The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston

This posting is a contribution to the John Huston Blogathon over at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies.

If anyone believes that the writer is the auteur of a film one only has to look at the 1931 and 1941 versions of The Maltese Falcon. The difference is not so much in the script as both films  take much dialogue directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, but more in the set design, lighting, direction and in how the characters are portrayed. In Roy Del Ruth’s pre-code version Sam Spade is more of an upper class dandy, a ladies man, from the Nick and Nora Charles School of private eyes. Del Ruth’s Spade has a fancy apartment and office. Huston’s Spade is from the dark, dirty, hard-boiled school of detectives; cynical and willing to be as corrupt as the bad guys. He is an unsentimental man who indifferently informs his dead partner’s wife that he is dead; a woman with whom he recently had an affair. Huston/Bogart’s Spade is a much more complex character than the dandy portrayed by Cortez in the earlier version. Howver, it is not just Spade who is different. Bebe Daniels Brigit O’Shaughesssey is more defenseless than the tough as nails, manipulative Mary Astor version. In Huston’s version no characters trusts each other. While the 1931 pre-code film is blunter about Spade’s womanizing as portrayed by Ricardo Cortez there is no sleaze factor in his Spade whereas Bogart’s Spade you can tell has been around the block a few times. I will not even discuss the second remake Satan Was a Lady barely recognizable as a remake.

No one at Warner Brothers was expecting much from what was a low-budget production. They even wanted to call the film The Gent From Frisco. George Raft, it is well known, refused to work with an untried director. He turned down the lead role opening up the position for Humphrey Bogart, and with that began the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” as Rick Blaine (Bogart) says to Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in another Warner classic just a few years later, between the director John Huston and actor  Humphrey Bogart.  His performance here was a major step in the creation of the Bogie persona which achieved its completion in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. Huston and Bogart would make six films together. This being his first film, Huston made drawings of all the camera setups so as not to appeared unprepared on the set came time to actually shoot.

For a director making his first film Huston’s camera setups were superb. Close oppressive atmosphere, stunning low-angle shots, and the final shot of Mary Astor as the police take her away with the elevator door closing on her like a jail cell door are some examples. There is also one long continuously shot scene in Spade’s apartment that according to Huston in his autobiography, An Open Book required something like twenty-six dolly moves requiring the cameraman to move along with the actors in order to complete the six or seven minute take. A  theme that would become common in Huston films shows up in this first outing…greed, the lust for the falcon representing the stuff dreams are made of. This theme will be explored over and over again in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle and The Man Who Would Be King and others.

The Maltese Falcon was a major hit, financially and artistically, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Picture of the Year, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut). This was also the first pairing of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre who was award worthy himself as Joel Cairo. The film is generally considered the first film noir, though there are some that will debate that. Bogart became a major league star and Huston’s directing career was off to an auspicious start.


14 comments on “The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston

  1. Judy says:

    Fascinating stuff – Huston and Bogart did so much great work together, and, as you say, this film helped to establish Bogie’s persona. On the camera set-ups, it is very interesting to hear that Huston had made drawings in advance – the cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, was very experienced, having worked on dozens of films including the likes of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and ‘Frankenstein’, so Huston would have been able to draw on his expertise too. I had a job deciding which film of Huston’s to vote for in Adam’s poll, but in the end went for this one, since it’s one I find easier to watch over again than ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’, great as they both are.


    • John Greco says:

      I voted for this too in Adam’s poll. I just love the story and Bogart’s performance. For a first time director this films ranks up there. Thanks Judy!!!


  2. While the Huston version of Falcon is obviously superior I like the 1931 attempt as well. I think Ricardo Cortez comes closer to Hammett’s physical description of Spade (though Bogart gets closer to the essence of the character) and the casting of Dwight Frye as Wilmer is as perfect as Elisha Cook in Huston’s film. I haven’t had the courage to watch Satan Met A Lady, though.


    • John Greco says:

      Samuel, I don’t dislike the Cortez version as much as feel it is an oddity meaning I have grown up with Bogart in the role and see him as the definitive Sam Spade. This is long before I read the novel or saw the original version,he is just ingrained in my brain as Spade.As for Satan Was A Lady, I saw it once and that was enough. Hands down the worst version.


  3. […] Name: Twenty Four FramesThe Maltese Falcon (1941) John HustonSubmitted by: Thrilling Days of […]


  4. Sam Juliano says:

    John: I never heard of this film. You say it came out in 1941, and that John Huston directed it, and Humphrey Bogart starred in it? I vaguely do. recollect reading about it somewhere though.


  5. Sam Juliano says:

    John, I have come to my sense! Ha! Now I remember it! LOL!!!!!

    It’s one of the cornerstone essays for Adam’s blogothon, and for a consideration of American cinema, where it is regularly revered as one of the greatest of films. My own vote was cast for TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, though I could hardly contest anyone going in this direction. It’s as seminal a noir as has been made, and it features a slew of iconic performances, great characters, and hard-as-nails dialogue that among the most brilliant ever written. It’s tough to start a career with something like this, as what do you really do for an encore?

    Superlative piece that plays to your strongest writing artilery John! I like the broaching of the theme of greed especially.


    • John Greco says:

      Funny Sam! For a moment you had me on that first comment. It was a tought chose between THE MALTESE FALCON and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Ultimately I went with Falcon, for a desert Island disc!


  6. Tom Shieber says:

    I enjoyed your blog entry on “The Maltese Falcon” very much.
    You may be interested in reading my blog entry on a baseball mystery related to “The Maltese Falcon” here.


  7. One of my favourite movies. Wrote a book based on the movie called The Black Bird. Got pretty good reviews but didn’t sell to many copies. If you’re interested you can check it out at


    • John Greco says:

      One of my all time favorites too, David. Great characters, acting and atmosphere. Thanks for stopping by and I will check out the link.


  8. Roland Headless says:

    I don’t believe you caught the point of Sam Spade’s closing line about The Bird —

    Remember that this particular bird is lead, not gold.

    As Brigid’s “love” for Sam has turned to lead, so to speak … to Sam, this is what our golden dreams are made of … lead.

    In other words — fake.

    At least, that’s how I’ve always taken it.


  9. John Greco says:

    Hi Roland,

    Thanks for stopping by. I don’t quite know where in my article you are alluding to that I do not get the point about the Falcon being a fake. True, I do not address it directly but it becomes apparent by the end of the film. If there is a line specifically you are addressing please let me know. Maybe I am just not clear. Thanks!


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