Sam (Humphrey Bogart) proposes to Kasper (Sydney Greenstreet) that Joel (Peter Lorre) take the roll of the fall guy, but Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) “steps up” to the position.
After two previous film versions of Dashiell Hammett’s detective classic The Maltese Falcon, Warner Bros. finally got it right in 1941–or, rather, John Huston, a long-established screenwriter making his directorial debut, got it right, simply by adhering as closely as possible to the original. Taking over from a recalcitrant George Raft, Humphrey Bogart achieved true stardom as Sam Spade, a hard-boiled San Francisco private eye who can be as unscrupulous as the next guy but also adheres to his own personal code of honor. Into the offices of the Spade & Archer detective agency sweeps a Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor), who offers a large retainer to Sam and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) if they’ll protect her from someone named Floyd Thursby. The detectives believe neither Miss Wonderly nor her story, but they believe her money. Since Archer saw her first, he takes the case — and later that evening he is shot to death, as is the mysterious Thursby. Miss Wonderly’s real name turns out to be Brigid O’Shaughnessey, and, as the story continues, Sam is also introduced to the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and the fat, erudite Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut). It turns out that Brigid, Cairo and Gutman are all international scoundrels, all involved in the search for a foot-high, jewel-encrusted statuette in the shape of a falcon. Though both Cairo and Gutman offer Spade small fortunes to find the “black bird,” they are obviously willing to commit mayhem and murder towards that goal: Gutman, for example, drugs Spade and allows his “gunsel” Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) to kick and beat the unconscious detective. This classic film noir detective yarn gets better with each viewing, which is more than can be said for the first two Maltese Falcons and the ill-advised 1975 “sequel” The Black Bird.
TM & © Warner Bros. (1941)
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Elisha Cook Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor
Director: John Huston
Producers: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis
Screenwriters: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett