Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Film Noir: The Maltese Falcon

on February 16, 2022


John Huston’s 1941 movie, The Maltese Falcon, is a film noir that borders on dark comedy. The opening music is melodramatic, dark, and foreboding. The story takes place in San Francisco, a romantic city with a wild and shady past. The movie is appropriately filmed in black and white, using chiaroscuro contrasts of deep shadows and bright light.

An attractive and distraught woman, Miss Wanderly (Mary Astor), seeks the help of hard-boiled and pessimistic Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner, Miles Archer, in finding her sister. This sister allegedly ran away from New York with a sinister man named Floyd Thursby.

Spade and Archer agree to help, and not long after, Archer is gunned down in the fog and the dark.

(Archer gets gunned down)

Two detectives visit Spade and question him.  In this scene, the lighting causes the brims of their hats to cast shadows over their eyes, making the detectives appear dark, tough, suspicious, and corrupt. They imply that Spade (his name reflects darkness and corruption) has a shady past and they want to put him away. (“Spade” could also symbolize digging up the truth.) Spade’s face is in bright light as he defends his innocence.

(Spade and the two detectives)

Spade does not show any emotion over his partner’s death, and this makes him appear unfeeling, cold, and possibly, guilty. Soon after, Thursby is also shot down. This reinforces the detectives’ suspicions that Spade has something to do with the two murders. It would be natural for him to avenge his partner’s death, and the two detectives empathize with him.

We soon discover that Spade has been having an affair with Archer’s wife. She is far more glamorous than Miss Wanderly. Spade rejects her, especially when she accuses him of murdering her husband. This puts even more doubt in the mind of the viewer. Did Spade do it?

(Photo of Spade and Mrs. Archer)

Spade forces Miss Wanderly (Mary Astor) to confess her real name – which is Bridget – and the real story. (Who knows what’s real and not real or who’s lying and not lying?) She uses her sex appeal and plays the helpless victim, saying, “Can’t you shield me so I don’t have to answer their questions?”

(Spade and Bridget Wanderly)

Throughout the movie, Sam Spade keeps his back to the wall, implying paranoia and danger. He stays alert and pays attention. He is familiar with crooks and the underworld of crime. He expects people to lie and cheat.

Mr. Cairo (Peter Lorre), a short, well-dressed dandy with an exotic accent, approaches Spade and asks for his help in recovering a statuette of a black bird. He claims to know about Archer and Thursby and offers Spade $5,000.00. Spade knocks him out and searches him after Cairo pulls a gun on him. Cairo gets back his gun and holds Spade at gunpoint while he searches his office.

Spade laughs at Cairo (as he does at everyone throughout the movie). When he is free again, he discovers that he is being followed by “the boy.” He dodges him and goes to Bridget’s apartment. There, he tells her to knock off “the school girl manner.” She admits that she’s a very bad girl who’s done a lot of very bad things. Spade kisses her, playing along with her, and finds out that she knows Cairo. But she claims to be afraid of him and needs Spade’s help. They go to Spade’s apartment, and Archer’s wife sees them outside. They wait for Cairo, knowing that “the boy” is watching the apartment. The tension builds.

Throughout the movie, Spade laughs at all of them and tries to stay one step ahead of everybody. He is always bluffing, like an expert poker player, and taking chances. He plays one side against the other in order to dig up the truth and protect himself. Everybody is guilty of something, and nobody can be trusted. Every character – including Spade – is shady, pessimistic, comical, and greedy.

When Cairo comes to Spade’s apartment, it comes out that Floyd Thursby was working for the “Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet). A fight ensues. Bridget slaps Cairo (exerting her dominance) and Cairo pulls out his gun. Spade intervenes, saying, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” (Cairo looks weak and defenseless in comparison to Bridget and Spade). The detectives show up and accuse Spade of killing Archer over his wife.

(Bridget slaps Mr. Cairo)

Bridget and Cairo continue to fight, and Cairo cries for help (the emasculated man). Bridget kicks him in front of the cops, and they get hauled off for questioning. 

Throughout the movie, Bridget flirts with Spade, trying to manipulate and distract him. He plays along with her, even letting her tell him she loves him. He finds out that Bridget and Floyd were paid to help Cairo and the “Fat Man,” but Floyd betrayed her. Spade later discovers that “the boy” is also working for the “Fat Man.”

When Spade finally meets the “Fat Man,” he discovers the history behind the black bird (stirring up greed and fantasies of great wealth). The “Fat Man” knows what it is (the Maltese Falcon), and Spade claims to know where it is. It is a cat-and-mouse game. The “Fat Man” and Cairo are not professional criminals, but they are driven by greed. The “Fat Man” slips Spade a Mickey Finn (to knock him out). Cairo searches Spade’s apartment. When Spade wakes up, he searches the “Fat Man’s” apartment.

Later on, Spade tells his loyal and adoring secretary about the black bird. A man stumbles into his office with a package and drops dead. He is Captain Jacoby, Master of the ship, La Paloma, which has just arrived from Hong Kong (in keeping with San Francisco history and the romantic history of the bird). Spade hides the bird and drives down to Burlingame after dark. (I used to live in Burlingame, which is on the San Francisco Peninsula, so I always get tickled by this part of the movie). He meets with the “Fat Man,” Cairo, Bridget, and “the boy.”

Spade’s secretary brings him the bird. Spade laughs maniacally and watches, transfixed, as the bird is unwrapped and the “Fat Man” tries to scrape off the black coating from the statue. The bird is a fake. Cairo turns on the “Fat Man”, but the “Fat Man” laughs like a little boy and persuades him to go to Istanbul with him.

(Spade, Mr. Cairo, Bridget Wanderly, the Fat Man)

Spade calls the police about the crooks and confronts Bridget. She is the one who shot Archer. Spade gives her up to the police, saying, “You’re taking the fall.” She cries and accuses him of not caring for her. He tells her that when your partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it. With a maniacal look on his face, he says, “I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.”

Spade kisses Bridget and turns her over to the cops. They get onto the elevator with her. When the elevator gate closes, it looks just like prison bars.

(Bridget Wanderly going to jail)

In the end, Spade picks up the Maltese Falcon, calling it “the stuff that dreams are made of.” He got his revenge for his partner’s death, who died over a lead bird—a stupid, worthless piece of junk.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

January 15, 2018

Copyright 2018-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited

Huston, John, Dir. The Maltese Falcon. Perf. Humphrey Bogart. Warner Bros., 1941.

Lewis, Jon. American Cinema: A History. New York: Norton, 2008.

28 responses to “Film Noir: The Maltese Falcon

  1. Timothy Price says:

    A great film.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jim Wingrove says:

    One of my favourites…I got to see at the theatre once! 🤗🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never seen this film but I loved your recap/ walk through. I do love Bogart in the movies I have seen, Casa Blanca, The Big Sleep and Key Largo. I sm very drawn to Film Noir snd love the contrast and shadows of their black and white gorgeousness. I really enjoyed this Dawn.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Iowa Life says:

    That was interesting the tips about the lighting and symbolism throughout. I never see that stuff. I just know I couldn’t handle it as a kid, but during the last 10 years its become one of my favorite movies and Bogart one of my favorite actors (even though he basically plays Bogart in every movie!). The guy I COULD NOT believe was Barton MacLane in it. When I finally connected he was I Dream of Jeannie’s ‘General Peterson’, I could not believe the extensive movie career he had starting way back in 1926! I count over 60 movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! I didn’t know that! Dashiell Hammett wrote the book, and I don’t know if the symbolism is conscious, unconscious, or it has been interpreted that way. I know that I wrote a short story once, and a teacher described all sorts of symbolism in it that I didn’t realize was there. And I always hated literature classes because the teachers and I never saw the same symbolism in books. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. And movies are meant to be watched and enjoyed – not picked over and analyzed, right?


  5. There’s another movie I know about from references. Sounds like a good time.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. utahan15 says:

    a truly classic and wonderful move. john houston was the bomb and bogie, like john wayne of of a kind super star.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Michele Lee says:

    Excellent movie! Love the classics, books and movies. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a classic movie! Thanks for taking us back down memory lane Dawn!!! 🎥🎬📽📺

    Liked by 1 person

  9. robertcday says:

    You make me want to see that movie now. I wonder if it’s on Amazon Prime. I must confess that I didn’t read the whole of your post because of the spoiler alert, but you had me with “film noir that borders on dark comedy. The opening music is melodramatic, dark, and foreboding”. Happy days. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Nancy says:

    I don’t remember seeing this but I absolutely love classic films. I will put it on my watch list. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. balladeer says:

    This is one of my all-time favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. JD Holiday says:

    I loved this movie. The thing is I didn’t care for it when I watched it years ago with my mother. But came to enjoy most of Bogart’s movies. ~JD

    Liked by 2 people

  13. spwilcen says:

    Cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched this film. All of the Bogart films save “African Queen.” Bowl of popcorn, tall glass [of something] and a comfortable recliner. Nice. Oh! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. jonicaggiano says:

    I love the old hats the men use to wear a long time ago. I have never seen this movie 🎥. Great review. When she is about to slap him it looks like she might take his head off. Sending hugs, have a great Sunday. Joni 🎈🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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