Maltese Falcon, The (1931)

Maltese Falcon, The (1931)

“I aim to give service at all times — night and day.”

While investigating the death of his partner (Walter Long) [whose wife (Thelma Todd) he was having an affair with], a womanizing private eye Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) with a loyal secretary (Una Merkel) becomes romantically involved with a beautiful client (Bebe Daniels) who is one among several people — including gun-wielding Dr. Cairo (Otto Matieson), portly Casper Gutman (Dudley Diggs), and Gutman’s gunsel (Dwight Frye) — interested in securing a valuable statue known as the Maltese Falcon.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Murder Mystery
  • Roy Del Ruth Films

Although it’s much less widely viewed than the 1941 John Huston remake, this early screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel — directed by Roy Del Ruth — remains a solidly enjoyable tale of deception, femmes fatales, greed, and hard-boiled investigation. The film’s success is due to a combination of factors: a charismatic performance by silent screen star Cortez; fine turns by all the supporting players; atmospheric cinematography; and a refreshingly sassy Pre-Code script — including an unstated but obvious romantic relationship between Digges and Frye:

“Your little boyfriend just checked out.”
“That’s too bad. His services would have been… invaluable. And I loved him… like a son.”

Film fanatics will likely enjoy comparing and contrasting the two Falcon movies — as well as the retitled 1936 version Satan Met a Lady, which most critics hate but I find light-heartedly enjoyable. (Then again, I haven’t read the original novel in years, so don’t have a strong point of reference.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade
  • Notable supporting performances
  • A cleverly risque script
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine Pre-Code flick. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.



2 thoughts on “Maltese Falcon, The (1931)

  1. Not must-see but it may hold some interest for fans of the novel.

    I’d seen this once before and, oddly, this follow-up viewing has left me less ‘enchanted’ than the first time I saw it. While I can still appreciate it for some of its pre-Code flavor, a second look brought out not only some minor flaws but also seemed to show a sort of static quality that I hadn’t picked up on before.

    And I found it a bit on the slow side. Hammett’s book reads like a bat out of hell. I recall reading it in one day and was glued to it for its razor-sharp delivery. This adaptation doesn’t have that same kind of feel to it.

    Huston’s film is the one to not miss. It may have a less-sexy Spade (Bogart didn’t really do ‘sexy’) but it’s got everything else – in spades.

  2. I really enjoyed this when I finally got around to watching it, and Satan Met a Lady (1936); the two earlier adaptations of the classic novel. However, neither is a must see but the classic 1941 version certainly is.

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