13 Mysterious Facts About The Maltese Falcon
By the end of 1941, moviegoers had a new favorite star in Humphrey Bogart, a minor actor whose back-to-back starring roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon catapulted him to fame. The latter film quickly became a classic, viewed as the first major "film noir" and a prototype for the genre of hardboiled detectives, femmes fatales, and carefully placed shadows. It was, to quote its last line of dialogue, the stuff dreams are made of. Here are some facts about the 75-year-old mystery.
1. WARNER BROS. MADE IT TWICE BEFORE, INCLUDING ONCE AS A COMEDY.
Dashiell Hammett first published The Maltese Falcon as a serialized story in the crime-fiction magazine Black Mass, following it (in 1930) with a proper hardcover release. Warner Bros. snatched up the movie rights and produced a version in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as the hardboiled detective and Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale. (This version is notable for coming out before the Hollywood Production Code started to be enforced, which means it has more sexual innuendo than the films of the late '30s and '40s.) In 1936, the studio made the film again, this time under the title Satan Met a Lady, and with an inexplicable emphasis on the comedy aspects, starring Warren William and Bette Davis. Nobody liked it. The third time was the charm.
2. IT WOULDN'T EXIST IF HIGH SIERRA HADN'T BEEN A HIT.
John Huston, son of popular stage and screen actor Walter Huston, was a successful scriptwriter for Warner Bros. in the late 1930s, earning Oscar nominations for Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and Sergeant York (1941). When he asked the Warners for a shot at directing, they agreed (and even let him choose the project himself), but only if his next script was a hit. That was High Sierra, starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by Raoul Walsh, and released in January 1941. Fortunately for Huston, it was a success, and the Warners kept their word. The Maltese Falcon, also starring Bogart, was shot that summer and released in the fall. It was the first of five movies Huston and Bogart would make together.
3. THE STUDIO WANTED GEORGE RAFT TO PLAY THE LEAD.
George Raft was a handsome actor and dancer who'd narrowly escaped an actual life of crime (his boyhood friends included Bugsy Siegel) to become someone who merely played a lot of gangsters. He was the Warners' first choice for The Maltese Falcon. (He'd been their first choice for High Sierra, too.) The Warners had given Huston free rein to make whatever movie he wanted, but they insisted on keeping some control over the casting. Huston was lucky, therefore, that Raft didn't want to work with a first-time director and turned the movie down, leaving Huston free to cast his pal Bogie.
4. HUMPHREY BOGART'S ICONIC RAPID-FIRE DELIVERY WAS THE RESULT OF A STUDIO NOTE.
Detective Sam Spade had a lot of speeches, which the Warners felt tended to slow things down. They asked Huston to pick up the pace by having Bogart (and the others) talk faster. Huston, eager to please on his first film, took the note to heart and instructed everyone accordingly. When the film was a hit, the rat-a-tat pace became one of the hallmarks of film noir.
5. IT GOT AWAY WITH USING AN OBJECTIONABLE WORD, PROBABLY BECAUSE THE CENSORS WEREN'T COOL ENOUGH TO KNOW IT.
Sam Spade uses the word “gunsel” three times in reference to Wilmer, the hitman who works for Kasper Gutman, a.k.a. the Fat Man. Hammett used the same word in his novel, but only after his editor objected to the word he used first: "catamite," which is a young man kept by an older man for sexual purposes. While Hammett's novel identified Cairo (Peter Lorre’s character) as a homosexual and hinted at it for Wilmer and Gutman, this term was considered too explicit. Hammett replaced it with "gunsel," which his editor assumed meant “gunslinger” or some such. But it didn't. Gunsel—from the Yiddish word for "little goose," and passed along in American hobo culture—was merely a synonym for "catamite," but was too new to be familiar. Hammett got away with it in the book, and it slipped past the Production Code censors when it popped up in the screenplay. Because of Hammett's usage, the word came to take on "gunman" as a secondary meaning. But make no mistake, it wasn't Wilmer's possession of a firearm that Sam Spade was referring to.
6. IT INSPIRED THE NAMING OF ONE OF THE BOMBS THAT ENDED WORLD WAR II.
The atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were code-named Little Boy and Fat Man, respectively, after their shapes. "Fat Man" is what Spade and others call Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, and it's what inspired Manhattan Project physicist Robert Serber when he named it. It has been falsely reported that "Little Boy" also came from The Maltese Falcon, as the epithet Spade uses for Wilmer. The problem with that theory: Spade never calls him that. (He calls him "boy" a lot, but never "little boy.") "Little Boy" was, in fact, simply a variation of a third type of bomb code-named Thin Man, after the movie based on a different Dashiell Hammett book.
7. SYDNEY GREENSTREET HAD NEVER BEEN IN FRONT OF A CAMERA BEFORE.
The rotund British thespian had spent almost four decades on English and American stages before he finally consented to be in movies at the age of 61. Despite his abundant acting experience, he was terrified to be in front of a camera, and asked co-star Mary Astor to hold his hand. Greenstreet was nominated for an Oscar for this performance and would go on to make 24 more movies, all in the 1940s, before retiring.
8. THE DIRECTOR'S DAD APPEARS AS THE GUY WHO DELIVERS THE FALCON (AND IS SHOT FULL OF HOLES).
The ship's captain who finally puts the dingus in Spade's possession is Walter Huston, father of the first-time director. John would direct his father in two more movies, including 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which the elder Huston won his first and only Oscar.
9. TO MAINTAIN PRIVACY ON THE SET, MARY ASTOR SWORE AT SOME PRIESTS.
Thanks to Huston's detailed planning, the shoot ran smoothly and on schedule, giving the cast plenty of time to bond in a low-stress atmosphere. They quickly became tight-knit and protective of the movie they were making, and they sought to keep outsiders away. Mary Astor wrote in her memoirs that it began when the film's publicist brought a small group of priests to visit the set. Just before the camera started rolling, Astor said, "Hold it a minute, I've got a g**damn run in my stocking!" The men of the cloth were quickly ushered out. After this, the cast (with Huston's full participation) would regularly engage in pre-planned "shock the tourists" pranks anytime there were visitors, including one where Bogart would pretend to blow up at Greenstreet for upstaging him.
10. IT SERVED AS INGRID BERGMAN'S GUIDE TO ACTING WITH BOGART.
Bergman didn't know Bogart when she was cast opposite him in Casablanca, and she found him hard to know. "He was polite naturally," she wrote in her autobiography, "but I always felt there was a distance; he was behind a wall." To get a better read on him, she watched The Maltese Falcon (then in current release) several times.
11. THERE WAS ALMOST A SEQUEL.
Lest you think the near-automatic greenlighting of sequels to popular movies is a modern trend, Warner Bros. strongly considered a Maltese Falcon follow-up as soon as the film proved to be a hit. Jack Warner even approached Hammett to write it, but the author wanted $5000 (about $80,000 in 2016 dollars) in advance as a guarantee. Warner balked, and that was the end of it.
12. THE CAST REUNITED FOR A REMAKE OF SORTS.
In 1943, Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, and Lorre reprised their roles for a 30-minute radio adaptation of the film, which you can listen to here (it's episode 144).
13. THE TITULAR STATUETTE TURNED OUT TO BE PRETTY VALUABLE IN REAL LIFE, TOO.
Several falcon props were made for the film, most of them lightweight (which you can see in the casual way Bogart carries them). But two 45-pound versions were also made, one of which has markings identifying it as one that definitely appears in the film. In 2013, that prop was sold for $4 million to an anonymous buyer, one of the highest prices ever paid for a piece of movie memorabilia.
American Film Institute
Blu-ray features and commentaries