Let’s Talk About… ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941)

Film #73 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet

The world is not always a pretty place. There is an abundance of crime, violence, dishonesty, inequality, poverty, hunger… plagues that exist today and that have been around for a long time. Nostalgia makes it so that we often think of the good things “that were” rather than to remember our struggles as equally as our moments of happiness. The medium of motion pictures attempted to capture these diverse aspects of life, managing somewhat to do so up until the early 1930s when the moral-enforcing Hays Code obliged filmmakers to sanitise their stories. From that date onward, pictures would be pleasant and in compliance with standards or else they would be forcibly censored. The ills of life would either be a flimsy suggestion or just not given mention to at all. This attitude must have been hard on audiences who had gotten to see notable cinematic works like Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a film about a serial killer who preys on children. If this and other films had been made a few short years later, they might have been completely forgotten today or worse yet have never been made due to the limitations of the Code.

One controversial cinematic genre, the gangster film, managed to stay alive during this time even though the pictures obviously paled in graphic comparison to their past ones. Actors like George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson managed to continue making gangster movies which is also from where they first grew to prominence as leading screen performers. For Raft, it was Scarface (1932); for Cagney, it was The Public Enemy (1931); for Robinson, it was Little Caesar (1931). Ironically these same three films – all pre-Code and all made for Warner Bros. Studio – are consistently named on Top 10 lists when noting the very best of the gangster genre. Raft, Cagney, and Robinson would continue starring in these types of films throughout the 1930’s until at least 1940, with each man co-starring at least twice with a contract player by the name of Humphrey Bogart.

The chart below lists the films in which Bogart co-starred with these quintessential figures of the classic gangster genre:

George Raft


James Cagney Edward G. Robinson
Invisible Stripes (1939) Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) Bullets or Ballots (1936)
They Drive By Night (1940) The Roaring Twenties (1939) Kid Galahad (1937)
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
Brother Orchid (1940)

Bogart had primarily appeared in bit and supporting roles during his early career even after receiving much critical acclaim for his performance in 1936’s The Petrified Forest. He became a regular in gangster films, usually getting gunned down and ending up in a body bag. His luck started to change in 1940 when he was cast in High Sierra, earning second-billing after Ida Lupino. This was the first time Bogart had been given a leading role. Better yet, he would have the chance to lead a film and be its top-billed star only a few short months later when he was offered The Maltese Falcon. In a bit of irony, Bogart’s parts in both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon had been initially offered to George Raft who blatantly turned them down. (Raft also reportedly refused the role of Rick in Casablanca.) And though he continued to work at a respectable pace during the 1940s, Raft’s career never recovered from these decisive blunders. The opposite effect would occur for Bogart as The Maltese Falcon became a huge hit, defying the expectations of Warner Bros. and turning Bogart into a bonafide leading man.

There is no easy way to describe the plot of The Maltese Falcon without giving away pertinent information or, moreover, just completely confusing the intended audience. To be quite honest, I myself was a little confused at certain points throughout the film. Essentially, this is a detective story seen through the eyes of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), a private investigator who has been paid to follow a man associated with a certain Ms. Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), later revealed to be named Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Along the way, he encounters Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a flamboyant man with a strange, heavy accent who wants Sam to find an extremely rare, precious statue of a black bird that has been stolen. Later on, he meets Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) who also propositions Sam with a hefty sum if he is able to produce an object which is, in actuality, a priceless token gifted to Charles V of Spain by the Knights Templar of Malta in 1539. The statue has been painted black to deter people from questioning its origin and value.

The ultimate goal of the four leading characters is to gain possession of the Maltese falcon. Brigid spends most of the time claiming her innocence in being involved in any wrong-doing as well as flaunting her sexuality, managing to rope Sam into having feelings for her. His emotional attachment to her is a challenge since he does not completely trust her, especially when she is not upfront with her connections to the falcon. Gutman and Cairo enter Sam’s life on separate occasions and on their own but it turns out that they work as a team, being aided by a bodyguard of sorts named Wilmer (brilliant played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) who is faithful but a little wet behind the ears. One moment Sam is treated with respect as a necessary means to finding the falcon and other times he is considered like a failed henchman, being drugged, beaten, and left for dead. In all of this, it can be pretty hard to come to a conclusion about a few things, such as: “Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Why is everyone double-crossing one another? What is the purpose of the story?” Chances are that you may not be able to fully answer these questions after the movie is over.

The Maltese Falcon debuted in the 23rd position on the American Film Institute’s list AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies in 1997. Ten years later for the list’s updated anniversary edition, the film fell eight spots to the 31st position. I personally have mixed feelings about the AFI 100’s chosen films because, while some of them are undoubtedly wonderful, timeless films, some of their choices seem rather misguided. In the case of The Maltese Falcon, it is a film that I find neither boasts a riveting story nor that is particularly poignant. The plot somewhat held my interest (some parts more than others) though I felt slightly unsure of certain specifics, and my attention wandered at times. When the film ended, I felt little sense of satisfaction and kind of shrugged my shoulders. I thought, That’s it? My gut feeling was that I had once again been duped by this shifty AFI 100 list. It was not until I watched a documentary on The Maltese Falcon that I was able to piece together the history behind the film and discover the other factors that have made it such a cultural cinematic icon.

Dashiell Hammett was a mystery writer who was no stranger to Hollywood as his literary personages, Nick and Nora Charles, had been used in MGM’s The Thin Man series, films that were released between 1934 and 1947. The Charles were a very amusing couple and the films brought many laughs although they too had serious moments since Nick always had one or more murder cases to deal with over the course of a movie. When Hammett published The Maltese Falcon earlier in February 1930, he introduced a harder style of writing, darker characters, and colloquial dialogue for to imbue his characters with a great sense of realism (attributes that were present in The Thin Man as well but that had been watered-down for the Code era). The same fate befell the novel The Maltese Falcon when the rights were swiftly purchased by Warner Bros. a year later in 1931, making the very first adaptation of the book starring Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez. Although the film was faithful to the novel, the Code made it so that important plot points and chunks of the movie were removed, which contributed to its critical failure. Five years later in 1936, Warner Bros. would re-make the film under the title Satan Met a Lady with Bette Davis and Warren William. Supposing to be a mystery comedy/farce of sorts, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that this version was miserably received and heavily critically panned. It was not until 1941 that a proper interpretation of the novel would be made.

What made the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon a triumph were the risks taken to produce it. This would be John Huston’s first attempt at directing a major motion picture from a screenplay that he himself wrote. Warner Bros. was not overeager at the prospect of Huston directing and made very few concessions towards the project. They assigned mostly unknown contract players to the roles and gave it a very small budget. Peter Lorre had been in many high profile films, including but was relegated to being an “odd duck” in films. His turn as Cairo solidified his career. Sydney Greenstreet was a complete newcomer to the screen and had, up until then, been acting solely on the stage. Believe it or not, his feature film debut came at the age of 61! It almost seems impossible because it feels as if Greenstreet had long been a mainstay of the big screen. Mary Astor was the only true veteran, having started in silent pictures while still a teenager. The role of Brigid had originally been offered to Geraldine Fitzgerald, an underrated and underused actress, who happened to turn it down. Astor was brought in on the suggestion of Huston who, coincidentally, was her then-lover. The most important contribution that The Maltese Falcon brought to classic and modern cinema was that it ushered in the era of Film Noir in terms of dialogue, content, and filming techniques. Without it, the genre would have undoubtedly been less remarkable and influential on cinematic history as well as on other genres like gangster films.

My appreciation for The Maltese Falcon may very well grow over the years and for that I feel very hopeful. Each film has its own magic, some having much more than others. It is important to look beyond professional critical appraisal and historical legacy to get your own understanding for cinematic works of art.