‘The Maltese Falcon:’ John Huston’s 1941 Thriller Is a Noir Classic, Plus Where to Watch it

THE MALTESE FALCON, from left: Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, 1941
Everett Collection

Grizzled detective Sam Spade was no James Bond. Streetwise and hard-boiled, it wasn’t high-tech toys that would solve cases, but aggressive shoe-leather, deductive reasoning and a well-placed punch or two. Still, the man had charm with the ladies and could be ruthless in getting what he wanted.

, John Huston, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, 1941

Everett Collection

Director John Huston, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart


Spade was the invention of Dashiell Hammett, whose rough-knuckled mystery stories included Falcon as well as The Thin Man and The Glass Key. He was to detective fiction what Ian Fleming became for spy thrillers. The book had already been to the big screen twice; it was up to John Huston to charm a classic on the third try. Huston wrote the screenplay of The Maltese Falcon and made his directorial debut with it. Warner Bros. execs gave him no wiggle room for schedule or budget — come in under or be fired — but Huston’s script was so detailed the film was finished two days ahead of schedule and $54,000 under budget.

THE MALTESE FALCON, Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, 1941

Everett Collection

The Maltese Falcon was a breakout role for Humphrey Bogart, who was signed after George Raft turned down the part of Spade. Until then, Bogart had been in supporting roles, primarily gangsters. He’d gotten a leading role as a gangster in High Sierra (also 1941, with a script that was cowritten by Huston), but switched sides to wear Sam Spade’s gumshoes in Falcon. In the movie, Spade’s partner Archer is murdered after getting hired by the mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a woman with many deceitful layers. When the man whom Archer was tracking is also murdered, suspicion falls on Spade, getting revenge for his partner’s death.

THE MALTESE FALCON, from left: Humphrey Bogart, Elisha Cook, Jr., 1941

Everett Collection

If that feels like a tight spot, Spade is then noosed further into danger by a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells seeking a mysterious and priceless object known as the Maltese Falcon: the effeminate Occidental businessman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a creepy henchman named Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) and mastermind Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet, in his Hollywood debut). For Spade, it’s a descending spiral of intrigue, threats, lies and larceny, laced with booze, bragging and a cynical serving of love. The Maltese Falcon is noir at its purest and flawlessly executed. Audiences and critics alike loved it, and the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Many now consider it one of the best films ever made.

Huston and Bogart became fast friends during filming (and devoted drinking partners, along with Astor). It secured work for them both (as well as Greenstreet), and the two would successfully collaborate on future movies like Key Largo (1948) and The African Queen (1951). With The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade became the template for all hard-boiled detectives to come. Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe was one, and Bogart would play him in The Big Sleep (1946). Like James Bond, Sam Spade was one of a kind. In later years, those weary of the exotic Bond brand could return to Spade’s brass-knuckle banter with the likes of Mike Hammer.

THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, 1941

Everett Collection

Regarding the fate of the Falcon, it’s for generations of fans of Huston’s classic film to find out. That’s the deal, sweetheart.

The Maltese Falcon airs Saturday, March 9 on TCM as part of the 2024 ’31 Days of Oscars’ celebration

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Tough Guys, Bad Girls

September 2017

Hard-boiled detectives, gangsters and their gals — a gritty look at the art of noir and the craft of going wrong.

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