Directed By: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George
Tag line: "A story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING automatics!"
Trivia: The Shakespeare reference that ends the film was suggested by Humphrey Bogart.
Prior to playing Sam Spade, Daschell Hammett’s shifty private eye, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart portrayed a string of petty criminals in films like The Petrified Forest, Angels with Dirty Faces and High Sierra. With The Maltese Falcon, he finally found himself on the right side of the law, yet traces of his earlier roles shone through in his performance. Though taking a break from crime, The Maltese Falcon proved Bogie was still as tough as nails.
San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowain), are hired by the sophisticated Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) to follow a man she claims is a relative of hers. The first night on the job, Archer ends up dead, leaving Sam all alone to pick up the pieces of the case. After digging around, Sam discovers that Miss Wonderly is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and what she’s really after is a jewel-encrusted statue known as the Maltese Falcon. Joining in the hunt for this treasure are two gentlemen of questionable character, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), both of whom also attempt to hire Sam to locate the valuable trinket. But Sam is busy working an angle of his own.
There’s no doubt Sam Spade is the hero of The Maltese Falcon, even though his very nature is anything but heroic. We recognize early on that Spade has an appetite for the ladies. When his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick), is announcing Miss Wonderley, she tells Spade, “You’ll want to see this one. She’s a knockout”. In fact, Spade gets around a bit more than he should; he’s been carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, Iva (Gladys George), a fact that makes him a prime suspect in Archer’s death (even Iva asks Sam if he had something to do with it). With his own reputation on the line, Spade has added incentive to get to the bottom of things, and fast. He starts by playing the principle characters, Joel Cairo, Kasper Gutman and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, against one another, flip-flopping back and forth, agreeing at one time or another to work for each of them, all in the hopes of uncovering the truth. He’s experienced enough to know when he’s being lied to, and isn’t above a bit of play-acting himself. My favorite moment in the film comes when Spade is chatting with Gutman in the latter’s hotel room. The conversation's going nowhere, and, quite suddenly, Spade jumps form his seat, angrily smashes a glass against the wall, and threatens both Gutman and his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), before storming out of the room. But as he's walking down the hallway following this tirade, we catch a smile slyly curling Spade’s lips, as if to say he’s pleased with the way he played that particular scene. In a case with as many twists and turns as this one, Sam Spade is obviously right at home.
This was the third attempt by Warner Bros to film Daschell Hammett's story, despite the fact the previous two (including one with the same title directed ten years earlier by Roy Del Ruth) were failures. But then, they didn’t have Bogart. Sam Spade was the perfect private eye to locate the elusive Maltese Falcon, and Humphrey Bogart was, in turn, the perfect Sam Spade.