Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon Introduction


Release Year: 1941

Genre: Crime, Drama, Film Noir

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett (novel)

Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George


Ahh, that eternal question: what are dreams made of? Fairy dust? Ghost's tears? Crème brûlée? Millions of firing synapses, hard at work while the body lies unconscious and semi-paralyzed?

Not according to two Big Daddies of Literature, they ain't. For the Bard, Willy Shakespeare, dreams are made of the fleeting lives of actors. (Whoa, depressing.) And for John Huston, who adapted Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon for the silver screen, dreams are made of…a bird statue.

  

Yup: The Maltese Falcon was the original piece of art to capitalize on the wisdom of "put a bird on it."

And you'd better believe that, when this Humphrey Bogart flick hit the silver screen in 1941, people all around the world started dreaming of the Maltese Falcon and the obscene amount of riches it promised. Enough cold, hard cash to travel the world, find love, and buy all the Bogie-style fedoras you could ever want.

It's hard to imagine that a tale of a jaded PI, a haughty dame, and a bunch of crooks all chasing after a mysterious statuette would ever be considered a gamble in terms of cinematic adaptation, but The Maltese Falcon had been adapted twice before then-newcomer John Huston got his directorial mitts on the project. Both previous Falcon adaptations had flopped.

But Huston wanted to do the detective story right, which meant sticking close to his source material. In the book and film, a detective named Sam Spade is asked by a femme fatale named Brigid O'Shaughnessy to help her find the mysterious Maltese Falcon. Her request results in Spade's entanglement with a gang of crooks, including a fat man known as…"the fat man."

Huston brought in big names like Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, alongside character actors Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. All but Astor you might recognize from that other big Bogie smash: Casablanca. But before 'blanca (as the film buffs call it) this motley crew worked together to define the film noir genre. Noir is French for "black," like the darkest coffee or the richest chocolate, and The Maltese Falcon is like these two treats in movie form: dark, full-bodied, and mysterious.

Detective Sam Spade became a character who endured the test of time. He was featured in numerous radio plays and comic books, and even in a PC detective game in 1985. (That's right: without Sam Spade, we might not have Carmen Sandiego.) And the role of Spade solidified Bogart's legacy as a go-to tough guy with ambiguous morals. Bogart was the quintessential man's man, and the anti-hero's anti-hero.

The Maltese Falcon transports you back to a time when the good guys were bad, the dames were worse, the nights were dark, and everyone smoked indoors. The movie itself isn't made of dark chocolate, but it's still the perfect film to satisfy your craving for classic noir.

What is The Maltese Falcon About and Why Should I Care?

Stop us when this sounds familiar: a world-weary private investigator. A mysterious, smokin' hot dame who's up to no good. A band of eccentric criminals. Some very attractive shots of light streaming through Venetian blinds. Dark, fog-choked alleys. Witty banter so dry you could use it as kindling.

We're guessing you yelled "stop!" after "world-weary P.I." (Sorry, our music's a little loud.) Because, if you're anything like us, you're a fan of neo-noir: think The Usual Suspects (1995), Memento (2000), Fargo (1996), Pulp Fiction (1994), or Nightcrawler (2014).

But none of these dark 'n' bleak films would exist if it weren't for one of the best-known granddaddies of film noir: The Maltese Falcon. All those neo-noir films have a little Falcon in them: a beak here, a feather there, and a huge dollop of hardboiled anti-hero over yonder.

There is a natural evolution in cinema from mostly amoral detective Sam Spade to the sociopath played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. Carrie-Anne Moss's character in Memento owes a huge debt to Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the original femme fatale. And Pulp Fiction has its mysterious glowing briefcase, maybe one of the greatest movie MacGuffins since the Falcon. (Maybe the Falcon is in the briefcase?)

Basically, The Maltese Falcon is a crash course in film history. And if traveling back in time to the beginning of noir cinema isn't enough for you (greedy much?) throw in the start of a couple of Hollywood super-careers, including that of Humphrey Bogart, who all but cemented his role as a pulls-no-punches anti-hero, and of John Huston, director extraordinaire.

So settle your fedora over your eyes at a rakish angle, throw your arm over the back of that couch, pop the collar on your trench coat, and let your expression grow dim with jaded cynicism. (Just don't light up a ciggie, no matter how cinematic those swirls of cancer-smoke in The Maltese Falcon look.) Get ready for the movie that launched a thousand other movies…and still holds up as smart, slick, and exciting more than sixty years after it was made.

Trivia

The Maltese Falcon is rare, but not unique. Three copies were made for the movie after Humphrey "Butterfingers" Bogart dropped the original prop and dented its tail. Two props are actually 50-pound lead statues, and one is only six pounds, for when the statue needs to be carried on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio bought one of the props at auction in 2010 for $305,000. (Source)

Kasper Gutman is dangerous, but not that dangerous. The atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki was allegedly named "fat man" because of its resemblance to actor Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Kasper "Fat Man" Gutman. That's quite an infamous legacy. (Source)

Perhaps to compensate for the 1941 film's seriousness, a comedy "sequel" was made in 1975, starring George Segal as Sam Spade Jr., son of Sam Spade, who once again finds himself in the middle of a chase for the Maltese Falcon. The film also featured Lee Daniels and Elisha Cook Jr. reprising their respective roles of Effie the secretary and Wilmer the thug. (Source)

The world's largest private yacht, with 11,000 square feet of living space (i.e., the size of 30 NYC apartments squished together and dropped into the water) is named The Maltese Falcon. (Source)

The plot of The Maltese Falcon is often spoofed, like in "The Maltese Canary," an episode of The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries in which Tweety Bird is mistaken for the mysterious Maltese canary. (Source)

The Maltese Falcon Resources

Websites

The Real Deal
If you need The Maltese Falcon the way the characters in the movie need the Falcon, you can get a copy of the movie from Warner Bros.

Book or TV Adaptations

The Shmoop-ese Falcon
We solved the mystery of The Maltese Falcon for you.

Articles and Interviews

Making the Falcon
One of Huston's remarkable techniques doesn't sound all that remarkable, but it was at the time: Huston stayed as faithful to the book as possible. He talks about other filmmaking techniques with his biographer.

The First Rule of The Maltese Falcon is…
"There are no rules." That's how John Huston described his screenwriting process.

No Happy Ending
The blog "Girls Do Film" analyzes The Maltese Falcon and the importance of its downer ending.

Video

Falcon Crest
Most everyone involved in The Maltese Falcon is no longer with us, but the Falcon remains. The story of the Falcon prop lives on through Michele Fortier, daughter of Fred Sexton, who crafted the Falcon. She remembers it as "shiny and black."

Birds of a Feather
Some people today are still obsessed with the Falcon. Adam Savage of Mythbusters makes replicas in his spare time. Like you do.

Audio

Radio NOIR
If you prefer your noir so dark you can't see a thing, the radio adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is for you. Close your eyes and make up the visuals yourself.

Images

Smoking Gun
This is the Webley-Forsby .45 automatic, which is the exact model of the gun that shot Thursby. Thursby plugged by a Forsby. Could that be significant?

The Falcon that Laid the Golden Statue
Harry Winston jewelers later made a solid gold replica of the Falcon, what it might look like beneath its black exterior.