The Maltese Falcon (1941)

the maltese falcon

“The, ah… stuff that dreams are made of.”

The Scoop: 1941 NR, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Gladys George

Tagline: A story as explosive as his blazing automatics!

Summary Capsule: His Bogieness pursues a swiped dingus, but first has to shake off a couple of cheap hoods and outfox a pretty wily dame.

Drew’s rating: The difference between just plain old, and classic.

Drew’s review: Right, informal survey- hands up, everyone who’s ever heard of The Maltese Falcon, either the book or the film. Come on, let’s see ‘em… wow, that many, huh?… good, good. Okay, hands down. Now, hands up everyone who’s ever seen the movie or read the book.

Okay, that’s what I figured. Believe it or not, there is a point to this, other than making you look weird in front of your family/coworkers/random sexual partners. (Just an added perk, I swear.) The fact is, I think most of us — myself very much included — tend to view “classic” movies from a respectful but detached perspective, as worthy of acknowledgement but not necessarily something we’d enjoy ourselves. Which is only natural, given the divergent schools of thought we’re exposed to — there’s the traditional movie critic viewpoint preached by your Eberts and your Maltins, that any random “classic” movie is the greatest 93 minutes ever committed to celluloid and will blow your mind and change your life and heal your rickets and such. Then there’s the inevitable rebuttal by hipper-than-thou iconoclasts that said random classic is dated, hokey, and just generally hyped up waaaaay too much, and who does movies in black and white anyway? My general response, much like in politics, is just to label both sides stupid and call it a day, acknowledging both good and bad aspects of the film in question. With Falcon, though… well, without canonizing it or anything, I’ve got to side with the pretentious old farts — it really is one hell of a movie.

That said, though, viewers looking for a film jam-packed with crazy ideas and plot twists that knock you on your ass had best look elsewhere (sorry, Kyle). Part of being a classic is that everybody’s pretty familiar with it already, and this story in particular is awash with film noir standbys. To whit: your classic gruff, hard-boiled P.I., Sam Spade (Bogart), is hired by knockout dame Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to track down her sister, but soon uncovers the truth — she’s actually after a valuable artifact, a falcon statue with priceless jewels concealed beneath the surface. But so are two others, unscrupulous collector and cheesecake enthusiast Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and effeminate dandy (read: 30’s code for “gay as a tangerine”) Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), both of whom will resort to either violence or bribery to get Spade on their side and recover the dingus. Cue double-crosses, gunplay, and romantic interludes, sometimes all three at the same time. But who’ll be left standing when it’s all over, and what will become of the falcon?

Like I was saying, one of the things I hate most about reviewing older movies is feeling like I have to make excuses for the numerous clichés. “Yeah, it’s been used a hundred times before, but…” “Okay, you know where this is going, but…” So here’s where I draw the line, my friends, because I refuse to do any such thing for The Maltese Falcon. Sure, a lot of the plot twists and contrivances ARE clichés, but jimmy crack corn and I don’t care… there’ll be no misplaced eye-rolling about hackneyed, overdone elements on my watch, buster. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, and without iconic anti-heroes like Spade — credit equally due Hammett’s writing and Bogart’s portrayal — you can be damn sure later disreputable types like Han Solo and Indiana Jones wouldn’t exist as we know them, much less direct noir descendents like Dwight from Sin City.

Honestly, everyone’s performances are impressive; Lorre’s oozing, deceptively polite demeanor is the stuff of film legend, and Greenstreet imbues Gutman with a perfect, unmistakable “smile to your face, stab you in the back” quality. Meanwhile, Astor pulls off both parts of her dual role as damsel-in-distress and black widow quite admirably, switching believably from one persona to the other as the situation demands. The tense confrontation between the three of them and Spade in the film’s climax shows clearly why they were some of the finest actors of their time, but credit is equally due the film’s director for keeping the action flowing well, instead of letting the audience get bored with a long expository scene. And the plot — though as mentioned earlier, not full of endless surprises or a true “mystery,” per se — is engaging and just plausible enough for you to believe it. (I mean, who hasn’t come across a couple of jewel-encrusted birds while cleaning out the attic?)

But let’s be frank — all other positive elements aside, you’re really seeing this movie for Bogie, and he doesn’t disappoint. Suave, quick with a quip, gutsy, far more intelligent than he lets on… basically everything you’d want a hard-boiled gumshoe circa 1929 to be. At the same time, the character’s negative traits are given equal attention — he’s callous and cynical, he’s easy to anger and violent, he nearly lets his emotions eclipse his sense of justice; in other words, all the things that define a flawed hero and give him depth. It’s clear Bogart did his research for the role, as every character trait exhibited by Spade in the original novel is in full abundance on screen, from his smug self-confidence to his disdain for both the police and the criminals he’s dealing with. Watching him mess around with Gutman’s hired enforcer, you almost feel sorry for the kid; he’s clearly trying to seem threatening but can’t seem to elicit anything but amused contempt from Spade. In particular, one scene where Spade swipes the kid’s guns, then gives them to Gutman with the assertion that “a crippled newsie took ‘em away from him, but I made him give ‘em back” had me almost on the floor. But maybe you had to be there.

Getting back to my original point, most of us approach supposed classics with a skeptical eye, wary that “classic” will equate to “dull as dishwater.” And make no mistake, a lot of old movies really are insufferably boring and unworthy of their sterling reputations. But despite some minor faults — fairly predictable plot, overly melodramatic in places — that are as much a symptom of the time period than anything else, The Maltese Falcon has earned its reputation as one of the greatest films of all time. It may not be cult, but you could do a lot worse than to expand your knowledge of film history with this little gem. Call a spade a spade and investigate it today.

Kyle’s rating: Growing up, even the great Jack Bauer had heroes, and I suspect Sam Spade was one of them

Kyle’s review: I’m not entirely sure why Drew singled me out as chief representative of a modern audience that can’t handle “classic” films that were daring when they were new and have now been so mined for content and remade into junk that they seem boring and (ironically) unoriginal. Although I assume he chose me because I’m extremely handsome.

Just as you can’t avoid the “classics” when you major in literature in college, you can’t avoid the “classics” when you’re any kind of film buff and like to pretend you know much more than you really do. Of course, I like to break down the genre of classic films into two types: classic films that are still entertaining to this day, and classic films that are simply junk that are horribly and irredeemably dated.

The Maltese Falcon is an undisputed classic film that remains and probably always will be entertaining; at least to viewers willing to overcome prejudices and annoyances they hold towards old black & white films. And honestly, other than a lack of cell phones and a few other missing modern conveniences, The Maltese Falcon’s story and San Francisco setting holds up surprisingly well. They definitely call some of these old films “classics” for a reason.

And let’s give credit where all the credit is due: as tight the direction is and as polished and popping as the script is, it truly is Humphrey Bogart’s effortless performance as Sam Spade that elevates The Maltese Falcon into the cinematic pantheon. If you’ve seen and loved Brick, you should know that this film and particularly the character of Sam Spade influenced Brick arguably like no other and in Brick there are blatant references to let you know (the car horn signal and the line “Now you are dangerous” are both lifted from Falcon to be used awesomely in Brick).

Really, as impressive as the entire cast and the convoluted story in Maltese Falcon all are, Bogart just makes the whole shindig snap, baby! From being a general “tough” guy who prefers wit and chicanery to guns and violence (not that he won’t hesitate to get violent or tote a gun when necessary) to when he admits to being far more emotionally involved in the case than he’d like to be, Spade is one extremely cool dude. Far more appealing than being (or acting like he’s) always in control is the way Spade is clearly having a whole lot of fun following leads and bumping up against seductive dames and mysterious men, and Bogart plays up the self-amused outsider to amazing effect. Even when you find yourself a little lost in the labyrinthine plot, it’s easy to just relax and watch Sam Spade enjoy himself by being the unpredictable quantity that’s rattling the cage and throwing everyone else into complete unease.

If you have to watch a classic film for whatever reason, The Maltese Falcon is an excellent contender for your time. The performances across the board are amazing, and everything gets wrapped up very nicely at the end to sooth any feelings of confusion or puzzle-solving inadequacy on your part. And if you haven’t seen Brick yet, rather than waste time justifying to me why you’re still an interesting person without having seen it, go out and rent Brick and The Maltese Falcon and make it a grand mystery night at your house tonight!

“To avenge my parents’ deaths, I shall became a… a falcon!”
“To avenge my parents’ deaths, I shall became a… a falcon!”


  • The studio’s original choice to star, George Raft, considered it an unimportant picture and opted out via a clause in his contract that he didn’t have to do any remakes. (The Maltese Falcon had been filmed previously in 1931, as well as in 1936 as Satan Met A Lady.) Smooth career move, Guy-Nobody’s-Ever-Heard-Of.
  • Two Maltese Falcon props had to be used, as Bogart accidentally dropped the first during filming. The original, complete with dented tailfeathers, is on display at Warner Bros. Studios.
  • The film’s infamous final line, not present in the novel, was inspired by a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest — “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on…” It was suggested by Bogart because he liked the sound of it.
  • To get the right breathy quality in Mary Astor’s voice, director John Huston had her run laps around the set before all of her scenes. [thanks Vanessa!]
  • How painful the tagline is? I hate when awesome films have terrible taglines, don’t you? Plus, to my recollection Spade never once fires an automatic in the movie.
  • The final scene of the film lasts almost 20 minutes, nearly 1/5 of the total running time, and involves all of the main characters, who rehearsed over a week before shooting it.
  • Check out Bogart’s crap-eating grin as he disarms Cairo and gets ready to punch him out. Now there’s a man who enjoys his work!
  • Ever wonder where Ren from Ren and Stimpy got his personality? Take a gander at Peter Lorre and his bulging eyeballs screaming “You bloated eeediot!”
  • Watch Archer’s hands with the cigarette and his hat when he comes into Spade’s office.

Groovy Quotes

Spade: We didn’t believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy, we believed your 200 dollars. I mean you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it alright.

Brigid: Mr. Archer was so alive yesterday, so solid and hearty…
Spade: Stop it. He knew what he was doing. Those are the chances we take.
Brigid: Was he married?
Spade: Yeah, with ten thousand insurance, no children, and a wife that didn’t like him.

Spade: I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.

Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Spade: You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.

Spade: My guess might be excellent or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn’t raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, and an assistant district attorney, and a stenographer.

Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?

Spade: Ten thousand? We were talking about a lot more money than this.
Gutman: Yes, sir, we were, but this is genuine coin of the realm. With a dollar of this, you can buy ten dollars of talk.

Gutman: Well Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, but I want you to know, I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.

Spade: When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s — it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

Spade: Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.

Polhaus: Heavy. What is it?
Spade: The, ah… stuff that dreams are made of.

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