spade must move. Spade's office is small; so is his apartment. In fact, in a departure from convention, Huston chose to build some of his sets with ceilings. (The more usual procedure during that period of filmmaking was not to show the ceiling so that lights could be placed above the action and the camera could be free to move upward) Huston also explored a unique style of framing with The Maltese Falcon . Following his own sketches, he set up shots as if they were paintings. For instance, Huston placed characters in the foreground of a shot, their faces often covering half the screen. Frequently, too, the character is not talking, but listening. His reactions thus become more important than those of the person who is speaking or moving.

The Maltese Falcon presented situations that Huston would return to again and again. Spade is the obsessed professional, a proud man who will adhere to a principle unto death. Women are a threat, temptations that can only sway the hero from his professional commitment. They may be wilfully trying to deceive, as Brigid and Iva, or (as in later Huston films), they may be the unwitting cause of the protagonist's defeat or near-defeat. Protagonists in Huston films frequently take risks, gamble with their lives. Spade constantly taunts the mad Wilmer, even using Huston's favourite personal referent— "kid"—to goad him. The taunting is potentially dangerous, but Spade enjoys it.

As Huston was to develop as a director, the image of the ill-fated group that begins with Falcon was to emerge more strongly. Gutman, Cairo, Wilmer, and Brigid are parts of an alliance of greed. They distrust each other but also respect each other. Spade refuses to join the group and survives. The others don't. Huston was to increasingly develop the idea that groups are doomed families, the survivors of which must learn to accept defeat with grace and dignity.

The idea of appreciating expert deception also emerges in Falcon . Bogart's admiration for Brigid's ability to lie is part of his love for her "You're good, you're real good," he says with a smile after a particular lie. In contrast, Spade is scornful of Iva because her lies are so transparent. A Huston hero, like Huston, appreciates wit, intelligence, and a good performance even if they come from a consummate villain.

Although Huston and others have suggested that The Maltese Falcon is almost a line-by-line filming of the novel, there are important technical and sequential, as well as plot and character, differences between the two versions of the story. Hammett's original novel was written and set in 1928–1929; the Huston version is clearly updated to 1940. Also, the conclusions of Hammett's novel is quite different from that of Huston's film. The film ends with Sam Spade watching Brigid disappear through the prisonlike bars of the elevator of his apartment building. Hammett's novel ends with Spade back in his office, where he puts his arm around the waist of his secretary, Effie, and she pulls away from him in confusion because he has turned Brigid in. The novel's last few lines indicate that Spade will have to deal with Iva Archer, who has come to see him again.

Such alterations are, however, less important than the film's dark humor, the deceit and paranoia of its characters, and the brooding darkness and matter-of-fact presentation that made The Maltese Falcon the first clear step into film noir.

—Stuart M. Kaminsky

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