The Maltese Falcon, based upon the novel by Damiell Hammett, is great entertainment

As a part-time Ryerson film student I’ve recently watched some great movies.

In this post I’ll discuss The Maltese Falcon (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Mary Astor (1906-1987).

The movie is black and white with fairly hard light sources. The lighting contrast ratio in the production – the relation between key light (the light that casts the primary shadows) and fill light (the light that fills in the shadows cast by the key light) – yields a low-key form of lighting. That is, the dark shadow areas predominate over the light areas.

Low-key lighting

As noted in The Filmmaker’s Handbook (2013), low-key lighting is associated with night, emotion, tension, tragedy, mystery, and moodiness. The dramatic feel of low-key lighting, as in film noir and Citizen Kane, is well suited to black and white.

In a subsequent post I’ll discuss the novel, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), on which the movie is based. The book was published in serial form starting in 1929.

I watched this film on a laptop equipped with good quality earphones. I mention this point because the quality of the sound is a key ingredient in a viewer’s experience of a film.

It’s a great idea to ensure that the sound system, when you’re viewing a film on a laptop, is of the highest possible quality.

The Maltese Falcon

The story is engaging and well crafted. Every aspect of the film fits together well. The story comes to life. Among other things, Humphrey Bogart excels at bringing his character – the detective Sam Spade – to life in a way that’s captivating and enjoyable.

If you haven’t seen this classic movie but want to read my overview, you may wish to stop reading this post and see the movie first.


Warning: contains spoilers!

You can access the full synopsis here.  Warning: contains spoilers – as does the following overview!

Overview of The Maltese Falcon

The story begins with the arrival of an attractive woman, Miss Wonderly, at the office of Sam Spade, the detective. The setting is the detective’s office. He sits in his office, and people turn up.

The detective’s secretary, Effie, is an engaging character. She says (I paraphrase), “You’d like to see her anyway, as she’s a real knockout.”

The office visitor tells a story about her life circumstances. Later in the film we learn that Sam Spade realizes at once that the story is a lie. When I watched the scene, I was impressed with her story. It sounded plausible.

As the movie continues, we learn that Spade’s partner, who had taken a liking to the attractive visitor, has been murdered.

Conclusion of the story

The villain lady in the film, played by Mary Astor, is the character who visits Spade’s office as the film gets under way. At the conclusion of the film, Sam Spade tells her that a person does not take the death of a business partner lightly.

He indicates that he has been aware, from the start of the story, that she is the person that is responsible for the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. He knows this because his partner has died under conditions, as certain clues indicate, where he would not have suspected he might get shot. In the course of the narrative, Spade has fallen in love with the villain lady.

As the story winds down, he makes some existential statement about love. At this point, the woman is looking at a jail sentence of 20 years for murder assuming she escapes the death penalty. Without the murder of Spade’s partner, there wouldn’t be much of a story.

The point, with regard to Spades’ feelings as the story concludes, is that there’s a moral quality to the narrative, as I will discuss in a subsequent post focusing on Damiell Hammett’s novel.

Start of the story

At the start of the story, Sam Spade goes to the site of the murder, and asks the secretary to inform his partner’s widow. The widow is in love with Spade and has a $10,000 insurance policy on her husband’s life.

Thus for a variety of reasons Spade is suspected. The script, acting, and directing all work well together to establish the opening story line.

After the widow turns up, or around that time, two plain-clothes police officers also turn up, with the intention of investigating Spade – who tells them to not bother him.

There’s also a reference to a hoodlum character – “the Boy,” that is, a character named Wilmer – who is seen skulking about, at the outskirts of scenes as they unfold.

There’s an initial interaction between Spade and Wilmer. It occurs when the latter is standing outside a building, snooping.

There follows an interaction in a hotel lobby, where Spade arranges for Wilmer to be told to leave.

A scene follows in which a character named Cairo enters into Spade’s office. Cairo pulls a gun and Spade disarms him. They talk. Spade hands back the gun. Cairo turns the gun on Spade a second time, and tells him to raise his hands again, so that Cairo can search the office.

Figurine of a small bird

The larger story is that the details regarding a figurine of a small bird – a Maltese falcon – are hazy and shrouded in mystery. The mystery is highly motivating for the characters, and the movie-goer. In the end, a reality is revealed that is more mundane. However, for some of the characters, the mystery connected with the sculpture is retained, and they are off on a new quest in search of the “genuine” falcon.

Various encounters occur between Spade and “Miss Wonderly,” who is quickly identified as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade seeks to figure out what’s what. She says she lied, when she first visited his office. He says he already knows that.

Another scene that stays in mind involves Spade’s visit to a character named Gutman. There’s a lot of emphasis, in this scene, on a performance – at which Humphrey Bogart excels – in which Spade comes up with all manner of concepts – of explanations related to what is going on in the story – most of which are concerned with money.

There’s a scene where the image of Gutman’s face goes out of focus. That’s where Spade loses consciousness, having been drugged by Gutman, and Gutman leaves the scene to proceed on his project, which has a connection to his hunt for the Maltese falcon.

Newspaper clipping

Spade regains consciousness and gets back on the case. At some point, we arrive at a scene where a ship arrives at a dock in the urban setting where the film is set. We know that the ship is arriving because the time of arrival has been circled in a newspaper clipping. In the decades in which the novel was written and the movie made, newspapers played a central role in the transmission of information, such as data related to shipping.

We next learn that the ship is on fire.

We’re back at the detective’s office. The secretary, Effie, and Spade are talking. The captain of the ship arrives, drops a package on the floor, and expires.

Spade takes the package to a bus station lost package counter for safekeeping, and mails the collection tag to himself. In those times, it may be added, the U.S. postal system was very fast. It was a major means of communication. So was the landline phone, before the days of smartphones.

Through a combination of events, all the main characters arrive at a key location. A plan is discussed whereby Wilmer will be made the fall guy for the murders at the start of the story. It becomes clear at this point that Wilmer has, indeed, been responsible for one of the murders that have occurred. Wilmer is knocked out. As the scene proceeds, he regains consciousness and disappears.

The Maltese falcon turn out to be a fake. Spade takes his fee. Gutman and Cairo decide to pursue their dream of finding the real and genuine falcon.

Spade lets Brigid O’Shaughnessy know that he knows that she killed his partner, Miles Archer. The clue is that his partner’s gun was still in its holster and his jacket was buttoned. Spade arranges for the two plain-clothes police officers, with whom he’s been in contact all the way through the story, to pick up Wilmer and O’Shaughnessy.

The film ends. A character says, referring to the fake falcon: “What’s that?”

What dreams are made of

“The stuff that dreams are made of,” Spade replies.

The story is told well. It’s got a good pace. The viewer’s interest is maintained as the story quickly unfolds. You remember the laugh of Gutman. You remember the laugh and the smile of Spade. Everything fits together. It’s a great experience for the viewer.


2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Colleen O’Marra writes:

    Re: Maltese Falcon…the captain of the ship who collapses on Spade’s
    couch is none other than director John Huston’s father, Walter
    .(uncredited). He utters,”You know…the bird.” and dies in
    front of Effie and Spade holding the wrapped falcon. As far as sound
    quality, no one had better sound than Warner Brothers. They were
    famous for the sound of gunfire(listen to it in The Searchers)which no
    other studio could replicate.All these great films of the ’40s had
    actors so distinctive of voice that you could just hear the film as
    if you were listening to the radio.No single actor or cast today could
    match these characters for voices AND ACTING. I note especially the
    performances of every last actor in Casablanca.( C. O’Marra)

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    I look forward to learning more about John Huston:

    Author Note: John Huston

    The message from Colleen O’Marra will motivate me to do more research about John Huston and Walter Huston – and about Warner Brothers.

    Among the people that I met when I did freelance work (1975-1980) for a film magazine called Cinema Canada was Bob Clampett (1913–1984), the Warner Brothers animator who was the co-creator of Bugs Bunny. As well, he was the creator of Tweety Bird. Clampett was very perceptive, and had a great sense of humour. I’m really pleased I had the chance to meet him.

    Animation is a form of acting in which the animator is the person who acts out the scenes. On a visit to Toronto in the late 1970s, Clampett spoke of how he used to take a walk along the beach, in California by the Pacific Ocean where he lived, and rehearse his scenes, acting out the parts of animated characters, in the mornings before heading for a day’s work at his animation desk at Warner Brothers. That’s an image that has stayed in mind: The young Bob Clampett, walking along a beach in California, energetically acting out his scenes.

    I also had the opportunity, when working with Cinema Canada, to report on a visit to Toronto by two of the original “Nine Old Men” who set up the Walt Disney animation studio:

    Mental imagery, as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston explain in their 1978 talk in Toronto, played a key role in the portrayal of Walt Disney’s animated characters

    As well, in a recent post I’ve discussed a great presentation that I enjoyed as a child in Montreal by Clarence Nash, the actor who enacted the voice of Donald Duck.

    Among other people that I was pleased to meet as a film writer were Pen Densham and John Watson who after an impressive start in Toronto moved on – with help from Norman Jewison – to great careers in Hollywood. Densham has written a book about screenwriting: Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing – and Not Getting Eaten (2011).

    More information, including links to YouTube videos about Pen Densham’s book, can be found here.

    Densham and Watson’s Toronto film company, Insight Productions, produced a wide range of well-received films including the documentary “Life Times Nine,” which received an Academy Award nomination in 1973. In 1978, John McLeod Brunton, Jr., assistant editor and director with Insight Productions, bought the rights to the company from Densham and Watson. An update on the company’s impressive current work can be found here.

    Other successful filmmakers I recall from those years include Michael Chechik of Vancouver and Joe Koenig of Toronto. It was great to meet each of the individuals that I’ve mentioned in this comment because such meetings, between 1975 and 1980, helped me to understand the origins of their lifetime achievements.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *