In the litany of movies heralded as the greatest ever made, The Maltese Falcon is one that has inarguably earned that distinction. Adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, it is recognized for the layered story, sharp dialogue, strength of the cast’s performances, and dramatic cinematography. Released on October 18, 1941, it is the first major entry into the film noir genre and is often considered the best detective movie of all time.
The preeminent hardboiled detective story follows a San Francisco private eye and his interactions with three morally corrupt adventurers who are trying to find a jewel-encrusted falcon statue. John Huston wrote the script and made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon. His equally talented cast was led by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Gladys George as Iva Archer, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Barton MacLane as Detective Dundy, Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, and Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman.
This film was actually the second cinematic adaptation of Hammett’s novel. A decade earlier in 1931, Roy Del Ruth directed the first film version of The Maltese Falcon with Ricardo Cortez as Spade. This version, however, did not strike the same cord as the one Huston directed ten years later.
For his first outing as a director, Huston meticulously mapped out how he would shoot each scene by adding notes and sketches to the script. The movie was shot almost entirely in sequence, which helped the actors track their characters’ trajectories. Huston kept a lot of the dialogue from Hammett’s novel and because the script was fine-tuned so well, very little dialogue was removed from the final cut. His goal to be efficient and produce the best movie he could kept the movie to a tight schedule and budget.
One of Huston’s struggles with the filmmaking process was how the studio wanted to remove certain parts of the novel. The studio was reluctant to show characters drinking alcohol, which Huston fought for since Spade was a hard drinker. Direct references to sex were completely removed.
Though Bogart’s career accolades are deeply tied to playing Sam Spade, he was not the first choice for the role. Producer Hal B. Wallis wanted George Raft (known for Scarface and They Drive by Night) to play their lead, but the actor didn’t want to work with a new director. Bogart needed little convincing to take the role, turning in a performance that became the blueprint for film noir’s private detectives. The Maltese Falcon began a working relationship between Bogart and Huston that would continue in movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen.
Getting the Maltese Falcon itself right was a pivotal part of the preproduction process. Artist Fred Sexton was hired to design the statuette, basing it on the Kniphausen Hawk. Created by Georg Wilhelm von Kniphausen in 1697, the hawk is sitting on a rock and is encrusted with garnets, sapphires, emeralds, and amethyst jewels.
The movie was a critical success with reviewers applauding the suspense and action, the dramatic cinematography, and asserting that Huston had a promising career ahead of him. Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing for John Huston. Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran stage actor who made his film debut in The Maltese Falcon, was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Several years later in 1989, it was among the very first films selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.