{The Maltese Falcon} by John Huston


The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 film noir written and directed by John Huston in his directorial debut, and based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel of the same name. The film 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 Greenstreet 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.

Theory Discussion

The term ‘Noir’ means ‘dark’ or ‘black’ in French (Ebert, 1995). Film Noir is a type of film (not a genre) which features private detectives, criminals, and femme fatale characters and is rooted from German Expressionism. Its genre are crime and mystery. This type of films are different than the others which film different perspective of a protagonist which is also known as Anti-hero (Dirks, 2016). The protagonist is usually corrupted by greed and fear, has own motives, and is neither in the area of black or white (grey). According to Roger Ebert, Noir films always misleading audience to think that it would never be a happy ending. As it is a crime-related film, murders would happen throughout the film. In fact, Film Noir intended to show that the realistic world is filled with fear, doom and betrayal.

Noir films featuring dark visuals, as synchronize with the film genre in order to create the mysterious mood and also showing the dark side of humanity. Thus, low-key lighting is one of the main components of these films. Dark shadows, alleys, cramped apartment corridors etc are often shown. Another thing to be portrayed in the film would be cigarettes, ‘everyone is always smoking’ claimed by Roger Ebert.In the aspect of characters, the men are usually well-dressed in suits and ties. Detectives, polices, criminal, government agents etc. are the common jobs for men. As for women, high heels, dresses, and lace hat are main characteristics. According to Film-site, there are 2 types of women being portrayed in Noir films: women that are reliable, responsible and trustworthy, or Femmes Fatales, who appear to be cunning, manipulative and mysterious.

The Maltese Falcon is a Noir Film as it featuring Sam Spade, a private detective which is an intelligent and cunning man, with a Femme Fatale, Miss Wonderly. The film shows the betrayals among each other, especially when Miss Wonderly not telling the truth by lying to Sam. Also, Miss Wonderly is always acting in order to gain people’s trust. For instance, at one scene she acted as an extremely weak woman by claiming herself dizzy and yet still managed to stand and walk. In contrast, Sam’s secretary, Effie Perine is a very obedient and dutiful lady to her boss. She always listens to Sam’s order even it’s bad which includes lying to the police to fake the evidence/alibi.

Maltese Falcon is a legendary treasure which is being pursued by everyone in the film. It shows the dark side of human by showing the greed of people during the process of obtaining the treasure and how they betray and kill each other.

The film indeed is a black and white film. Besides, it mostly uses high contrast visuals to create dark shadows of a persons and also on their faces. In addition, low camera angles are frequently  used to show the domination of characters. Also, the background of the screen is always crowded, or cramped. For example, in one of the scenes when Sam is having conversation with Iva in the living room, everything seems cramped inside the small room; the furniture and decorations such as couch, vase, photo frames, tables etc. fully filled up the screen as if there’s not much space left.


Spade and Archer is the name of a San Francisco detective agency. That’s for Sam Spade and Miles Archer. The two men are partners, but Sam doesn’t like Miles much. A knockout, who goes by the name of Miss Wonderly, walks into their office; and by that night everything’s changed. Miles is dead. And so is a man named Floyd Thursby. It seems Miss Wonderly is surrounded by dangerous men. There’s Joel Cairo, who uses gardenia-scented calling cards. There’s Kasper Gutman, with his enormous girth and feigned civility. Her only hope of protection comes from Sam, who is suspected by the police of one or the other murder. More murders are yet to come, and it will all be because of these dangerous men — and their lust for a statuette of a bird: the Maltese Falcon.


The 1941 film The Maltese Falcon by John Huston is the second film adaptation of the 1930 detective novel of the same title written by Dashiell Hammett. This version depicts historic images of the social issues pestering the 1940s America, as well as the popularity of the film noir fiction of the time that were also evident in Hammett’s work on the novel. Huston’s film debut strongly adhered to the spirit of Hammett’s story. In an interview, John Huston made it known that when it comes to his approach to adaptations, he tries “to penetrate first to the basic idea of the book or the play, and then work with those ideas in cinematic terms.” (Wexman 50) For him, the basic idea of the novel is the mystery of the precious falcon statuette. He makes sure that his film will be centered on this specific notion by staying faithful to this concept. In this film adaptation of The Maltese Falconnovel by Dashiell Hammett, John Huston tries to communicate the appeal of Hammett’s novel to him by presenting its important aspects such as storyline, film noir essence, and historical and cultural context in a faithful adaptation seen in the film’s familiar screenplay, skillful manipulation of sound and cinematography techniques, and timely and relevant release.

In The Maltese Falcon, Huston created a screenplay that stayed close to the novel’s storyline. Huston’s film debut strongly adhered to the spirit of Hammett’s story. The screenplay basically revolves around the mystery of the Maltese Falcon and the suspense in the treacherous chase for the most coveted bejeweled statue. The opening of the novel introduces a helpless woman who comes to Spade and Archer’s office to ask for help in finding her sister who eloped with a guy named Thursby. With a prologue about the history of the Maltese Falcon, the same scene was also the beginning of the story in Huston’s film. Huston also adopted the theme of the original work and that is the strenuous hunt for the impossible and determining the thing that keeps a man tied to his dream, along with underlying notions such as betrayal, greed, trust, and failure. As the characters get involved in this complex entanglement agitated with crime, deception, and greed the more the audiences are made to realize that trust is an elusive pursuit as the hunt for the Maltese Falcon. He incorporated the basic idea and the meaning symbolized by the Maltese Falcon by using it as the title of the film and letting the plot revolve around the hunt for this rare treasure. A prologue about the Maltese Falcon gaged prior knowledge on the “the stuff that dreams are made of,” where it serves as the thing that symbolizes a dream that is almost impossible to achieve and at the same time suggests a treacherous path towards realizing that dream. By adopting the exact sequencing of events and the underlying themes Hammett’s novel, Huston literally translated the story from novel to screen that in turn upholds his credibility and reputation as a film director when it comes to his adaptation style.

Another convincing method that Huston used in his film is his masterful use of music and cinematography techniques that delivered the spirit of Hammett’s novel as he intended it to be. In the light of film noir and hard-boiled fictions, Huston used high contrast images, extreme close ups, low camera angles in most scenes of the film for a dark and mysterious effect. One of the most intense scenes in this film is when Samuel Spade’s partner, Miles Archer was shot while tailing Ms. Wonderly. To indicate the intensity of this scene, Huston used a low-key lighting to provoke fear towards the impending death of Archer. Also, most of the scenes are shot in a tight frame giving a feeling of claustrophobia that further triggers moods such as panic and anxiety. Confrontational scenes involving the characters were usually shot inside Spade’s small office and in his apartment as if wanting the audience to feel tense and uneasy in seeing Spade in close proximity with the dangerous people while confined in a small room. It is often noticeable as well how Gutman and the rest of his gang are given height and a powerful sense through the use of low camera angle, making the audience feel vulnerable and inferior with regards to these characters. Gutman’s intimidating presence was even more intensified with high contrast scenes of his enormous body dressed in dark hues against the very white wall of his apartment. Moreover, in order to make sure that Spades nervousness will be adequately emanated from a subjective point of view, Huston used extreme close ups of his face in most stressed scenes.

Aside from cinematography styles discussed, editing and sound techniques also plays a great role in filling this film with thrill and suspense. In the final scenes where they unwrap the package that is supposed to contain the statuette, the effect of the dragging scene and the discordant and grating music is indeed very thrilling and absorbing. In terms of cinematography and music, Houston used an artistic proof to make his case in his adaptation of the novel. His play with the film’s settings, lighting, camera angle, and sound that are all inherent to film noir and hard-boiled fictions trigger the very same emotions that Hammett wanted to achieve from his readers.


The film includes too many dialogues which are long and fast which turn off the audience. However, there is several things which are worth to learn: the way they using metaphor in conversation instead of directly mocking a person; detective/ criminal-related films are always interesting which it needs audience’s to think about the flow/cause of the case.





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