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A mysterious woman enters the office of Spade and Archer: Private Detectives. She has a case, and boy, is it a doozy. Her name is Ruth Wonderly, and her sister Corinne is missing. She believes that her sister is being taken advantage of by a sinister man named Floyd Thursby. (The name "Floyd" is sure to strike fear into the hearts of all men.) Spade's partner, Miles Archer, agrees to tail Floyd Thursby and find out where he's hiding Corinne.
That night, Archer is shot. Bang bang. Somebody shoots him down. The next day, Sam Spade must find out who killed his partner. This case isn't nearly as easy as it seemed to be.
Exhibit A: Sam Spade was having an affair with Iva, Archer's wife. He thinks she may have killed her husband. She thinks Spade may have done it. And the cops agree with Iva, hassling Spade as he tries to find the real killer.
Exhibit B: If Ruth Wonderly were Pinocchio, her nose would grow so long it would break the window. Everything she told Spade was a lie. Her real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Floyd Thursby was her partner. Together, they stole a mysterious artifact. He betrayed her and tried to keep it for himself. Spade agrees to protect her, with a little bit of romance on the side.
Exhibit C: A nefarious man known as "the fat man" is intimidating Brigid. The fat man's name is Kasper Gutman, and along with his associate, Joel Cairo, and his lackey, Wilmer Cook, he is looking for the legendary Maltese Falcon, an artifact that may be worth over a million dollars. He will give Spade a cut of the profits if he can retrieve it.
So who's telling the truth? The person least likely to be honest, Gutman, turns out to be the most honest one in this rogue's gallery. As Spade investigates, he learns that Gutman hired Brigid and Floyd Thursby to steal the Falcon from a Russian general, which they did. But Brigid, not Floyd, planned on keeping the artifact for herself. Gutman sent Cairo after her, but he couldn't discover the location of the bird.
Before leaving Russia, Brigid gave the Falcon to Captain Jacoby, of the ship La Paloma. One night, Jacoby staggers into Spade's office, drops the Falcon on the ground, and falls to the floor, dead of gunshot wounds. With the Falcon in his possession, Spade calls one final meeting.
He agrees to turn over the Falcon in exchange for a fall guy to get the police off his butt. Gutman betrays Wilmer, agreeing to turn him over to the police, and Spade delivers the Falcon. Gutman tears the newspaper from the statue, revealing it in all its glossy black glory. To make sure it's real, he chips at it with a knife.
It's not real. The statue is made of lead. It's as fake as the Kardashian family's photoshopped Instagram pictures.
Gutman and Cairo leave to continue their pursuit of the real Falcon. But Spade has deduced one more fact of the case—Brigid is the person who killed his partner, Miles Archer. She planned on scaring Floyd away (so she could keep the Falcon to herself) by putting Archer on his trail. When Floyd didn't scare easily, she killed Archer, planning to frame him for the murder. But Gutman had Wilmer kill Floyd, which foiled her plan. Having lied herself into a corner, she turned to Spade for help…
Brigid says she loves Spade, but he won't believe her anymore, not after that lie. He turns her in to the police and says he'll see her when she gets out of jail—in twenty years—if she doesn't hang. That's cold, bro. Real cold. Spade also tells the police Gutman's whereabouts. So the cops are happy, and Spade is happy they're off his case. At the end, the police detective asks Spade what's the deal with the big, heavy bird. Spade says it's "the stuff dreams are made of." And the movie ends, waking us up from that dream.