The Maltese Falcon (1941)- The Stuff Dreams are Made of
There are a few wonderful films in which the entire plot surrounds the pursuit of a single object, in Hitchcock’s words, a “Macguffin.” I put it to you that no fictional object is more desired in the film itself, and even today, than the Maltese Falcon.
Spade (Bogart) and the Black Bird
This wonderful statuette is the catalyst of the plot of the Hammett novel, The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930. The book introduces one of Hammett’s immortal characters, the hardboiled private eye, Sam Spade. Like many of Hammett’s novels, The Maltese Falcon is not the average or even light mystery it may pose to be. I find Hammett had an uncanny ability to encapsulate human weakness and flaws in his characters. But I digress, the novel was adapted a few times, but the undoubtedly superior version is 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his most famous roles.
The moment of truth: the testing of the black bird (L-R): Spade (Bogart), Cairo (Lorre), Brigid (Astor), and Gutman (Greenstreet)
In the novel and in the film, the whole story follows attempts of different characters to acquire this mysterious “Black Bird.” Spade is hooked by the alluring Miss O'Shaughnessy, who draws him in but reveals little of the object of her desire. Gradually, it is revealed by “the Fat Man,” Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet in his debut role), that the Maltese Falcon is a statuette of amazing value. Hammett created an elaborate history that was put forward in the film. Without going into too much detail, the Falcon was originally cast of gold and gems as a gift of tribute to the King of Spain by the Order of the Knights of St. John, who were given the island of Malta. The extremely valuable object was stolen before getting to Spain and passed through a number of hands. Though made of gold, it’s been covered in black enamel to hide its value. Gutman was on the scent in the early ‘20s, but it slipped through his fingers. For 17 years, he’s attempted to find the statue and eventually discovered it in Istanbul. It was stolen by O’Shaughnessy and her loyal bodyguard, for Guttman, but they stole it and it was lost again.
Everyone clutching for the Falcon
Eventually, by basically amiracle, Spade receives the statue, and after being promised money on his terms, turns it over to obsessed searchers. There is a celebrated unwrapping of the bird when (Spoiler) it is discovered that it simply a worthless lead copy. The characters are prepared to go back to following the trail of Falcon- but Spade turns them all over to the police. In the famous final line, a cop asks what the statue is, and Spades responds, in homage to Shakespeare, “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”
At the end, Spade, who is without possessive greed, possesses the Falcon
Throughout the film, Cairo, Gutman and O’Shaughnessy are obsessed with finding the bird and gaining immeasurable wealth. This is beautifully exhibited when they desperately unwrap the bird, believing their toils are over. Crazed with greed, they think of nothing else and sacrifice anything, even their friends, for its attainment.
Brigid, imprisoned by her own obsession and greed of the Falcon
Like the bird itself, they believe under their dark covering, their obsession, they are rich and sophisticated inside. Each character puts on airs they don’t have, believing that wealth is imminent. Like the statue itself- inside they are as valueless as the Falcon- rotten to the core with their greed. They have lost themselves in attempting to retrieve history’s lost object. The Maltese Falcon is a symbol of obsessive greed and of the people who fall victim to it. They sacrificed everything for its possible attainment, and eventually lost even themselves to the pursuit.
The Kniphausen Hawk
Besides being a lovely model of obsession of greed in films, it’s also a lovely object. Hammett almost assuredly based the statuette on the Kniphausen Hawk, a ceremonial pouring vessel in the Duke of Devonshire’s personal collection. This Hawk is made of garnet rubies and gems of incredible value and was created as a gift of some Duke or Count of something.
A Lead Falcon
Warner Brothers gave one Fred Sexton, a notable LA artist of the time, the job of creating the statue. Of note, Sexton was friends with the man believed to be the Black Dahlia killer. But that’s an aside. Sexton originally cast the bird in plaster. Many copies of the falcon were made during shooting, but few exist today. There are three copies of note that have incredible value. There are two lead copies that are, by the way, extremely heavy. During filming, Bogart dropped one on his foot, causing it to dent. There is also a more elaborate and beautiful (as well as lighter) resin copy that was used in many of the shots where Bogart was actually holding the statuette.
Publicity shot of Bogart with the Black Bird
Originally Jack Warner gave a lead copy to a friend, William Conrad. This has passed through hands. Another copy belongs to a collector and the resin copy was put up for auction a few years ago, netting much money. I also believe some more worthless plaster versions were given to some members of the cast. These either were lost, destroyed, or valueless- I can’t find out which.
The Maltese Falcon prop is one of the most desired in all of film history. One of the Falcons was actually stolen from the restaurant it was exhibited in for many years and is still missing. People still are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for actual versions of the Falcon and even hundreds for crappy replicas. Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, went to extraordinary measures to create an accurate replica of resin and lead, which are exceptionally beautiful.
The quest for the falcon proves to be more a nightmare, than a dream, for those obsessed with its possession
The price of the actual props used in the film are as valuable as Gutman’s assessment of the actual Maltese Falcon, if it were real. Truly, this Falcon is the stuff dreams are made of- perhaps not worthy of the obsession of the film’s characters, but certainly close.