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Bridget O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a beautiful but mysterious woman,
enters the office of private eyes Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles
Archer (Jerome Cowan) and asks for discreet protection while she meets
some shady character. Archer, always a ladies' man, promises her to do the
job himself ... but the next day, Archer turns up shot dead, just as dead
as the shady character Bridget was meeting - and Spade finds himself in a
heap of trouble, especially since the police figures he might have killed
his partner since he had an affair with his wife (Gladys George).
Out of necessity, Spade starts to investigate, and soon he stumbles
over a few shady characters like the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre),
the pompous Guttmann (Sydney Greestreet), and his thug, the not especially
clever Wilmer (Elisha Cook jr), and he finds out that everything seems to
have to do with some bird that everyone supposes to be in his possession -
but his investigations are not made any easier by the fact that Bridget
keeps telling him one lie after another, even though she knows that he
knows that she is lieing. Ultimately though he finds out that the falcon
everybody is after, the Maltese Falcon, is supposed to be a small
sculpture made of massive gold and covered by priceless diamonds - but to
obscure its value, it has been painted blyck and now looks like a nice but
insignificant sculpture to the untrained eye.
Eventually, the falcon is even delivered to Spade, which puts him in a
great bargaining position and gives him the opportunity to play the others
against each other - and before you know it, they agree to give him Wilmer
as the fall guy for Miles' murder ... which Wilmer finds less than funny
and thus turns against the others and makes a getaway.
When Spade hands over the falcon to Guttmann and Cairo, they have to
realize that it isn't the genuine article but just a replica made of
plaster. The two men, who have looked for the falcon for 17 years, leave,
realizing they have to go back to start - but they run right into the arms
of the police.
Now finally, things seem to be falling together for Spade and he
realizes that it had to have been Bridget who shot his partner, and he
even gets her to confess. She tries to appeal to his heart and tries to
bribe him, but in the end, he hands her over to the authorities, despite
the fact that he has fallen in love with her.
More than any other film, The Maltese Falcon, an early and
seminal film noir, has defined the image of the hard-boiled detective,
thanks to Dashiell Hammett's novel as well as John Huston's flawless
direction and of course a great acting job by Humphrey Bogart, who up
until now was known mainly as a supporting actor, mostly portraying
gangsters of one sort or another but feels right at home in the role of
the ambivalent (anti-)hero that would become his trademark role.
In short, Bogart in one of his best roles, a great ensemble cast, tight
direction by John Huston (whose first film this was) and a great script
full of witty dialogue as well as great source material all see to it that
The Maltese Falcon is nothing short of a masterpiece.
An interesting note: Despite the fact that this adaptation of Dachiell
Hammett's Maltese Falcon is by and large seen as a landmark achievement,
the book was brought to the screen twice before, as The Maltese Falcon
in 1931, with Roy Del Ruth directing, Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in
the leads and Dwight Frye as thug Wilmer, and as Satan Met a Lady
in 1936, directed by William Dieterle, Warren William and Bette Davis
playing the leads.