Establishes a New Style for Crime Films

Director John Huston’s faithful film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel became a classic in the film noir style, influencing filmmakers worldwide.

Summary of Event

The release of The Maltese Falcon on October 3, 1941, marked a turning point in the careers of three Americans: screenwriter and director John Huston, actor Humphrey Bogart, and novelist Dashiell Hammett. It also greatly boosted the careers of four other actors: Mary Astor, who played the compulsive liar and murderess Brigid O’Shaughnessy; Sydney Greenstreet, who delivered a spectacular performance as the jovial but sinister fat man, Kasper Gutman; Peter Lorre, a veteran film actor who was cast perfectly as the effeminate but dangerous Joel Cairo; and Elisha Cook, Jr., who played “the punk” responsible for the murders of Floyd Thursby and Captain Jacobi. [kw]Maltese Falcon Establishes a New Style for Crime Films, The (Oct. 3, 1941)
[kw]Style for Crime Films, The Maltese Falcon Establishes a New (Oct. 3, 1941)
[kw]Crime Films, The Maltese Falcon Establishes a New Style for (Oct. 3, 1941)
[kw]Films, The Maltese Falcon Establishes a New Style for Crime (Oct. 3, 1941)
Maltese Falcon, The (Houston)
Film noir
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Maltese Falcon[Maltese Falcon]
Cinema;Hollywood stylistic conventions
Maltese Falcon, The (Houston)
Film noir
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Maltese Falcon[Maltese Falcon]
Cinema;Hollywood stylistic conventions
[g]North America;Oct. 3, 1941: The Maltese Falcon Establishes a New Style for Crime Films[00330]
[g]United States;Oct. 3, 1941: The Maltese Falcon Establishes a New Style for Crime Films[00330]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Oct. 3, 1941: The Maltese Falcon Establishes a New Style for Crime Films[00330]
Huston, John
Hammett, Dashiell
Bogart, Humphrey
Astor, Mary
Greenstreet, Sydney
Lorre, Peter
Cook, Elisha, Jr.

John Huston, best known up to that time as the son of prominent Hollywood star Walter Huston, had a checkered career before winning the opportunity to direct The Maltese Falcon. He had been working as a Hollywood screenwriter, and his experience as a writer proved invaluable to him during the rest of his life. He believed that the most important ingredient of a good film was the story.

Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel The Maltese Falcon
Maltese Falcon, The (Hammett) (serial, 1929-1930; novel, 1930) had been already been adapted into two motion pictures before Huston became involved with it. Hammett’s writing appealed to filmmakers for several reasons. He had been a private detective for many years and wrote about crime and detection with authority. He favored a completely objective style of storytelling, describing only what his characters said and did, not what they were thinking or feeling. This objectivity made his novels easily transposable to the screen. Furthermore, Hammett has been called one of the best dialogue writers the United States has ever produced. The dialogue in the talking films of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s had been mostly crude and obvious, and Hollywood was becoming sensitive to this shortcoming as motion pictures attempted to attract more sophisticated and affluent audiences.

The earlier film versions of Hammett’s novel, one titled The Maltese Falcon
Maltese Falcon, The (Del Ruth) (1931) and the other Satan Met a Lady
Satan Met a Lady (Dieterle) (1936), had been bowdlerized Hollywood productions. Huston wanted to film the story the way Hammett had written it, retaining its original rapid-fire dialogue and its cynical view of human motivations. Huston shot the film using a script that was little more than a trimmed down version of the novel.

The role of detective Sam Spade Sam Spade (fictional character) went to Humphrey Bogart. Bogart went on to become internationally idolized as a symbol of the modern existential hero, one who has no illusions about human character but sticks to his principles even though he is doomed to go down in defeat. “Bogie,” as the world came to know him, had almost invariably played villains on the screen to that point and had become typecast as a “heavy.” One of his most famous roles was that of killer Duke Mantee, who escaped from prison and terrorized a group of innocent people in The Petrified Forest (1936).

It was a shock to film audiences to see Bogart playing a hero. As Bogart portrayed him, Sam Spade was a mixture of good and bad, kindness and cruelty, honesty and dishonesty, ugliness and animal sexuality. For Hollywood, this was a significant development. Previously, characterizations were often clearly defined, with heroes and villains in unambiguous roles. Relatively few films mixed good and bad characteristics in a single individual. World War II changed the perspectives expressed by mainstream American culture. Europe had been embroiled in war for two years in 1941, and the United States was being relentlessly dragged into it. People were becoming more aware that the world was a brutal place and that good guys could not always act like gentlemen.

The entry of the United States into World War II also saw many of the popular and strikingly handsome male stars of the period going into military service, including James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, and Robert Taylor, the biggest names of the time. This created an unusual opportunity for Humphrey Bogart, who was too old for military service and was shorter and less obviously attractive than the typical Hollywood leading man. John Huston joined the Army as a filmmaker and went on to enjoy an extremely successful career as a director. Among his most memorable postwar films were Key Largo (1948), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The African Queen (1951), all starring his friend Humphrey Bogart.

Dashiell Hammett, though he was in his late forties and in poor health when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, joined the Army and served in the Aleutian Islands. The motion-picture versions of his novels The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key
Glass Key, The (Hammett) (1930), and The Thin Man (1934) made Hammett one of the most famous writers of his time, with money pouring in from book royalties, radio serials based on his characters, and payments for rights to use his characters Nick and Nora Charles in the many film sequels to The Thin Man made between 1936 and 1947. Hammett, however, had a serious drinking problem and also ran into trouble with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which investigated Hollywood artists for Communist Party affiliations at the inception of the Cold War. The combination of these factors led to Hammett’s physical and financial ruin, and he died a pauper. His reputation has grown steadily through the years, however, and he is now regarded as one of America’s best writers.


By 1941, the American public was getting used to the new realities of mid-twentieth century life. It read about the incredible atrocities being committed in Europe and realized that the modern weaponry being employed in warfare threatened to destroy civilization, just as H. G. Wells had predicted in a novel that was made into the chilling British film Things to Come (1936). John Huston’s film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon might have seemed out of place in the glamorous 1920’s or the isolationist 1930’s, but it sounded exactly the right note for the beginning of the brutal 1940’s, when sons and husbands were being torn from their families by the millions and taught to kill for their country.

The public’s favorable reception of Huston’s film naturally inspired imitations. One of the first of these was This Gun for Hire (1942), which introduced audiences to another “tough-guy” actor, Alan Ladd Ladd, Alan . Ladd immediately starred in a remake of Hammett’s The Glass Key, Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Glass Key[Glass Key] in which he was beaten by William Bendix in some of the most brutal scenes shown on film up to that time. The Glass Key had been filmed in 1935 with Edward Arnold and George Raft. The contrast between these two film versions of Hammett’s novel is as great as the contrast between the 1941 The Maltese Falcon and the 1936 Satan Met a Lady. Within a few short years, Hollywood’s angle on the same stories became much darker, as the studios allowed the cynical, pessimistic attitude of Hammett and other writers to be preserved and amplified in the films of the early 1940’s. Such films, dark both in narrative tone and in formal style, would come to be known as film noirs, a term coined by French critics once French audiences were exposed to these films after the end of the war.

The American public’s taste for hard-boiled films with dialogue crackling with cynical witticisms led producers to search for stories with similar qualities. They discovered Raymond Chandler Chandler, Raymond and James M. Cain Cain, James M. , two other outstanding writers of the hard-boiled school of American crime fiction. Director Billy Wilder Wilder, Billy , working closely with Raymond Chandler on the adaptation of Cain’s novel, created a film noir masterpiece with Double Indemnity (1944). Wilder went on to make many films in the same realist genre, notably The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), and James M. Cain had many of his other novels made into memorable films, including Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

The list of American films influenced by Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon is nearly endless, but no discussion of the genre can fail to highlight Raymond Chandler. After Bogart’s success as Sam Spade, the actor starred as private eye Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’s 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep
Big Sleep, The (Hawks) (1939)—albeit an adaptation that was much less faithful to the original novel than Huston’s The Maltese Falcon had been. Nonetheless, Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in these two films created a mania for private detective stories that has yet to run its course. Film noir and the hard-boiled detective film genre have influenced many filmmakers since their appearance, from Alfred Hitchcock to Jean-Luc Godard, and each subsequent generation of filmmakers has placed its own spin upon the genre, simultaneously reinventing and paying homage to the work of John Huston and his contemporaries. Maltese Falcon, The (Houston)
Film noir
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Maltese Falcon[Maltese Falcon]
Cinema;Hollywood stylistic conventions

Further Reading

  • Agee, James. Reviews and Comments. Vol. 1 in Agee on Film. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969. Agee, an admirer of John Huston and author of the screenplay for Huston’s The African Queen, writes trenchant reviews of Huston’s films and an excellent profile of Huston titled “Undirectable Director.”
  • Astor, Mary. A Life on Film. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971. Recounts this actor’s film career, which lasted from 1922 to 1964. Fully illustrated with photographs. Contains many interesting anecdotes about her experiences working with Bogart, Huston, Greenstreet, and Lorre in The Maltese Falcon and Across the Pacific (1942).
  • Benchley, Nathaniel. Humphrey Bogart. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. An insightful and frequently amusing biography of the dedicated but temperamental actor who put his indelible stamp on the role of Sam Spade and whose career skyrocketed after his appearance in The Maltese Falcon. Contains many photographs of Bogart at work and at leisure.
  • Brill, Lesley. “Theater, Identity, and Reality in The Maltese Falcon (1941).” In John Huston’s Filmmaking. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Places the film in the context of Huston’s career, his style, and his thematic concerns. Focuses on the dissimulation of characters in the film as a study of theatricality and identity. Bibliographic references, index, filmography.
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman, eds. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald: A Literary Reference. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Study of the authors who most greatly influenced the development of American film noir. Places Hammett’s work in the context both of his peers and of larger cultural developments. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” In The Simple Art of Murder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. This essay is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of crime fiction and crime films, in both of which Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were dominant figures.
  • Everson, William K. The Detective in Film. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972. This lavishly illustrated overview of detective films in the United States and Great Britain contains an outstanding description and comparison of all three film versions of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, complete with photos from all three films.
  • Long, Robert Emmet, ed. John Huston: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Collection of interviews wtih the filmmaker about his life and art. Filmography and index.
  • Luhr, William, ed. “The Maltese Falcon”: John Huston, Director. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Compilation of studies of The Maltese Falcon, from its making to its place in film noir and the greater cinematic canon. Bibliographic references.

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