The Maltese Falcon

based on The Maltese Falcon, 1930
by Dashiell Hammett

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Director: John Huston
Writers: Dashiell Hammett (novel), John Huston (screenplay)

  • Humphrey Bogart — Sam Spade
  • Mary Astor — Brigid O'Shaughnessy
  • Ward Bond — Detective Tom Polhaus
  • Elisha Cook, Jr. — Wilmer Cook
  • Jerome Cowan — Miles Archer
  • Gladys George — Iva Archer
  • Sydney Greenstreet — Kasper Gutman
  • John Hamilton — District Attorney Bryan
  • Walter Huston — Captain John Jacobi
  • Peter Lorre — Joel Cairo
  • Barton MacLane — Detective Lieutenant Dundy
  • Lee Patrick — Effie Perine, secretary to Spade & Archer

Warner Brothers: 1941
black & white

101 minutes March 2009


The Maltese Falcon (small) The Maltese Falcon is the first film directed by John Huston, sharply done and very effective. The cast does a great job, especially in the core roles of Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade, and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet as slippery adventurers on the hunt, rather careless of the law. The murder mystery which emerges almost at the beginning leads on to a superbly murky intersection of characters, and the secret of the Maltese Falcon itself.

I much prefer the movie over Dashiell Hammett's original novel, The Maltese Falcon. Partly this is John Huston's screenplay and directing, and partly the vividness imparted by the great cast. Peter Lorre in particular, playing the creepily unctuous avarice of Joel Cairo, gives an absolutely outstanding performance. The screenplay's plot is a little more streamlined than the novel's, too much so in one hinge event: the arrival of Captain Jacobi at Sam Spade's place, which always seems rather out of the blue. The ending of the book and of the film both feel a bit weak or wrong-footed, although in different ways.

Notwithstanding, everything does tie together nicely; what needs elucidation is explained without slowing the suspense. The San Francisco setting — offices, streets, hotel lobby, apartments — provide a normal ground upon which these odd people and their obscurely pressing motives show in good contrast. Sam Spade as a detective is neither extraordinarily bright nor detached as he works through the problems presented, but is a regular if rough-edged guy: brave, street-smart, and persistent.

The Maltese Falcon is a great film. As the mystery unravels and we begin to understand the Falcon and the clashing motivations, the suspense increases and the characters come into harsher focus. Worth watching multiple times, a classic of detective-suspense filmmaking.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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