The Maltese Falcon: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Maltese Falcon

If you have never seen The Maltese Falcon, you have deprived yourself of something truly spectacular.

You should fix that. Immediately.

The granddaddy of film noir–the biggest and best of them all–this is one of those landmark films which ushered in an entirely new genre in movie-making, all on the very capable backs of director John Huston and actor Humphrey Bogart. This film launched Bogart into the stratosphere, helping craft the gruff, hardboiled, anti-heroic guise that would become his trademark in the latter half of his career. In Sam Spade, Bogie found a perfect match for his rather low-key, yet intense acting style, and the result is pure cinema magic

In the film, Bogart’s detective Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, are approached by the beautiful and mysterious Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor), who seeks their assistance in finding her runaway sister, whom she claims was seduced by a man named Thursby. The detectives agree to take the case, but Archer is killed that evening while following the purported suspect, and Wonderly disappears. When Thursby, too, ends up dead, Spade is suspected of committing both crimes, the motive being his secret affair with his partner’s wife, Iva. When Spade finally encounters Wonderly again–now under her real name, Brigid O’Shaughnessy–she admits that she had completely fabricated the story about her sister and claims to know nothing about the murders. When a man named Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) appears in Spade’s office and searches it for the statue of a bird–a statue that is also sought by criminal Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet (article)),  also known as the “Fat Man”–Spade finds himself pulled into the search for the figurine, all while trying to figure out who murdered his partner and fighting off the advances of both the alluring Brigid and the incessantly needy Iva.

The plot is somewhat convoluted, and upon the first viewing, it may be difficult to follow who is doing what to whom and for what reason. But in the end, the plot doesn’t matter overmuch; the real draw of the film is the cast and their fiery interactions throughout the film. In adapting Dashiell Hammett’s original story, not much was changed; the majority of the dialogue was retained in the film version, and the only omissions were some epithets and occasional references to sexual relationships as per the rules of the Hays Code. The gritty story stays very true to the spirit of the original; the striking cinematography, in which low lighting and atypical camera angles are used to create a rather unsettling mood, heightens the uneasy mystery of the tale.

 

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart and The Maltese Falcon

Bogart is decidely brilliant as Spade, but the film’s real strength comes from its supporting cast. Astor, who until this point in her long career had been relegated to playing ingenue roles in silent films and light comedies, is an unexpected revelation in Falcon. She deftly portrays the alluring, conniving Brigid, switching easily between simpering femininity and leashed ferocity, all while allowing just a hint of reluctant sympathy to enter her performance. She practically snatches your attention from Bogart in their shared scenes–something incredibly difficult for any actor to manage, truth be told. And Astor is not the only one to accomplish this–as the criminal duo Cairo and Fat Man, Lorre and Greenstreet add their typical, respective gravitas to each role, and Greenstreet’s performance is especially impressive considering that, at the age of 62, this was his first time on film (more on Greenstreet’s career here).

I own the three-disc special edition of this film, and it’s been one of the best additions to my personal classic movie library. Not only does the set include the digitally-remastered Bogart edition, but it also features both of the  earlier film versions of the story. It’s great fun (well, in my world, it’s great fun) to compare the three versions of the story for yourself and see the strengths and weaknesses of each. You can also hear three different radio adaptations of the tale! The set also includes some great extras, including an interesting documentary about the film and several Warner Bros. shorts and cartoons.

Brandie Ashe is a writer and recent escapee from graduate school. She is now in hiding on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Brandie and her blog co-authors Carrie and Nikki recently celebrated their 100th post on their blog True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, where they share their love of Alfred Hitchcock, screwball comedies, Katharine Hepburn, and all things old-school Disney. Visit their Facebook page here.

Humphrey Bogart fans read about the Non-Essential films of his career.

  • Cappy

    You said itright. This is one of my very favorite flicks. I wounder if the Blu-Ray version is woth getting? Guess I will. It would be nice if they made movies of the calibur today. The cast was once in a lifetime.

  • JUanita Curtis

    This is the film that introduced me to “Film Noir” and remains one of my all time favourites. Love the double entendres and how they managed to write around the Hays Code. Humphrey Bogart deservedly became a star from this role. I have a stills book of the movie and used to pour over each shot.

  • James Sedares

    Talk about skirting around the Hays Office! All that, uh, sexual tension between Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo. They did slip the word gunsel in a few times, though. I guess they thought nobody knew its meaning.

  • Rick Hirsch

    Films like “Double Indemnity:,”laura”,and “The Big Sleep” owe their ranking as classic to “The Maltese Falcon”. Tehy are in my collection as well.

  • BRIAN

    Keep an eye out for Walter Huston(Bit)

  • Lamar Osment

    I’m trying to recall the title of a very early B/W talkie in which John Wayne appears in a single scene as a spectator at a country horse race. I believe the locale was Ireland and the main actor played a foppish land owner. Can anyone help?

  • Tlynette

    My favorite line in this whole movie–and there are some good ones–has got to be:

    “I hope they don’t hang you, Precious, by that sweet neck.”

    That Sam Spade: What a guy!

  • Maryann

    I agree, a truly great film with stupendous acting! Movies today can’t comapare.

  • Maryann

    Sorry for the spelling (compare). Bogie is GREAT!!

  • Martin Stumacher

    Leave it to Warner Bros. to come up with the best of the Noir. What a cast, Bogart, Mary Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre, etc. The Max Steiner soundtrack. Wonderful.

  • Gloee Valens

    My favorite scene in this movie is when Brigid (Mary Astor) is beating up Joel (Peter Lorre) & he starts screaming when the police come to see Sam Spade. My favorite line is when Spade calls out Brigid on her lying & she says “I’ve always been a liar”, I dunno I just always laugh at those two parts…I’ve seen it few times like maybe 100x

  • michael jefferson

    The Maltese Falcon is one of my favorite movies of all time. It was this movie which solidified “Bogie” as one of my favorite actors, and this was before I had even heard of the movie Casablanca. I am indeed looking forward to getting that 3 disc set of this movie.

  • BRIAN

    Maltese Falcon was John Hustons first film.His second In This Our Life.As a favor the cast to the Falcon have bit parts.Walter Huston is easy to pick out as a bartender.Ditto Lee Patrick.You have to be quick to catch Humphrey Bogart,Mary Astor,Peter Lorre,Sydney Greenstreet,Ward Bond,Elisha Cook JR,and Barton Maclane.Happy Hunting.

  • Clauswitz

    Want to remind folks (even, the author of this review) that ‘Maltese Falcon’ isn’t a film noir. Not even remotely. Its a detective film. It was written long before noir was born; filmed before noir was born. Just because there’s a dangerous female in the story doesn’t make it ‘noir’…

  • Brandie

    @Clauswitz: Most critics consider The Maltese Falcon one of the first (if not THE first: see Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s book on noir) examples of the genre, so I’m not sure where you’re getting your information. As the author of this review, I’m pretty comfortable in stating that the film is categorically a masterwork of noir.

  • thomas w monahan

    i am looking for the movie foreign correstpondent
    you showed it on tv friday night dec3 2010
    i want a copy tell by e-mail and i will pay by credit card
    thinks in advance if you can do it

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com Gary Cahall

    Lamar, the early John Wayne film you’re looking for is Hangman’s House, a 1928 John Ford drama. It’s available on a DVD twinbill with another Ford effort, 3 Bad Men. You can order it at http://www.moviesunlimited.com/musite/product.asp?sku=D53636
    And I’m sorry to say, Thomas, that Alferd Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Foreign Correspondent is not currently out on DVD. You can find a complete listing of available Hitchcock movies at
    http://www.moviesunlimited.com/musite/browse_list.asp?cid=my&dept=Alfred+Hitchcock&media=d

  • Jeff C

    For me it’s the final scene between Bogie and Mary Astor; “I won’t do it because every fiber of my being wants to and you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on it with all the others, well I won’t play the sap for you, you killed Myles and you’re going over for it.” And Mary Astor shrinks back off camera and you can just feel her diminish into a defeated, broken woman. Not only was the dialog great and the cast of course as good as it will ever get but this movie was so well constructed, and by a first time director no less, that every minute of it is just a joy to watch as well as to listen to. The stuff dreams are made of indeed.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.boughn Michael Boughn

    You should check out the 1931 version — with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez — it is very good as well , , ,

    • Falcon41

      Seemed more like a comedy to me I didn’t like all the laughing in this version!!!!

  • Bruce Reber

    I’ve reviewed The Maltese Falcon at TCM Movie Database, and I remarked that while most Film Noirs were made from the mid 40’s to the late 50’s, there were a few pre-WW2 ones such as This Gun For Hire and The Maltese Falcon. While it’s certainly one of the best Noirs of all time, I disagree that TMF is the greatest-IMO that honor goes to Double Indemnity. The quintessential movie McGuffin has to be that bird statuette from TMF, or as Sam Spade says in one of the great last lines “the stuff dreams are made of”.

  • Silent101

    Well, “Maltese Falcon” is just about one of my all-time favorites. I can literally watch it over and over and enjoy each moment. Hammett is my also my favorite author! i have read everything of his and various volumes about his work. Even have done lectures on him (and the movies). Hammett’s plot are always not what they seem to be. For example, obviously due to this topic’s focus, The Maltese Falcon is not about a bird treasure, but really about LIES. Without any real exaggeration, the plot only moves forward when lie is discovered. thus the twists and turns move forward by discovery of ‘not telling the truth.’ “The Thin Man” is about drinking, murder, and Christmas! In that novel/film, the mystery only gets uncovered when a drink is in hand. “The Glass Key” about impossibly. Afterall, what would be less useful than a key made from that product? “Red Harvest” is obviously about bloody murders. Anyway, the dialogue from the films are most often just taken from the actual novels as Hammett wrote. Now, due to this posting, I am logging off and going to watch “The Thin Man,” Afterall what other flick could make one so happy on a rainy Saturday night?

  • Nicolas

    I guess I am a big minority here. I have seen the film several times, including that three disc set with the audo commentary, and I have really never cared for the film, as I find it rather cheesy with unbelievable villains. I much prefer Bogart’s performance later as Phillip Marlowe in “The BIg Sleep”, Also Grenstreet and Lorre were better in the under appreciated Mask Of Dimitrious. John Huston would also go on to make far better films such as Treasure of The Sierra Madre.

  • Falcon41

    One of my favorite movies of all time, I know the speech(by heart) he gives to Mary Astor at the end about sending her over. I recite it with Bogy word for word everything I watch it. Great Movie. Here’s one for lovers of Film Noir’s a western one Blood on the Moon!!!!