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The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the third adaptation of the novel by Dashiell Hammett originally published in 1929 and the adaptation which most closely follows the plot and dialogue of the source material.
Sam Spade is a private detective who is tasked by Brigid O’Shaughnessy to recover a priceless statue. He doesn’t fully trust her and sends his partner, Archer to follow the leads she gives them. Archer is killed and Sam Spade is suspected as the culprit due to his affair with Archer’s wife. As the search for the Falcon continues, more characters are introduced both as treasure hunters and as suspects to Archer’s murder.
Gross generalisations can be made about the state of detective fiction before Dashiell Hammett came along and grand overstatements can be made about his influence on the genre, but where before the gentleman detective solved the clever crime committed by the well mannered criminal in a genteel society atmosphere; Hammett’s heroes were working class and living on the edge of legality and criminality and the crimes committed were often brutal and senseless, the causes of the crimes were representative of society rather than being an aberration.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) was an early example of what would be later dubbed “film noir”. It is a studio-bound, dialogue heavy adaptation, the only unusual camera work is when filming Kaspar Gutman, played by Sydney Greenstreet, the camera is placed below waist height to emphasise his girth. The film sticks closely to the plot of the original novel and using much of the actual dialogue Dashiell Hammett wrote and as such retain his authorial voice, something which is often lost in adaptations of any genre.
However the most famous line about describing the Maltese Falcon as “the stuff dreams are made of” is not in the book. There is no first person narration (one of the techniques which would become associated with film noir) but with the sole exception of the scene in which Archer is killed; the film never stops following Sam Spade and so the audience knows no more than the lead character.
Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade – everyone knows this was his big break and the start of his rise to stardom and although he looks nothing like Hammett’s description of Spade; he has the worn down and mean look needed to play what is essentially someone who lives between criminality and legality. He is often shown just listening to the other characters talk and thinking things through, weighing up who is lying to him and how far he can trust any of them. Private detectives have always seemed to me to be a singularly American idea; Sam Spade only really takes on the case once his partner is killed and he himself is under suspicion for murder, he says “it seems like something a guy should do”, revealing an almost complete lack of genuine feeling for the victim who he has cuckolded.
Mary Astor plays Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale type who sets Spade and Archer on a chase for the Falcon. She is portrayed as the intelligent equal of the other treasure hunters, just as greedy and treacherous. There is a relationship quadrangle built up where Spade is having a loveless affair with Archer’s wife, Archer himself is oblivious to this and perhaps doesn’t care because he is in a loveless marriage, Archer insists on following up Brigid’s case as he seems to have his eye on her, after Archer is killed Spade rebuffs Brigid’s advances and suspects her involvement in the crime, Brigid also has another lover called Thursby, and there is reference to both her and Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, chasing after the same man at an earlier point in their travels. These things had to be hinted at rather than explicated due to the censors and codes that films had to comply with, this also applies to the sexuality of Joel Cairo, clearly stated as being gay in the novel is played as an effeminate stereotype in the film. Arguably he is beaten and somewhat humiliated by Sam Spade because of who he is, whereas he treats other characters with more respect despite their being just as greedy and duplicitous.
The film stands as one of the defining points of its genre, but a one that was created as an excellent mimicry of the original novel.