By Carter B. Horsley
The "priceless token" mentioned in
the opening of the movie "The Maltese Falcon" conjures
idylls of the golden fleece and the romance of knights in shining
Alas, such grand scenarios are not the stuff
of this movie, but rather the dingy offices of a private detective
in San Francisco. This is distinctly a low-budget movie and glamor
was not affordable and the plot is not as important as the characters.
Welcome to the world of film noir - black film,
dark film, the underbelly of the Depression era, a time when hopes
were not high and one settled for meager scraps and had little
energy for humor. Life is decidedly downbeat and without rhythm
and melody. One tried to stay away from the bottom of the barrel.
It may not be a dog-eats-dog world, but trust and sympathy are
in short supply. Hard times produce some hard people and the lead
character in the movie, a private detective, Sam Spade, played
by Humphrey Bogart, is cold and cynical, mean and menacing. He
is not, however, without a touch of sophistication, if not humor.
He calls the statue a "dingus" and describes it as "the
thing that dreams are made of."
The Maltese Falcon is a good-sized gold statue
covered in black paint that supposedly was made a few hundred
years ago in the movie of the same name although it resembles
a classic, few-thousand-year-old Egyptian bronze sculpture of
It is in the dreams of the corpulent Kaspar
Gutman, played by Sydney Greenstreet, and the female lead, who
goes by the names by Ruth Wonderly, Miss LeBlanc and Brigid O'Shaughnessy,
played by Mary Astor.
In his first movie role, Greenstreet is stupendous,
wallowing rather gracefully like a well-dressed hippopotamus with
a parrot's face. He is one of the great characters in the history
of movies. Malicious, but mirthful and damnably beguiling and
intriguing. He is undeniably a traveler of worldly means and nefarious
deals and deadly charm. His henchmen, Joel Cairo, a swarmy small
man played by Peter Lorre, and Wilmer, the "gunsel,"
played with glaring but anonymous intensity by Elisha Cook Jr.,
are not stereotypes.
Mary Astor, a bit puffier than in her prime
years, is not your typical femme fatale, at least based on looks.
She could pass for a middle-aged school teacher, but she does
manage to exhibit considerable feminine guile. Given that Bogart
was not a matinee idol, it is conceiveable that he might have
some interest in her as a dame, a member of the opposite sex,
against his better instincts as a judge of character, however.
With the exception of Greenstreet, none of
the characters are likeable or lovable, although Lorre is definitely
Ruth Wonderly shows up at Spade's office and
asks him to find her younger sister from New York, Corrinne, who
is missing after writing that she was in San Francisco and had
been seduced by a man named Floyd Thursby whom she describes as
violent but plans to meet that night. Spade's partner, Miles Archer,
played by Jerome Cowan, takes a shine to Miss Wonderly and offers
to take the job.
We next see Archer recognizing someone only
to be shot by the unseen figure. When police sergeant Tom Polhaus,
played by Ward Bond, informs Spade of his partner's death, Spade
rather calmly phones his secretary, Effie, to notify Archer's
wife, adding "keep her away from me."
Spade tries to reach Miss Wonderly but she
has checked out of her hotel and not left a forwarding address.
The next morning Sergeant Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy, played
by Barton McLane, arrive at his apartment with more questions
such as what was the name of his client and they inform him that
Thursby was murdered a half hour after Spade left the scene of
Archer's murder. Spade gets annoyed at the implication he is involved
and states that he was never seen Thursday "dead or alive."
A little later, Archer's widow, Iva, played
by Gladys George, arrives at Spade's office and they embrace and
she asks him if he murdered her husband so they could get married.
He comforts her but dismisses her, promising to see her later.
Effie enters his office and he asks her "Who do you think
I shot?" She asks if he is going to marry Iva, suggesting
that Iva killed her husband. Spade tells her that Iva did not
kill her husband and she tells him that "you always think
you know what you're doing but you're too slick for your own good.
The phone rings and it's Miss Wonderly who
tells Spade she left the St. Mark Hotel and is now at the Coronet
Apartments on California Avenue under the name Miss Leblanc. Spade
tells his secretary to move Archer's desk out of the office and
have his name removed from the front door.
He goes to see Miss Wonderly who tells him
right away that the story she had told him was not true. Spade
tells her that "we didn't exactly believe your story,"
adding that "we believed your two hundred dollars."
He said he did not give her identity to the police but he must
know the facts.
She says she can not tell him now: "You've
got to trust me, Mr. Spade. Oh, I'm so alone and afraid. I've
got nobody to help me if you won't help me. Be generous, Mr. Spade.
You're brave. You're strong. You can spare me some of that courage
and strength surely. Help me, Mr. Spade. I need help so badly.
I've no right to ask you, I know I haven't, but I do ask you.
"You won't need much of anybody's help,"
he replies, adding "You're good. It's chiefly your eyes,
I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things
like 'Be generous, Mr. Spade.'"
She tells him that she met Thursby in the Orient
where he was a gambler's bodyguard.
Spade asks her who killed Thursby, "your
enemies or his?" She replies that she does not know. He asks
for more money and she gives him five hundred dollars and he tells
her to pawn her jewelry and takes her apartment key telling her
he will ring four times when he returns.
He returns to his office where a man named
Joel Cairo gives Effie a gardenia-perfumed business card and offers
Spade condolences on his partner's death and while fondling a
cane says he is searching for a statue of a black bird. "I'm
trying to recover an ornament that, ah, shall we say has been
mislaid," he explains and offers $5,000 for its recovery.
Effie leaves the office and Cairo then draws a gun on Spade so
he can search the office. Spade, however, disarms him and knocks
Cairo recovers and offers Spade a retainer
of $100 but Spade insists of $200 and claims he does not have
the black bird or know where it is but would try to get it back
"in an honest, lawful way." Cairo tells him he sincerely
expects "the greatest mutual benefit from our association"
and then pulls a gun again on Spade in another effort to search
After Cairo leaves, Spade goes out and senses
he is being followed and eventually visits O'Shaughnessy who admits
to him that she has not "lived a good life - I've been bad,
worse than you could know." "That's good," Spade
comments, "because if you actually were as innocent as you
pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere." He tells her about
his meeting with Cairo and then compliments her on her penchant
for deception: "You're good. You're very good!"
Brigid asks about Cairo and learns that he
"offered $5,000 for the black bird." She says that is
more than she can offer and asks what she can offer. He kisses
her and declares that he cannot proceed "without more confidence
in you than I've got now." She agrees to speak to Cairo and
he leaves a message for him at his hotel to meet them in his apartment
later. Cairo shows up and tells Spade that a "boy" is
watching the apartment and Cairo tells Brigid he's "delighted"
to see her again. She says that she doesn't have the black bird
but promises she will get in about a week from where Floyd Thursby
hid it and says she will sell it because she's worried about how
it was involved in Thursby's murder.
Cairo inquires why she would sell it to him
and she says that she's afraid "to touch it except to turn
it over to somebody else. Cairo asks what happened to Thursby
and she says "The Fat Man" and says that he is in San
Brigid slaps Cairo and he draws a gun but is
disarmed by Spade and as Brigid reaches for the gun there is knocking
at the door and Spade goes into the hallway and talks with Detectives
Polhaus and Dundy who tell him that an anonymous tip claimed that
he was involved with Archer's wife, Iva, and killed him to marry
Brigid reaches for the gun as they are interrupted by loud knocking
at the door and the sound of the buzzer. In the hallway, Spade
talks to police detectives Polhaus and Dundy in a second after-hours
call. The cops are there because an anonymous phone-caller [later
discovered to be Iva Archer] has informed them that Spade was
romantically involved with Iva - and killed Miles to marry her:
"Your first idea that I killed Thursby
because he killed Miles falls to pieces if you blame me for killing
Miles too," Spade asserts just as sounds of a scuffle come
from inside the apartment.
Cairo and Brigid exchange accusations but Spade
tells the police that she is "an operative in my employ"
and that "Cairo is an acquaintance of Thursby and had hired
him to find something that Thursby had. Spade then maintains that
the scuffle was a plan, that the gun was his, and gets Cairo to
confess that it was merely a joke. The police are not satisfied
Cairo leaves soon thereafter and Spade interrogates
Brigid about the black bird that "everybody's all steamed
up about." She tells him she was offered 500 pounds to steal
it in Turkey and that Cairo and Thursby were part of the plan
to steal it but she and Thursby leaned that Cairo planned to trick
them so they double-crossed him. Thursby, however, according to
Brigid, wanted it for himself.
Spade says she's a liar and she agrees and
The next day Spade goes to Cairo's hotel and
sees the "boy" in the lobby and asks him the whereabouts
of Cairo and threatens that he is going to have to tell him, adding
"you can tell the 'Fat Man' I said so"
Wilmer, the "boy," tells Spade to
shove off but Spade calls over the hotel detective and asks why
he lets "these cheap gunmen hang around the lobby,...with
their heaters bulging in their clothes."
Cairo comes into lobby, disheveled, and Spade
tells him he wants to talk with him, explaining that the previous
night he had to "throw in with" Bridgid since she knows
the location of the black bird. "You always have a very smooth
explanation ready, huh? Cairo declares. "What do you want
me to do - learn to stutter?" Spade replies.
Spade goes to his office where his secretary
says he's had a call from a Mr. Gutman, whom Spade guesses is
the "Fat Man," and finds Brigid who complains that her
apartment has been searched. His secretary offers to let her stay
at her apartment when she refuses to return to her own place.
The phone rings and it is Gutman who invites Spade to his hotel
room where he is met by Wilmer.
Gutman pours Spade a drink and remarks "We
begin well, sir. I distrust a man who says 'when.' If he's got
to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to
be trusted when he does. Well, sir, here's to plain speaking and
clear understanding. You're a close-mouthed man." Spade says,
no, and Gutman says, "Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed
man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong
Spade asks about the black bird and Gutman
says "You're the man for me, sir. No beating about the bush,
right to the point." Gutman asks if Spade is Miss O'Shaughnessy's
representative or Mr. Cairo's, asking "who else is there?
"There's me," Spade replies."
"Ah. That's wonderful sir, wonderful.
I do like a man who tells you right out he's looking out for himself.
Don't we all? I don't trust a man who says he's not," Gutman
Spade smashes his glass on the floor and insists
that Gutman to stop waisting his time and to keep his gunsel away
On his return to his office, Spade is confronted
by Gutman and two of his henchmen, Joel Cairo, a swarmy small
man played by Peter Lorre, and Wilmer, a "gunsel" played
by Elisha Cook Jr. Greenstreet and Lorre would also appear with
Bogart in "Casablanca" (see The
City Review article). (The title track in "The Friends
of Mr. Cairo," the great recording made more than a generation
after this movie was released, by Vangelis and Jon Anderson, the
lead singer of Yes, is a fabulous homage not only to this movie
but to the myths and magic of movies.)
Gutman finds Spade "a chap worth knowing,
an amazing character" and tells him that the story of "the
black bird": It was made from the coffers of the crusading
Knights of Rhodes (the order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem)
and was robbed by pirates while en route to Emperor Charles V
of Spain who had granted the knights the island of Malta. The
black bird turns up in 1713 in Sicily and again in Paris in 1840
when it had acquired its black enamel coat "so that it looked
nothing more than a fairly interesting statuette" and it
was "kicked around Paris for over three score years by private
owners too stupid to see what it was under the skin." A Greek
antique dealer discovers it in 1923 and recognizes its real value
but he was murdered and it was stolen again.
Gutman admits that he has searched for it for
17 years: "I'm a man not easily discouraged when I want something."
Gutman says he traced the statue to the home
of a Russian general in a suburb of Istanbul and offered to buy
it but his agents betrayed him. Thursby was one of his agents.
The police bring Spade in for more questioning
and he tells that his "best chance of clearing myself from
the trouble you're trying to make for me is by bringing in the
murderers all tied up."
On the street, Wilmer tells Spade Gutman wants to meet with him
and threatens Spade that if he keeps "ridin'" him "they're
going to be picking iron out of your liver." Spade laughs
and says "the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter,
huh?" Spade quickly disarms Wilmer and gives the guns to
Gutman, who eventually offers Spade $25,000 for the bird and another
$25,000 or a quarter of the proceeds from its sale, that, he says,
"would amount to a vastly greater sum." Spade asks him
how much he thinks "the dingus" is worth and Gutman
says there's "no telling how high it could go."
Spade, however, soon passes out from a drugged
drink given him by Gutman and when he wakes up he calls his secretary
who tells him Brigid did not show up. He does find a newspaper
clipping in Gutman's room on which the arrival of a ship from
Hong Kong that day is circled. He races to the dock to find the
ship on fire and returns to his office where a man, played by
Walter Huston, the director's father, staggers in with something
wrapped in newspapers and just before he dies he says "...the
falcon." The man who died was the captain of the ship.
Brigid calls and says she is in Burlingame
but then screams. Spade takes the wrapped falcon and checks it
at the Union Bus Terminal and mails the claim stub to his post
office address and then goes to rescue Brigid only to discover
that the address she gave on the phone is an empty lot.
He goes to his apartment and finds Brigid hovering
in a doorway nearby and they go to his apartment where Wilmer
is waiting with a drawn gun and Gutman and Cairo are also in the
Spade asks Gutman for the $25,000 installment
but Gutman gives him an envelope with only $10,000. Spade then
suggests that Wilmer becomes the fall guy for the murders. "By
gad, sir, you are a character, that you are. There's never any
telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to
be something astonishing. I feel towards Wilmer here just exactly
as if he were my own son," Gutman remarks.
Wilmer is not amused by Spade's suggestion
and Spade then suggests Cairo and even Brigid. Eventually Spade
disarms Wilmer and the others agree to make him the fall guy and
Spade says he will deliver the falcon the next morning.
Gutman tells Spade that Thursby was Brigid's
ally and that Wilmer killed him to convince her to make a deal
and that the death of ship's captain was "entirely Miss O'Shaughnessy's
The next morning Spade's secretary delivers
the bundled statue and Gutman takes out his penknife to scrape
away the enamel and reveal the jeweled surface. There is no jeweled
surface and Gutman in complete exasperation realizes it is a fake.
Cairo goes into a rage and yells at Gutman, "You, you imbecile!
You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead!" Gutman eventually
composes himself and states that rather than stand there "and
shed tears and call each other names" they should go off
to Istanbul in search of the real falcon. He pulls a gun on Spade
and asks for the $10,000 back but Spade keeps $1,000 for his time
and effort. Gutman asks Spade to join his troop: "You're
a man of nice judgment and many resources." Spade declines.
Gutman leaves the fake falcon as a "momento" and also
says there will be no fall guy.
Wilmer has sneaked out of the room and after
Gutman and Cairo leave, Spade calls the police to pick them up.
He then turns to Brigid and says "we've
only got minutes to get set for the police." He grills her
intensely and finally she admits that she killed Archer, but she
claims she loves him and begs for him not to turn her in.
He tells he she will be "taking the all," adding that
he will not "play the sap for you."
To save herself, Brigid attempts to throw herself
at Spade once again, hoping that he will continue to protect her
and conceal her crime. With a fluttery, bogus innocence, she wildly
professes the existence of her love for him and begs him not to
turn her in. Relishing her fear, he coldly and flatly tells her:
"You know down deep in your heart and
in spite of anything I've done I love you," Brigid protests,
but Spade says he doesn't "care who love who," adding
"You killed Miles and you're going over for it."
Spade indicates that he does have feelings
for her in addition to the fact that "when a man's partner's
killed, he's supposed to do something about it."
"I've no earthly reason to think I can
trust you, and, if I do this and get away with it, you'll have
something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've
got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put
a hole in me some day. All those are on one side. Maybe some of
them are unimportant - I won't argue about that - but look at
the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All
we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you."
Brigid argues that he knows "whether you love me or not."
"Maybe I do," he replies. "Well,
I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over, but that
will pass. If all I've said doesn't mean anything to you, then
forget it and we'll make it just this: I won't because all of
me wants to, regardless of consequences, and because you counted
on that with me the same as you counted on that with all the others."
He turns her over to the police.
In his May 13, 2001 review of the movie, the
great critic Roger Ebert noted that Spade "set the stage
for a decade in which unsentimental heroes talked tough and cracked
wise." When Ms. O'Shaughnessy tells Spade that she loves
him and pleads that he not turn her over to the police for his
partner's murder, Spade tells her "I hope they don't hang
you, precious by that sweet neck," adding that "the
chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good
girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they
hang you, I'll always remember you."
The movie is based on a 1929 novel by Dashiell
Hammett that first appeared as a five-part story in a magazine
called "Black Mask" and when the movie was first previewed
its title was "The Gent from Frisco." It had first been
made a movie in 1931 when it was called "Dangerous Female"
starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. It was remade in 1936
as "Satan Met A Lady" with Bette Davis and Warren William.
In Huston's film, George Raft had been scheduled
to play the lead but he opted out and was replaced by Bogart who
had appeared in numerous "B" movies and quickly became
a major star in the anti-hero mode. The first choice for the role
played by Mary Astor was Geraldine Fitzgerald. A sequel that was
to be titled "The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon"
was planned but Huston became unavailable and Hammett wanted a
lot of money.
The film was nominated for best picture and
best adapted screenplay (Huston) and best supporting actor (Greenstreet)
but lost out to "How Green Was My Valley," "Here
Comes Mr. Jordan" and Donald Crisp, respectively. Mary Astor
was not nominated for this film but won Best Supporting Actress
that year for "The Great Lie.
Sam Spade is not your average hero and that
is what makes "The Maltese Falcon" work so well. He's
unpredictable and not always pleasant and honorable. It is a little
hard to believe he would fall for Brigid and Mary Astor was past
her prime of attractiveness. The convolutions of the plot become
a bit annoying as they occur with conniving timeliness. What escalates
"The Maltese Falcon" is the sharp dialogue and, most
importantly, the magnificent Sydney Greenstreet and the weasly
Peter Lorre, who give two of the most memorable, if not finest,
"character" performances in film history.
We've been had and it wasn't so bad.