Gumshoe, dick on a case, or Sherlock Holmes, whatever you call it, the private detective is perhaps the most famous profession in all of film noir. What is film noir, you may ask? It was a genre of crime movies in the 1940s and ‘50s that were characterized by their cynical and sexually motivated characters and plot lines. They were chock full of femme fatales and wary men who fell for their wonderful charms and devious tricks. Shot in black and white with a first person narrator, private eye stories are what we think of when we think of noir, inspired by the hardboiled crime pulp fiction novels written by such authors as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the early part of the 20th century. They created the famous private investigators known as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
In particular, one of the most iconic film noirs of all time is “The Maltese Falcon,” (1941) based on Hammett’s 1929 book of the same name. The movie is notable in several ways. For one, it launched the directorial career of John Huston, who would star as a shady character in Roman Polanski’s neo-noir “Chinatown” in 1974.
Secondly, it featured the master of suave, Humphrey Bogart, and helped serve as one of the films that certified his role as a Hollywood superstar along with “Casablanca” and another noir “The Big Sleep” (based on a Chandler novel that time).
Thirdly, it sparked a long and successful collaboration between Huston and Bogart (including “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Key Largo”), culminating in Bogart winning an Oscar for best actor in 1951 for “The African Queen.”
Lastly, the influence of “The Maltese Falcon” is so powerful that you can see references to it in popular culture a variety of times from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1985) and “Rugrats” (the 1997 episode “Radio Daze”), to more recent fare like “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) when Peter Quill said that a coveted orb has a “Maltese Falcon/Ark of the Covenant” sort of vibe.
The film is about Sam Spade, a private detective of the Spade & Archer detective agency who becomes embroiled in the search for a centuries old jewel-encrusted falcon statuette after the murder of his partner Miles Archer. For all intents and purposes, the falcon is merely a MacGuffin, a plot device that we hardly see but is intended to drive the story forward. After all, the mystery is more about the intriguing people Spade encounters on his mission to find the falcon and the murder of his partner and two men named Floyd Thursby and Captain Jacobi.
While there aren’t a ton of characters, the ones we meet are interesting indeed. Of course there’s Spade as played by Bogart at the top of his game. He’s everything you want in a private eye: a confident, fast-talking smart aleck who clashes with the cops on more than one occasion. Then you have Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who seeks Spade’s help, but may not be what she seems. Brigid is portrayed by Mary Astor with doe-like eyes and elegant furs, and you can’t help but call her pet names like sweetheart, precious, darling or even toots.
Sydney Greenstreet is Kasper Gutman or “The Fat Man,” a rich guy who has relentlessly sought the falcon for 17 years. Greenstreet is absolutely charming in the role (his first on-screen role, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor). Peter Lorre is Joel Cairo, the man with that unforgettable voice that you’d associate with an assistant of Dr. Frankenstein. By the way, Lorre and Greenstreet would later star with Bogart in “Casablanca.” Anyway, everyone wants this falcon really badly and it’s up to the sleuth Spade to figure out just what the hell is going on.
While two movie adaptations of the book were released in 1931 and 1936 (one a light comedy named “Satan Met a Lady”), Huston’s version has endured the longest. It’s a well-crafted whodunit of great one-liners (“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it”), betrayals and one big twist. Interestingly, Hammett worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency for a time and based Spade on how some of his fellow detectives acted. As a result, the author described Spade as a man with no origin, an ideal person who only exists in our heads. Pretty heavy stuff if you don’t mind me saying. So what is the “Maltese Falcon?” “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”