The Maltese Falcon (1931 film)

Last updated

Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon 1931 Poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay by Brown Holmes
Maude Fulton
Lucien Hubbard (uncredited) [1] [2]
Based on The Maltese Falcon
1930 novel
by Dashiell Hammett
Starring Bebe Daniels
Ricardo Cortez
Dudley Digges
Una Merkel
Cinematography William Rees
Edited byGeorge Marks
Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • June 13, 1931 (1931-06-13)
Running time
80 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Maltese Falcon is a 1931 American pre-Code crime film based on the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and directed by Roy Del Ruth. The film stars Ricardo Cortez as private detective Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly. Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes, and Lucien Hubbard (who went uncredited) wrote the screenplay. [1] The supporting cast features Dudley Digges, Thelma Todd, Walter Long, Una Merkel, and Dwight Frye. [3]


While the film was successful, its legacy was deeply hampered by the enforcement of the Hays code. The film was remade by the studio twice, with its 1941 remake starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor overshadowing its predecessors. The film was not seen in its entirety until after the collapse of the Code in the mid-1960s. A print has been held by the Library of Congress since the 1970s. [4]


In San Francisco, private investigator Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired by Ruth Wonderly to follow Floyd Thursby, a man that allegedly ran off with her younger sister. Later that night, police detective Tom Polhaus informs Spade that Archer has been killed while tailing Thursby. Thursby is killed later, and the police suspects Spade of being the killer.

The next day, Spade calls on Ruth Wonderly in an attempt to find out her real reasons for hiring them. She gives Spade little information, but manages to keep him on the case. Later, Dr. Joel Cairo visits his office and offers him $5,000 if he can retrieve an enamel figurine of a black bird. Cairo is trying to recover it for the "rightful owner". Not knowing anything about the statuette, Spade plays along and agrees to try to recover it.

That night, at his apartment, Spade tells Wonderly about his talk with Cairo, and she becomes nervous. Then Polhaus and his superior Lt. Dundy arrive. They question Spade, but are interrupted by the screams of Wonderly, who is holding Cairo at gunpoint after he has broken in. The policemen leave with Cairo in tow. The next morning, as Wonderly sleeps in his bed, Spade lifts her key and thoroughly searches her apartment, finding nothing.

Returning to his own place, Spade receives a note from Casper Gutman, inviting him to come and talk about the black bird. Over drinks and cigars, Spade learns the history and value of the statuette, which is encrusted with precious jewels. Gutman is the mastermind behind the attempt to steal it. Believing Spade has it, Gutman reveals everything he knows. Just then, Cairo arrives and tells Gutman privately that Spade does not have the falcon, as it is on a ship that arrives from Hong Kong that night. Gutman slips Spade a mickey in a celebratory drink, and leaves.

Later that night, Spade arrives back in his office and finds Effie asleep behind his desk. Suddenly, a man staggers in and dies it is Captain Jacoby of the bird's ship, having been shot several times. The suitcase he was carrying has the precious black bird in it. Spade checks the bag at a baggage check and sends himself the ticket in the mail. Called in to see the District Attorney because of Archer's murder, Spade is given 24 hours to wrap up the case and identify the real killers.

Wonderly lures Spade into his apartment, where Cairo and Gutman are waiting with guns. Gutman offers him an envelope with $10,000 in exchange for the falcon. Spade insists there also has to be a "fall guy" that will go to jail for the murders and suggests Gutman's gunman, Wilmer Cook. Gutman and Cairo agree to Spade's proposal. Spade calls Effie and asks her to bring the suitcase to them in the morning, while Gutman explains how Wilmer killed Thursby and Jacoby.

The bag shows up, and Wilmer escapes while the conspirators are frantically opening it and examining the bird. They soon determine that it is a fake they have been duped by the previous owner and Gutman and Cairo decide to make another attempt to steal it. As they leave, Gutman takes back his $10,000 from Spade at gunpoint. Spade immediately calls Detective Polhaus and tells him to pick up Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer. Confronting Wonderly, Spade accuses her of killing Archer to frame Thursby and get him out of the way. She admits it, and Spade tells her that he is going to turn her in, despite their love for each other.

When Dundy and Polhaus show up, they reveal that Wilmer killed Gutman and Cairo before being apprehended. Spade gives them Wilmer's guns, tells them that Wonderly killed Archer, and they take her away. Spade goes to visit Wonderly in prison to tell her that he has been made Chief Investigator for the District Attorney's office. Spade instructs the prison matron to treat Wonderly well and give her whatever she wants. When the matron asks who will pay for the special treatment, Spade tells her to send the bill to the D.A.'s office: "I'll OK it."


Title Card for the film. Maltese Falcon 1931 title.jpg
Title Card for the film.


The Maltese Falcon was not the first Hammett story to be adapted into a motion picture. Earlier stories by Hammett, Red Harvest (filmed in 1930 as Roadhouse Nights ) and City Streets (1931), preceded it. [5] Working titles for the film were All Women, A Woman of the World and Dangerous Female.

Principal photography took place from late January to early February 1931. [2] Some scenes in the film were reported to be shot on location in San Francisco, though only stock footage appears to have been used. [2] [1]

Oscar Apfel was initially cast and listed in some studio promotions as the district attorney; however, for unknown reasons, he was replaced by Wallace. [2]

Pre-Code aspects

The film closely follows the plot of the book. The 1941 adaptation, which began with a revised version of the 1931 script, closely follows the book as well, although most references to homosexuality, nudity, and other no longer permissible portions under the Motion Picture Production Code are missing. The dialogue for both films is often taken verbatim directly from the novel. Differences between the two films are due almost wholly to pre-Code aspects of the earlier film.

In addition to an overall lighter tone and looser pace, the 1931 film contains sexually suggestive situations. In the opening scene, an unidentified woman is shown straightening her stockings as she leaves Spade's office. Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) is shown bathing, and later in the film is strip-searched by Spade over missing money. The homosexual subtext regarding Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer in Hammett's original story was retained for the 1931 film. Wilmer is called Gutman's "boyfriend", Effie facetiously describes Cairo to Spade as "gorgeous", and Spade taunts Dundy by constantly referring to him as "sweetheart", "darling", and "precious". All of those terms were severely limited or eliminated entirely for the 1941 remake. [1] [6]


In 1935, Warner Bros. attempted to re-release the film, but were denied approval by the Production Code Office owing to the film's "lewd" content. This prompted Warner Bros. to produce a new version of the film, Satan Met a Lady , starring Bette Davis and Warren William directed by William Dieterle in 1936. [7] Many elements of the story were changed, and the film was given a comedic tone. Ultimately, the film was widely panned; Davis herself referred to the film as "junk".

In 1941, Warner Bros. remade the film more faithfully in an adaption directed by John Huston in his directorial debut. The film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, was released to critical acclaim and is often cited as one of the best films of all time. [8] This version was also filmed largely verbatim to Hammett's story, but removed references to nudity, homosexuality, and other topics forbidden by the Code. It also had a much more dramatic, darker tone, which many cite as film noir.

For several decades, unedited copies of the 1931 film could not be seen in the United States; these restrictions were lifted following the demise of the Motion Picture Production Code in the mid-1960s. For television airings in the United States, the film was retitled Dangerous Female to avoid confusion with the 1941 remake.


Related Research Articles

<i>The Maltese Falcon</i> (novel) 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon is a 1930 detective novel by American writer Dashiell Hammett, originally serialized in the magazine Black Mask beginning with the September 1929 issue. The story is told entirely in external third-person narrative; there is no description whatsoever of any character's thoughts or feelings, only what they say and do, and how they look. The novel has been adapted several times for the cinema.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dashiell Hammett</span> American writer (1894–1961)

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was an American writer of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. He was also a screenwriter and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, the Continental Op and the comic strip character Secret Agent X-9.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bebe Daniels</span> American actress, singer, dancer, writer, producer (1901–1971)

Phyllis Virginia "Bebe" Daniels was an American actress, singer, dancer, writer, and producer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sam Spade</span> Fictional private detective

Sam Spade is a fictional character and the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon. Spade also appeared in four lesser-known short stories by Hammett.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mystery film</span> Sub-genre of crime film

A mystery film is a genre of film that revolves around the solution of a problem or a crime. It focuses on the efforts of the detective, private investigator or amateur sleuth to solve the mysterious circumstances of an issue by means of clues, investigation, and clever deduction.

<i>Murder by Death</i> 1976 film by Robert Moore

Murder by Death is a 1976 American comedy mystery film directed by Robert Moore and written by Neil Simon. The film stars Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elisha Cook Jr.</span> American actor (1903–1995)

Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. was an American character actor famed for his work in films noir. According to Bill Georgaris of TSPDT: They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, Cook appeared in a total of 21 film noirs, more than any other actor or actress. He played cheerful, brainy collegiates until he was cast against type as the bug eyed baby-faced psycopathic killer Wilmer in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. He went on to play deceptively mild-mannered villains. Cook's acting career spanned more than 60 years, with roles in productions including The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, House on Haunted Hill, and Rosemary's Baby.

<i>The Glass Key</i> 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammett

The Glass Key is a novel by American writer Dashiell Hammett. First published as a serial in Black Mask magazine in 1930, it then was collected in 1931. It tells the story of a gambler and racketeer, Ned Beaumont, whose devotion to Paul Madvig, a crooked political boss, leads him to investigate the murder of a local senator's son as a potential gang war brews. Hammett dedicated the novel to his onetime lover Nell Martin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Barton MacLane</span> Actor, playwright, screenwriter (1902–1969)

Barton MacLane was an American actor, playwright, and screenwriter. He appeared in many classic films from the 1930s through the 1960s, including his role as General Martin Peterson on the 1960s NBC television comedy series I Dream of Jeannie, with Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman.

<i>Garfields Babes and Bullets</i>

Garfield's Babes and Bullets is a 1989 animated television special directed by Phil Roman, based on a short story of the same name by Ron Tuthill in the book Garfield: His 9 Lives. It features Lorenzo Music as the voice of Garfield, the house cat, re-imagined as a private detective named Sam Spayed attempting to solve a murder mystery.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Roy Del Ruth</span> American filmmaker

Roy Del Ruth was an American filmmaker.

Satan Met a Lady is a 1936 American detective film directed by William Dieterle and starring Bette Davis and Warren William.

<i>Hammett</i> (film) 1982 film by Wim Wenders

Hammett is a 1982 American neo-noir mystery film directed by Wim Wenders and executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola. The screenplay was written by Ross Thomas and Dennis O'Flaherty, based on the novel of the same name by Joe Gores. It stars Frederic Forrest as detective story writer Dashiell Hammett, who gets caught up in a mystery very much like one of his own stories. Marilu Henner plays Hammett's neighbor, Kit Conger, and Peter Boyle plays Jimmy Ryan, an old friend from Hammett's days as a Pinkerton agent. The film was entered into the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.

<i>The Maltese Falcon</i> (1941 film) 1941 film by John Huston

The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 American film noir written and directed by John Huston in his directorial debut, based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and indebted to the 1931 movie of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade and Mary Astor as his femme fatale client. Gladys George, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet co-star, with the last appearing in his film debut. The story follows a San Francisco private detective and his dealings with three unscrupulous adventurers, all of whom are competing to obtain a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette.

The Maltese Falcon may refer to:

Tim Trench Comics character

Tim Trench is a fictional comic book detective in the DC Comics universe. He was first introduced in Wonder Woman v1 #179. He met his demise in 52 Week 18.

Manpower is a 1941 comedy drama directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, and George Raft. The picture was written by Richard Macauley and Jerry Wald, and the supporting cast features Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Eve Arden, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond and Walter Catlett.

<i>The Black Bird</i> 1975 film

The Black Bird is a 1975 comedy film written and directed by David Giler and starring George Segal and Stéphane Audran. It is a comedic sequel to the John Huston film version of The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Segal playing Sam Spade's son, Sam Spade, Jr., and Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr. reprising their roles of Effie Perrine and Wilmer Cook. It was Giler's first and only directorial effort.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joe Gores</span> American writer

Joseph Nicholas Gores was an American mystery writer. He was known best for his novels and short stories set in San Francisco and featuring the fictional "Dan Kearney and Associates" private investigation firm specializing in repossessing cars, a thinly veiled escalation of his own experiences as a confidential sleuth and repo man. Gores was also recognized for his novels Hammett, Spade & Archer and his Edgar Award-winning or -nominated works, such as A Time of Predators, 32 Cadillacs and Come Morning.

<i>Mister Dynamite</i> 1935 film by Alan Crosland

Mister Dynamite is a 1935 American action film directed by Alan Crosland and written by Doris Malloy and Harry Clork. The film stars Edmund Lowe, Jean Dixon, Victor Varconi, Esther Ralston, Verna Hillie and Minor Watson. The film was released on April 22, 1935, by Universal Pictures.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "The Maltese Falcon (1931): Notes". Leonard Maltin Classic Movie Guide. Penguin Group (US) Inc. 2010.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "The Maltese Falcon (1931)". American Film Institute . Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  3. "The Maltese Falcon (1931)". Turner Classic Movies . Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  4. Catalog of Holdings The American Film Institute Collection and The United Artists Collection at The Library of Congress. The American Film Institute. 1978. p. 110.
  5. Miller, Frank, "Articles: The Maltese Falcon (1931)", TCM, Turner Classic Movies, Inc., retrieved April 15, 2018
  6. Franklin, Kirk (August 31, 2009). "The Maltese Falcon: Take 1". MetaFilter. MetaFilter Network Inc. Retrieved September 17, 2015.
  7. "Satan Met a Lady (1936): Full Credits". Turner Classic Movies . Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  8. "The Maltese Falcon (1941): Full Credits". Turner Classic Movies . Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved September 18, 2016.