The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Film noir at its noiriest.

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a hard-drinking gumshoe, just trying to eke out a living on the foggy streets of San Francisco, the city by the bay. One day, a dreamboat dame (Mary Astor) comes into his office, showing her gams, and spinning a boffo yarn about a kid sister, shanghaied from the Big Apple by a mystery man named Thursby. When Spade & his partner, Archer (some guy who dies in the first 5 minutes) pour the dame’s story into a saucer, the cat won’t lick it up.

Archer eyeballs the hotel where Thursby is supposed to meet the dame. Instead, somebody yanks a gat and offs him, leaving “A $10,000 insurance policy, no kids, and a wife who doesn’t like him.” Rough break for Archer, with a coach seat on the Adios Express.

A friendly dick in the PD calls Spade, who hightails it to the scene. He gives a quick sniff for clues, but he’s stymied. He calls his girl Friday to break the news to Archer’s missus.

The next day, Spade meets up with the dame again, cracking wise, and getting the straight skinny. There is no missing sister, but this mysterious Thursby is a whole special edition of bad news, especially when he turns up shot up into a thug colander.

Next night, this dapper little gent called Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) pays a call on Spade. Cairo’s too uptown, with his tux and fancy walking stick. Spade gives him the business, and Cairo offers to play ball. Cairo’s big boss can’t put his hands on a stupid bird statue, and he wants it. He wants it $5000 clams worth ($450,000,000,000.74 in 2012 clams), with no questions asked. Spade smells a rat, but he’s willing to follow said rat to see where it leads him.

He rings up his Girl Friday at her desk, and tells her to go home. When he turns around, the odd Cairo gent has pulled a heater, and says he’s going to sniff around Spade’s office. He moves Spade to the middle of the room to frisk him, saying he’ll sling lead if Spade tries any funny stuff.

Sam Spade’s old lady didn’t raise him to get bamboozled. Spade grabs the gun with one hand, and knocks the little Beau Brummel out with a sock to the kisser.

While Cairo is out cold, Spade paws through his coat. Silver cigarette case, theater ticket, wallet with a couple large in greenbacks, and four passports, all from different countries.

Spade smells an even bigger rat, like a guinea pig-sized NYC sewer rat. When Cairo comes to, he and Spade put their cards on the table. Cairo says he thought Spade had the statue. Spade gave up that he didn’t. Cairo offers Spade a Benjamin retainer. Spade takes two.

Spade gives the little guy back his shooting iron. Cairo turns it on him, and insists on giving Spade’s office the once over. Spade is laughing too hard to stop him.

Later, Spade cottons to a goon in a trenchcoat and fedora, gives him the slip, and goes back to the dame’s hotel room. She pries, and Sam gets wise to the dame, throwing words at each other, and sucking a little face.

They get back to Spade’s office to meet Cairo. Spade quickly savvies out that the two have a past. The dame slaps Cairo, who starts toward her to rough her up. Spade tells him, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it,” and slaps his chops forehand and backhand.

The dame’s tale keeps getting wilder and wilder. Sam sends her home with his Girl Friday to stash her away from the pack of cops and hired muscle after her.

Spade hears tell of “The Fat Man,” oddly named Gutman. Spade busts on one of Gutman’s goons, and sends him home with a message for Gutman. Mr. Gutman calls, and sets a meet-up with Spade.

Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) pours them both a drink, and passes around stogies. Gutman gabs that, “(He’s) a man who likes to talk to men who like to talk.” Things go south, and Spade ransacks the joint, and storms out. On the way to the elevator, Spade grins.

Gutman’s goon cops an attitude: “You keep pushing me, and they’ll be picking iron out of your liver.” Spade takes his guns away, and slaps him around.

The fat man pours more high-class rotgut, and gives the skinny on the Maltese Falcon. Gutman plays dirty pool, and slips Spade a Mickey Finn, sending him to la-la land.

When Spade comes to, he heads back to his office, where a man comes in, with three slugs in his chest, drops a newspaper-wrapped bundle on the floor, and falls stone dead on the office sofa.

By now, everyone interested in the bird has a yarn to spin, and there are more knots than a macrame plant hanger. Gutman unwraps the bundle, and exposes the Falcon. He pulls out a penknife and scrapes away. It’s a bum falcon, no gold, no gems.

Gutman and his goons hightail it. Spade drops a dime, and they get picked up. He also gets the dame to spill that she killed Sam’s partner. He drops another dime, and the flatfoots come and take her off to the big house.

Spade and Gutman both laugh a lot. They’d be a swell team, but it isn’t in the cards.

Sam Spade lives to solve another case.

Roll Credits.

(Bogie, Greenstreet, and Lorre are especially good, and John Huston did a splendid job, both in adapting Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and directing. Beautiful film, one I can watch over and over, and still love)

Grade: A

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10 Responses to “The Maltese Falcon (1941)”

  1. I wasn’t convinced that Mary Astor was that compelling a femme fatale, but the characters and snappy lines of The Maltese Falcon are burned in my head. I also think of all the movies made since that have taken a page from Falcon: The Big Lebowski, Chinatown, and the satire-as-tribute, The Black Bird.

    But no mention of Wilmer, Elisha Cook Jr.’s character? I don’t know why, but just hearing Sydney Greenstreet say his name used to make me laugh. The kid was born to take the fall.

    • tomzone Says:

      I ran out of dime novel language. šŸ˜‰

      I liked Mary Astor fine. She was sophisticated enough for the initial part, and showed enough duplicity by the end. She was more femme than fatale.

      Wilmer was great. I loved that Sydney Greenstreet giggled like a little kid.

  2. Wilmer the gunsel! He played variations of that character for the net 40 or 50 years.

    There’s a plaque on a wall in SF that commemorates where Archer ate lead from the dame. The first time I saw it, I LOL. I didn’t know it was there.

    (Tom, I sent an email to your gmail address, with a tip for a program you’d enjoy. Did you get it?)

  3. It’s such a fun movie to indulge in — and I’m always amazed at how many colloquialisms have come from it.

  4. Was traveling in my Way-Back machine and ran across this post. Awesomeness, sheer awesomeness.

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