The Maltese Falcon (1931) Classic Film Review 175

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

You're pretty good. As a matter of fact, you're very good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and the throb you get in your voice when you say, "Oh, be generous, Mr. Spade"

Today’s movie is The Maltese Falcon (1931). Okay. I’ll say it. My entire logos is based on the FACT that there has never been a good remake of a movie, so all we need are the classics. The simple fact that this movie exists and the other version, Satan Met a Lady (1936) means that The Maltese Falcon (1941), which is possibly the greatest film ever made is a remake. Life is getting hard. This film was also played in the 1950s as Dangerous Female since the 1941 version was so popular.

Directed by Roy Del Ruth, this film is rated 7.3 on[1]. I think that is fairly accurate.

In a very good and in-depth review Danny[2] stated on December 1, 2014:

The biggest flaw in The Maltese Falcon would have to be the lack of tension– though that may be the wrong word for it. Still an early talkie, Director Roy Del Ruth (Blonde Crazy, The Mind Reader) has trouble keeping the plot in focus. The sudden appearance of the ship’s captain in Spade’s office is baffling, and Wilmer’s appearance is quite late in the movie, considering just how integral he turns out to be to the plot.

But that’s my biggest, and probably only complaint about the picture. The Maltese Falcon is a corker of a film. It’s an interesting study of a man that’s not just stated, but explored in its many modulations, a riddle that examines what makes a person a person and what makes a statue of a black bird seem so unique and extraordinary– and how both of them turn out to be something much more mundane.

Under the title “Mystery Galore” an anonymous New York Times film critic wrote on May 29, 1931:

…it appeared that Roy Del Ruth had done splendidly by an excellent mystery story and given wilted entertainment seekers a decent excuse for getting in out of the heat. There also seemed no reasonable doubt that Mr. Del Ruth had really set a detective story moving on the screen without losing any of the suspenseful diversion it is reputed to have offered between book covers.



Dwight Frye was cast in the role of Wilmer Cook. Frye was first covered in Episode 10 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935).


Bebe Daniels played the Femme Fatale Ruth Wonderly. She was born in Texas in 1901. Her mother was an actress and she began working on stage at the age of 4. She started her film career at the age of 7. When she was 14, producer Hal Roach brought her to co-star with comedian Harold Lloyd. She was next coerced by director Cecil B. DeMille to sign with Paramount. She did well there with movies like Why Change Your Wife? (1920), The Speed Girl (1921), Rio Rita (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1931), and 42nd Street (1933).

She married Ben Lyon in 1930 and the pair moved to England. Bebe was a successful stage actress and she and her husband had a radio show that lasted through World War II. Her last film was The Lyons Abroad (1955). Bebe died in 1971.

Ricardo Cortez did a good job as Sam Spade. Cortez was born in 1900 in New York City. Cortez was born to Jewish immigrants. Cortez worked odd jobs as he learned to act. He followed his cinematographer brother to Hollywood in 1922. They quickly turned him into competition for Rudolph Valentino. Although he never replaced Valentino, he did become very popular with films like Argentine Love (1924), Pony Express (1924), The Cat’s Pajamas (1926), The Maltese Falcon (1931), Is My Face Red? (1932), A Lost Lady (1934), Man Hunt (1936), and The Case of the Black Cat (1936). However, his roles were disappearing. He directed for a time but eventually returned to New York. He went to work on Walls Street and was very successful. He died in 1977.

Dudley Digges was cast as Casper Gutman. Digges was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1879. Digges worked in Irish theater for two years before moving to the US. He was a successful Broadway actor from 1906 – 1947. He was a director as well as a film actor. His films include The Maltese Falcon (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), The Emperor Jones (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Raffles (1939). He died in 1947.

Una Merkel played the role of Effie Perine. Merkel was born in 1903 in Kentucky. The first time she was filmed, it was as a stand-in for Lillian Gish during the filming of The Wind (1928). She went back to work on Broadway but was called back by director D.W. Griffith for Abraham Lincoln (1930). It quickly became clear that Merkel fit better in comedies. Some of her better films include The Maltese Falcon (1931), Private Lives (1931), 42nd Street (1933), Destry Rides Again (1939) where she was in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich that ended when Jimmy Stewart’s character drenched them with water, Summer and Smoke (1961), for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, and The Parent Trap (1961). Merkel died in 1986 at the age of 82.

Thelma Todd played the loose Iva Archer. Todd was born in Massachusetts in 1906. Following High School, Todd began studying to be a school teacher. She also entered beauty pageants and was Miss Massachusetts in 1925 and went to the Miss America pageant. She began working in film at the age of 21. Her best-known films include Fascinating Youth (1926), God Gave Me Twenty Cents (1926), Nevada (1927), The Gay Defender (1927), Dollar Dizzy (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Let’s Do Things (1931), Speak Easily (1932), The Old Bull (1932), On the Loose (1931), Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) with the Marx Brothers, This Is the Night (1932), Twin Triplets (1935), The Misses Stooge (1935), films released after her death are Hot Money (1936), An All American Toothache (1936), and The Bohemian Girl (1936).

During this time, Thelma and her husband opened a restaurant/nightclub. There is an unconfirmed rumor that gangsters tried to take over the club for illegal gambling. It is said that the pair refused the gangsters, making powerful enemies. In December 1935, Thelma was found dead in her car inside her garage. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning. There were rumors of gangsters and cover-ups, but the death was ruled a suicide although her friends said she was never depressed. She was 29 years old.

Otto Matieson played the generic European Dr. Joel Cairo. Matieson was born in 1893 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is known for a few movies that include Scaramouche (1923), The Silver Treasure (1926), Behind Closed Doors (1929), and The Maltese Falcon (1931). He was killed in a car accident in 1932.


The movie opens with a shot of Pier 51 and the skyline of San Francisco. It travels into the office of Spade and Archer, Private Detectives. Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is ushering his latest romantic conquest out of the office under the smirking looks of his secretary Effie Perine (Una Merkel). Spade goes back into his office and begins cleaning his love nest. Effie lets him know that a lady, a real looker wants to meet with him.

Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) is brought into the office. She is more believable as an object of desire that Mary Astor from the 1941 version. Wonderly explains that her sister has run off with a dangerous man, Floyd Thursby and she needs to get her back before their parents return from Europe.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Effie gets a call from his partner’s wife Iva Archer (Thelma Todd) calls to talk to Sam. She is talking about love and such. Miles Archer (Walter Long) comes into the outer office and listens in on the phone call. He burst into the meeting but calms down when he sees the client. When she pays them $200, Archer decides to take the case. They split the money.

Spade gets a call shortly after 1:00 am that Miles Archer has been murdered. He goes to the hotel where Thursby was to be followed. Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse (J. Farrell MacDonald) tells that Archer was shot at very close range. They expect Spade to tell Iva about her husband’s death. The police are shocked that Spade doesn’t want to examine the body. When Spade heads out, his stops for a short conversation with a Chinese merchant in the alley. They speak in Chinese and the content of the conversation is not revealed.

At 3:00 am, Sgt. Polhouse and Detective Lt. Dundy (Robert Elliott) come to Spade’s apartment. He is drunk and on the couch. When Dundy smarts off, Spade calls him sweetheart. They ask what Archer was doing that night. They catch him in a lie because Effie was sent to tell Iva. Dundy tells Spade that Thursby was shot 35 minutes after Spade left the murder scene.

Spade goes to talk to Wonderly. A copy of “The Strange Story of the Little Black Bird” is on the sofa. Spade is pretty curt with Wonderly and he brings up her sister, she admits she was lying. He said they knew all along she was lying. Wonderly says she can’t explain right now and she drops the line, be generous Mr. Spade. He mocks her. She tells the “truth” about Thursby. She says they came from the Orient together and he betrayed her. She keeps saying she is afraid and doesn’t know who killed Thursby. Spade asks Wonderly how much money she had and she replies $500. When she hands it over, it is only $400. He demands the other $100 and leaves. After he is gone, she shows a roll of money as big as a fist.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Spade goes back to the office and tells Effie to have the name of Archer removed from the door. Effie comes in and tells Spade there is a gorgeous customer outside and he happily says send her in. Effie lets Dr. Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson) into the office. Cairo is a small well-groomed indistinct European with a Van Dyke mustache. Cairo introduces himself and says he will pay $5,000 for help finding an ornament for one of his clients. Cairo says it is the black figure of a bird. Effie checks out and leaves for the night. Cairo pulls a gun and orders Spade to place his hands behind the back of his neck. When Cairo tries to search Spade, Spade disarms him and knocks him out.

Cairo only has a few dollars in his wallet. After he awakes, Cairo says the bird is about 12-inches tall. After they make a deal, Spade returns the gun. Cairo pulls the gun and searches the office. This time Spade lets him.

When Spade gets back to his apartment, Wonderly is waiting there. Spade said he say Cairo and Wonderly is caught a little flat-footed. Spade tells her he thinks he is going to work with Cairo for the $5,000. Wonderly puts on full vamp and Sam goes along. They are interrupted by a buzz from the door.

Sgt. Polhouse and Lt. Dundy are there to ask Spade more questions. Spade won’t let them in and the cops ask about the affair with Iva and say that it could be the cause for Archer’s murder. Wonderly screams from inside of the apartment. When the cops bust in Wonderly is holding a gun on Cairo. Cairo says she hit him over the head and was going to murder him. Spade starts laughing and pretends that it was just a misunderstanding between his friends. Cairo asks to leave along with the police.

Wonderly decides to say the night. Spade says she can have the bedroom and he will sleep in the den. They start snuggling and Spade asks her about the blackbird. Wonderly distracts him with a kiss and stuff.

In the morning, Spade goes through Wonderly’s purse and finds a key for room 301 at the Coronet Apartments. He goes to the apartment and begins searching. It is the most thorough search I have ever seen filmed. He returns to his apartment with a bag of food and Wonderly pulls her gun. The buzzer on the door rings and it’s Iva Archer. He steps out in the hall with her. She forces her way in and sees Wonderly who is wearing Iva’s kimono. She says that she will go to Lt. Dundy if Spade doesn’t talk to her before she leaves.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Spade goes back into the apartment and Wonderly is taking a bath.

Spade get a note to come to room 900 Palace Hotel to learn about the blackbird. The note is signed by Casper Gutman. Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges) is a large sweaty man. He seems friendly at first. Gutman tells the story of the blackbird back to the time of the Crusades and the Order of Saint John. The blackbird is supposed to be a gold bird encrusted with large jewels. Gutman tells the story of the bird popping up over time and how he found its location and had it stolen by his gang. Gutman thinks Spade can deliver the falcon and he offers him up to half a million dollars after the sale of the bird. Spade takes the deal with a deposit of $1,000.

A young Wilmer Cook (Dwight Frye) wearing an overcoat and drives cap comes into the room and announces that the Dr. has arrived. Gutman leaves the room. Gutman goes into the other room and Cairo is there. Cairo says Spade doesn’t have the bird and they should get rid of him. Cairo then says that Captain Jacobi (Agostino Borgato) of the ship La Paloma is arriving in the city before midnight. Jacobi and Wonderly where friends in Hong Kong and they think she may have given the bird to Jacobi. Gutman signals his attendant to give a Mickey Finn to Spade. Spade passes out as Gutman laughs. Of course, Gutman takes his $1,000 dollars back.

Sometime after midnight, Spade makes it back to his office. Effie is sleeping at his desk. Just then, Captain Jacobi stumbles into the office. He has been shot. He drops a suitcase and them dies. Spade searches him and then looks in the suitcase. It has the initials R.W., the same as the suitcase in Wonderly’s room. They open the bag and surrounded by hay is the falcon, covered in shiny black enamel.

Spade checks the bag with the falcon into the train depot storage area. He puts the claim check in an envelope and mails it to a P.O. box. When he drops the letter, Sgt. Polhouse is right behind him. Polhouse says the district attorney wants to see Spade because Iva Archer has been complaining. The question Spade, but he doesn’t give any information. The DA says Spade has 24-hours before they arrest him for Archer’s murder.

When Spade gets home, Wonderly is waiting again. They go to his apartment and find Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer. Wilmer holds a gun on Spade. Gutman says they all know he has the falcon. Spade asks for payment but Gutman only gives him $10,000. Spade says they need a fall guy for the three murders. Spade recommends Wilmer and Gutman refuses. Then Spade recommends Cairo. Cairo recommends Spade or Wonderly.

Spade then tells the group that he can’t get the falcon until daylight. They send Wonderly to cook. Sexist! They take the money envelope from Wonderly before she leaves and there is $9,000 now. Spade goes into the kitchen to check Wonderly for the money. He forces her to undress. As she undresses, she throws her clothes to Spade.

Spade goes outside and makes Gutman admit that the stole the $1,000. Spade said the fall guy will be Wilmer. Cairo burns Gutman’s ear about Wilmer and when Spade needles him Wilmer pulls his gun. Spade knocks him out. Gutman and Cairo accept Wilmer as the fall guy.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Spade calls Effie who is asleep at home. He tells her how to get the suitcase and says she should bring it to his apartment in the morning. Gutman says Wilmer killed Thursby and implies that he killed Jacobi as well.

Spade looks at Wonderly, who is cheating at Solitary, and tries to figure her out. The others are all asleep. They all slowly wake-up. Effie rings the buzzer and drops off the suitcase. Gutman opens it with rapt excitement. Wilmer uses this time to escape out the kitchen window. Gutman takes a knife and carves the enamel on the bird and finds it to be a fake.

Gutman, Cairo, and Wonderly start fighting because they have messed the theft up so badly. They think the Russian in Constantinople pulled the switch. They decide they are going back to try again. Gutman pulls a gun and demands the $10,000 back. Gutman and Cairo leave the room. Spade calls Sgt. Polhouse and tells about the three crooks.

Alone now, Spade starts to quiz Wonderly about why she killed Archer. He knew it was a woman because he was shot at such close range. After a bit, she confesses that she thought Thursby would get blamed for Archer’s death. Sam says he loves her but he is not going to play the sap. She tries to kiss him into compliance.

Sgt. Polhouse and Lt. Dundy come in and tells them that Wilmer killed Gutman and Cairo. They ask him about Archer’s murder. Spade turns in Wonderly. They take her in and she gets snotty on the way out.

A newspaper headline shows that the three murders have been solved and Wonderly was found guilty. It also tells that Spade produced a witness at trial, Lee Fu Gow, a Chinese merchant that Spade talked to in the alley. Gow identified Wonderly as the killer of Archer. So, Spade knew all along.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Spade goes to see Wonderly in prison. He tells her that he is now the lead investigator for the DA because of her. When he leaves, he asks the matron to give her anything she needs. Spade says to bill the DAs office and he will approve the bill.

World-Famous Short Summary – Dame plays a game where she misunderstands the skill of her opponent

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Beware the moors


The Maltese Falcon (1931)

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