Classic Woman-Centric Movie Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Four different criminals lead a private detective into their hunt for a missing treasure in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, which was based on the book by Dashiell Hammett. John Huston directed film and wrote the screenplay, and it stars, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet.

Black and White photo of Bogart as Sam Spade, holding the Falcon
Spade and the bird, the stuff that dreams are made of.

Sam Spade (Bogart), and his partner, Miles Archer, take on a case on behalf of Miss Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who alleges that her sister has run off with a man by the name of Thursby. Archer takes the case, but is found shot later that night. The police and Archer’s widow suspect Sam of the murder and of Thursby”˜s slaying, but he’s determined to find out who really did kill Archer. The following day, Sam does meet Ruth Wonderly, who confides to him that she is really Brigid O’Shaughnessy and that Thursby was her partner. She believes that Thursby killed Archer, but has no idea of who killed Thursby.

Maltese Falcon poster
Movie poster from the film.

Waiting for Sam at his office is Joel Cairo (Lorre), who seeks to hire Sam to retrieve “a big black bird” for him. Sam later arranges a meeting between himself, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy and discovers that the two know each other. There’s also a third interested party, a man by the name of Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet). Gutman is at first evasive about the bird, but later, he tells Sam about the Maltese falcon and hires him to help retrieve it as well. When a dying man delivers a bundle containing the falcon to Sam’s office, it has become apparent that Sam has become involved in a web of intrigue and lies, and that the answer to the question of who murdered his partner lies within it.

This film could perhaps be called one of the very first film noirs, as no one is innocent. Everyone has something to hide or something they’re looking for, even Sam himself, for their own selfish motives. Sam, who has seen the darker side of humanity one time too many, is adept at dealing with people like this. His cynicism and world-weariness are what makes him a good detective, because he trusts no one while looking for the truth. Add to this the femme fatale, the woman who seems delicate on the outside but is iron-willed and ruthless underneath, the woman who leads the gumshoe hero into a world of mystery and danger. The other enigmatic villains round out the story and give the viewer an idea of just how shadowy the criminal underworld and the darker recesses of the human soul are.

Screencap from the film of the cast with the Falcon
They finally have the falcon.

If you’re looking for a mystery with a lot of plot twists and hidden motives, then this is the movie for you this weekend. Get your cheap whisky in the coffee cup, gumshoe, and see if you can solve the case before Spade does.

5 replies on “Classic Woman-Centric Movie Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)”

I’m not sure there’s many noirs that could be called woman-centric. There are a lot of women in them to be sure, but they aren’t ever the heroes of the piece. The story almost always revolved around the gum shoe.

Now there are some great neo-noirs that flip that script. I’d highly suggest picking up The Last Seduction to see a great inverse of the classic noir.

No, there aren’t a lot of noirs that could be called woman-centric, but I think the film is a very good example of the problematic way in which women are portrayed in film noirs. Veronica Lake often played the femme fatale as well in her films alongside Alan Ladd. It’s quite interesting how women are either damsels in distress or femmes fatales and that there is no in-between for them, whereas men can more easily tread the line between villian and hero.

Leave a Reply