The Maltese Falcon is No Flighty Tale

The Maltese Falcon premiered Oct. 3, 1941, in New York City.

The Maltese Falcon premiered Oct. 3, 1941, in New York City.

By Glen Sparks

The stuff that dreams are made of is the statuette of a bejeweled bird.

Those that covet the prize will lie, steal and even kill to get it. The figurine, they insist, is worth a fortune.

Author and one-time Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett told the story of The Maltese Falcon in 1929. Hollywood put the novel to screen in 1931 and in 1936, the second time as a comedy titled Satan Met a Lady. Writer-director John Huston created the definitive adaption of the Sam Spade thriller in 1941.

Starring Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco detective Spade, The Maltese Falcon weaves through a tale of deception, double-crossing, strange characters and gunshots in the night, all in the name of a mysterious sculpture, gifted hundreds of years ago by the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain.

Mary Astor plays the femme fatale in this Warner Bros. production. She introduces herself as “Miss Wonderly”, later switches to “Miss LeBlanc” and finally settles on “Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” By any name, she hires Spade and sets the movie mayhem in motion, first with the murder of Spade’s partner, Miles Archer.

Cops knock on Spade’s apartment door soon enough. The effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) arrives a few scenes later, followed by Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) and, finally, Casper Gutman (British stage actor Sydney Greenstreet in his movie debut).

Wisely, Huston didn’t mess too much with Hammett’s tale. He wrote the script and plugged much of the great dialogue from the book into the movie.

Gutman: I do like a man who tells you right out he’s lookin’ out for himself.

Spade: Don’t we all?

Gutman: I don’t trust a man who says he’s not.

Huston also used sharp camera angles and shot many scenes low to the ground, making the obese Gutman look even larger and more menacing.

Bogart plays Spade with a terrific sense of private eye cool. The role turned the New York actor into a Hollywood superstar. Before The Maltese Falcon, Bogart usually played gangster parts and supporting roles. The Maltese Falcon made him the iconic Bogey. Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep followed.

Huston, directing his first movie, shot The Maltese Falcon in 34 days, according to a biography of the filmmaker, John Huston: Courage and Art, by Jeffrey Meyer. The film cost $327,000 to make, just under budget. Huston later made such great movies as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, both with Bogart. He played a memorably slimy supporting role in Roman Polanski’s noir classic Chinatown.

Characters in The Maltese Falcon grow colder as the movie draws closer to a conclusion and after the falcon is finally delivered to Spade’s office by a bullet-riddled Capt. Jacoby (played by Walter Huston, John’s actor dad).

Gutman, for instance, gives up Wlmer (“We need a fall guy,” Spade explains.), one of his partners in crime, even after he concedes, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.”

Oh, well. He famously shrugs. “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese falcon.”

Spade also must turn in Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police (played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane). She killed Archer, after all. (Spade: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something.”)

Maybe, Spade says, she’ll be out of Tehachapi (a women’s prison in California) in 20 years or so. “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”

Spade looks for justice despite any personal feelings he may carry for his client. The detectives escort her to jail. Elevator bars close in front of her. The bird, by the way, was a fake.

Bond picks up the replica. What is it, he asks. Bogart relates his memorable closing line that the bird is the stuff of dreams. That line is not in the book. Bogart ad-libbed it, according to the Meyer.

Artists at Warner Bros. made the bird for $114. The figure sold at auction in 2010 for nearly $400,000.

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