The Maltese Falcon
Polhaus: It's heavy. What is it?
The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a Warner Brothers film based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, starring Humphrey Bogart as Hardboiled Detective Sam Spade, Mary Astor as his Femme Fatale client, Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut, and Peter Lorre and Elisha Cooke Jr. as his Ambiguously Gay sidekicks. The story concerns a private detective's dealings with three unscrupulous adventurers who compete to obtain a fabulous jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon.
The Maltese Falcon has been named as one of the greatest films of all time by Roger Ebert, and Entertainment Weekly, and was cited by Panorama du Film Noir Américain, the first major work of Film Noir. Whether or not it is the first film of that genre, there is some debate as to whether the earlier M can be considered noir or proto-noir. The film was John Huston's directorial debut and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
An earlier (pre-Hays Code) version was released in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez. It was far less ambiguous about Lorre's character in particular. It also suffered from a decidedly Out of Character portrayal of Sam Spade as The Dandy. The novel was adapted again in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady; this version also changed Sam Spade's name, to "Ted Shane".
- Agent Peacock: For a strongly implied gay man in a pre-gay age and a central antagonist, Cairo is quite fabulous.
- Affably Evil:
- Kasper Gutman.
- Joel Cairo as well. He even asks Sam to "please" keep his hands on the back of his head while holding him at gunpoint.
- Almost-Dead Guy: Captain Jacobi, played by Walter Huston (the director's father) in a cameo.
- Ambiguously Gay: Joel Cairo (it's rather less ambiguous in the original novel. Not to mention Hammett's references to Wilmer as the 'gunsel', which is also slang for something completely different...)
- Anti-Hero: It's up in the air for much of the story exactly which side of 'right' vs 'wrong' Sam Spade will ultimately fall upon. It's ultimately on the side of 'right'; turns out you don't kill a private detective's partner, even if the private detective didn't like the partner.
- Artistic License History: The opening crawl states that the Knights Templar of Malta created the falcon in 1534. The Knights Templar were dissolved in 1314.
- Asshole Victim: Wilmer is set to be the fall guy by the other crooks. He was a Jerkass the entire time.
- Defensive Failure: Because Spade took Cairo's pistol away. Then he gave it back.
- Detective Patsy
- Did Not Get the Girl
- Double Standard: Brigid is terribly shocked by Sam's betrayal, but she fails to see the hypocrisy that it was also her modus operandi to string men along from the get go.
- Fall Guy: Sam Spade turns the criminals against each other by only agreeing to hand over the Falcon if Wilmer takes the fall for the murder of Sam's partner.
- Fatal Attraction: Contender for the Ur Example.
- Fedora of Asskicking: It's Bogart, after all.
- Femme Fatale: Brigid. It doesn't work on Spade though.
- Friend on the Force: Sgt. Polhaus is this, in contrast to Lt. Dundy.
- Gayngster: Gayngsters and Film Noir went together like... two things that go together really well. Of course, 1941 being the height of the Hays Code, they couldn't be explicit about it, but see Getting Crap Past the Radar below.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Spade refers derogatorily to Wilmer as "the gunsel", both in the movie and in the book. "Gunsel" was
prisonYiddish slang for a passive partner, but not many people knew that. As the slang was all but forgotten, it was re-imagined as slang for a gunslinger.
- In Yiddish, the suffix -el or -eleh is diminutive, so it may have been thought that Spade was insulting Wilmer's prowess as a gunman.
- The Ghost: General Kemidov, the real Magnificent Bastard of the story.
- Girl Friday: Spade's secretary Effie Perine.
- Guile Hero: Sam Spade.
- Guns Akimbo: Wilmer in the 1941 film.
- Harbinger of Impending Doom: Captain Jacobi.
- Hardboiled Detective: One of the codifiers.
- I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Capt Jacobi.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain:
- Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. Or, you know... in general.
- Hey, don't forget Wilmer. Man, even in this trope he gets no respect!
- Insistent Terminology: Spade repeatedly refers to the Falcon as "the dingus".
- Inspector Javert: Lt. Dundy is fairly close in his desire to take Spade down.
- It Must Be Mine: Most of the characters will go to any lengths to get it.
- The Knights Hospitallers: The original owners of the fabled bird.
- Like a Son to Me: Averted. Hard. "I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son." What follows has to be one of the coldest lines in movie history.
But, well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.
- MacGuffin: Take a wild guess.
- MacGuffin Title
- Mock Guffin: The eponymous statue.
- Nice Hat: It's a Film Noir, and it stars Humphrey Bogart. Nice Hats are guaranteed.
- Pound of Flesh Twist: The bad guys take the Falcon. It's fake.
- Punny Name/Meaningful Name: "Gutman" is fat (but also "good man" in German, which he isn't), "Cairo" is from abroad, and "Spade" never stops digging for the truth.
- The Remake: The 1941 movie is the third adaptation of the novel to see the silver screen, proof that Remakes Are Not Bad.
- San Francisco
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Sam is leaning in and kissing Brigid in the window, suddenly it's the next morning and the curtains in the window are blowing gently in the sunlight.
- Sissy Villain: Three of them, actually -- Joel Cairo, Kasper Gutman, and Wilmer. The novel, in particular, devotes quite a bit of text to disgustedly describing what a mincing little "fairy" Cairo is.
- Slipping a Mickey: Gutman does this to Spade during their second meeting.
- Small Role, Big Impact: General Kemidov is The Ghost, but even before the story begins, when Gutman wanted to buy the MacGuffin, he realized that it would be important and replaced it with a Mock Guffin that the gang found very easy to steal.
- Taking the Heat: Sam Spade demands that one of Mr. Gutman's minions takes the heat for the three murders. Spade is innocent of the murders, but the cops would blame him for them anyway. Therefore, part of the price he demands for the falcon is a 'fall guy' to take the heat.
- Terrible Trio: Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer.
- True Companions: If you are a private detective, a killed partner must be avenged. It's like a rule. According to Spade, this is true even if you didn't like your partner.
- Villainous Breakdown: Cairo's outburst upon finding out the statue is fake probably counts as one.
- Villainous Glutton: Gutman.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Spade's use of "gunsel" for Wilmer, as noted above.