Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    John Huston

    The Maltese Falcon might as well have been a dodo bird. No one had high hopes for the movie, which had two previous incarnations: a 1931 drama of the same name starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and a comedy called Satan Met a Lady in 1936 starring Bette Davis (who called the movie "junk").

    Those films were like the fake version of the Falcon found at the end of the 1941 film—lifeless hunks of iron. It took writer/director John Huston to transform the story into a dazzling work of art. Having worked as a screenwriter for Warner Bros. for a number of years, Huston took The Maltese Falcon as his directorial debut. It was a risk for Warner, who had already seen the book flop as a movie twice before.

    But Huston Tim-Gunned the heck out of The Maltese Falcon and he made it work by adapting the book using a ton of Hammett's original, jaded, and witty dialogue and by meticulously storyboarding each scene. (We'd love to see The Maltese Falcon graphic novel.) With a small budget, the film was made in only eight weeks—quickly and efficiently, just as Sam Spade would like it. (Fun fact: Huston's own father, Walter Huston, has an uncredited cameo as the short-lived Captain Jacoby.)

    Although the Falcon in the film turns out to be a dud, the film itself was anything but, and it launched a long, storied directorial career for Huston, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which won him his first Academy Award, and Prizzi's Honor (1985), for which he directed his daughter, Anjelica.

  • Production Studio

    Hal B. Wallis and Warner Bros.

    Cowboys, detectives, and Elvis. If you had a movie in which someone needed to be shot or sung at, Wallis was your man. The legendary Hal B. Wallis produced films over five decades, including all-time classics featuring some of the biggest stars of the times: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn; the ultimate Bogie pictures The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942); Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); a series of movies starring Elvis Presley in the 1960s; and True Grit (1969) and its sequel, Rooster Cogburn (1975).

    Wallis got his start in Hollywood under Jack Warner of Warner Bros. (No relation to Yakko, Wakko, or Dot). He produced movies with big-name male stars. Humphrey Bogart. Kirk Douglas. John Wayne. Elvis Presley. Wallis worked for Warner Bros. until 1944, shortly after Casablanca, when he left to form his own production company. Throughout his career, Wallis's films were nominated for numerous Academy Awards. He even has a building named after him in Rancho Mirage, California.

    Surprisingly, Bogie wasn't the first choice to play Sam Spade. Wallis offered the role to George Raft, who turned it down because he didn't want to work with the yet-to-be legendary director John Huston. Big mistake, George. Wallis also recommended the giant Sydney Greenstreet for the role of portly Kasper "Fat Man" Gutman. Basically, Wallis launched a bunch of careers in the 1940s.

    The movie premiered on October 3, 1941. Even though it was nominated for Academy Awards, it won none (which still causes us noir geeks over at Shmoop a lot of pain). However, the film was a box office smash, which definitely made Wallis happy. Wallis was awarded an Irving G. Thalberg memorial award—i.e., the Oscars for producers—twice: in 1938 and 1943. Wallis died in 1986 (source).

  • Production Design

    First-time director John Huston took an ambitious approach to The Maltese Falcon. After all, the black bird isn't just a treasure that falls in your lap; you have to work for it. And you have to do the same for a great movie.

    Huston storyboarded the entire movie, like Hitchcock did for the Oscar-winning Rebecca the year before. Huston also made use of clever camera angles and long, unbroken takes, a technique that remains innovative even today, when movies contain so many cuts they resemble the visuals you get on a roller coaster.

    The most striking example of this is the scene in which Gutman drugs Spade. It's filmed in a way to trick the viewer—who sees the scene through Spade's point-of-view—and catch them off-guard when Spade takes a drink, his vision turns blurry, and he falls over. But watching the scene again, you wonder how you could have missed all the clues—the talking about alcohol, the filling of the glass, etc.

    Huston trusts his viewers to be intelligent and he doesn't rely on close-ups to explain every little bit of the action. Huston also filmed the movie in chronological order, allowing the actors to develop their characters during the course of filming and maybe make the complicated plot easier to follow.

  • Music (Score)

    Adolph Deutsch

    Adolph Deutsch began composing for Broadway in the 1920s, when it was still acceptable for people to be named Adolph. He made the jump to Hollywood with They Won't Forget, a 1937 thriller notable for being Lana Turner's debut. He later scored Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).

    Film scores were very different in the 1940s. The entire score for The Maltese Falcon is only about fourteen minutes long, featuring tracks with descriptive titles like "Street Scene" or "The Plot." Music was only used as emphasis to underscore important scenes. Gutman gets his own theme, for example, which is titled "Gutman." How creative.

    Think of Deutsch's brief tracks as quotation marks to pull out important scenes so you don't miss them.

  • Fandoms

    You won't find anyone dressing up as Sam Spade or as an iron Falcon statue for Halloween or a convention. (Which is a shame, really—Sam Spade was a dapper chapper.) The Maltese Falcon doesn't have a fandom, per se, but it does have a legacy of massive proportions. The film is a gold standard for film noir. Take a coldhearted, hardboiled detective, add a shady femme fatale, throw in a mysterious goal and a heaping portion of dry, banter-y dialogue, stir, and voila: film noir.

    Roger Ebert details the legacy of The Maltese Falcon, in addition to its being the ultimate noir. It basically defined Humphrey Bogart's career. He would not be the lovable-yet-callous rogue with a perpetual cigarette in his mouth without this film. It introduced the world to Sydney Greenstreet, who basically defines the term "large and in charge." It was John Huston's first movie, and that dude went on to Hollywood directorial superstardom. And it includes some seriously stunning cinematography.

    So maybe someone should glue on some black feathers and be a Maltese Falcon whenever they next need a costume. It's a classic.