Maltese Falcon first editionFirst edition

The Maltese Falcon

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1930

Type of publication
Novel

Genres
Mystery, crime

Language
English

Author's country
United States

Length
Approx. 84,000 words

The Maltese Falcon (1931) sceneThe first Maltese Falcon from Hollywood is surprisingly faithful to Hammett—and sexier than what followed.

The Maltese Falcon

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1931, 1936, 1941, 1975

A Spade is not necessarily a Spade

The Maltese Falcon (1931): Also called Dangerous Female; director Roy Del Ruth; writers Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes, Lucien Hubbard; featuring Ricardo Cortez, Bebeaniels, Thelma ToddDaniels, Thelma Todd

The 1941 film noir masterpiece starring Humphrey Bogart, the classic detective movie everyone knows, was actually the third film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon and spawned a goofy sequel of its own.

One thing common to them all though is the hardbitten character of private sleuth Sam Spade at the centre of the story one way or another, though he takes on some distinctly different personalities.

Sam Spade, playboy for hire

In 1931, the year after the novel came out, Warner Brothers produced the first movie version of The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade was played by Ricardo Cortez, who had started in silent films and went on to have a long career that spanned over a hundred films, including a stint as Perry Mason.

Ricardo Cortez as Spade
Ricardo Cortez as Spade.

The femme fatale lead was playe by Bebe Daniels who had an even longer career with nearly two hundred film credits. Screen siren Thelma Todd had a smaller role as Iva Archer, Spade's lover and wife of his murdered partner.

And watch for Dwight Frye, the versatile character actor of horror films including Frankenstein and Dracula, as the young gunman here.

The film, later renamed Dangerous Female, is surprisingly faithful to Hammett's novel and similar to the later more famous version—matching it almost scene for scene and in some cases, such in as the funny scene when the dapper little Dr. Cairo (Otto Matiesen, another veteran silent film actor in one of his last roles before being killed in an accident) confronts Spade at gunpoint, almost line for line.

But Cortez is all playboy as Spade, chasing after every skirt and with an eye out for the main chance. He's continually laughing lasciviously, it seems. Until the end, of course, when he turns in the killer and suddenly turns solemn. But he does it without Hammett's speech about the code of loyalty. We never really get what motivates him to reach his surprising conclusion.

The sexual content however is much more explicit in this film than in the later versions, as the film was made before the studios' crackdown on immorality. It's clear Spade is sleeping around. We get to see much of Daniels in a bathtub. The hoodlums are obviously homosexual.


Scenes from the first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon in 1931.

As in most films of the era, the sound is terrible, requiring the actors to speak loudly and to overact.

But the movie was successful at the box office and so, as was the fashion in those days, Warner Brothers set about redoing it.

— Eric McMillan

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1931, 1936, 1941, 1975

See also:

Movies
The Thin Man

Movies
The Big Sleep

Movies
The Long Goodbye

On Amazon:

The Maltese Falcon

On Twitter:

Follow on Twitter