In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a private eye detective who is lured into the chase for a bird statue by a mysterious and deceitful woman named Ruth. His objectives are to find the Maltese Falcon, and discover the murderer of two crimes: the death of his former partner, Miles Archer, and another man named Thursby. He also wishes to prove his innocence for the murder of his partner because the police have him as the prime suspect. Sam approaches these problems by using his street smarts and investigative skills to follow a trail. Many times, he uses his uncanny ability to read expressions, words, and actions to see through lies and find the truth. This is evident when “Ruth” returns to his office and Spade reveals he knew she was lying all along about her sister’s disappearance (17:10). She eventually reveals her true identity as Brigid, and Sam is able to pull so many facts out of her that normal people would overlook. The obstacles to his goal are the many forces searching for the Maltese Falcon, and how each of them vie for his services. Sam Spade encounters man vs. man conflicts throughout the movie. His first conflict is versus the two police officers—Lieutenant Dundy and Detective Polhaus—because they accuse him of murdering his partner (10:38).
Proving his innocence is one of Sam’s goals, and to do that, he pursues the Maltese Falcon because the people searching for it are somehow involved in the murder. He also encounters a man vs. man conflict with Brigid O’Shaughnessy who tells multiple lies from the story about her sister to her identity (05:07). She is manipulative, and mysterious. She is responsible for killing Spade’s partner, Archer, and she orchestrated the murder of her former partner, Thursby, to retain 100% of the Falcon’s profits. Sam has man vs. man conflict with Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo because they disagree on the value of the Falcon and the method of acquiring it. Wilmer on many occasions threatens Spade (42:50), who threatens him back. Cairo pulls a gun on him in his office (24:15) – twice—to forcefully search for the Falcon in his office. The Maltese Falcon has significant physical altercations and plenty of shouting. There is one instance of man vs. self conflict in that Sam loves Brigid, a femme fatale, but that her various lies, and her selfish nature works against the possibility of a relationship. At the end of the movie, Brigid begs Sam not to turn her into the police but he outlines in detail why their relationship would not work: she is his partner’s murderer (1:29:20). This shocking revelation cannot be overlooked because Sam states he cannot trust her.
His knowledge of the crime makes him vulnerable to being shot in the back by her if they were to be married. He does not want to “play the sap” for her. He resolves this conflict by choosing logic over emotion, and turning in Brigid to the police for the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. The female portrayal in the film was a femme fatale named Brigid O’Shaughnessy who first appears in the beginning of the movie (03:51) claiming to be searching for her sister. She appears to fit the damsel in distress archetype because of her convincing performance in the loss of her sister. However, her lies begin to unravel and it is ultimately revealed she killed Sam’s partner. Brigid is interesting in that the true extent of her malice (murder) is not revealed until the end of the movie. The audience can see she is selfish, but not evil until Sam deduces her crimes. Gender was not an issue in portraying this role. Brigid was an effective tool to confuse the protagonist and add a plot twist in the movie. She appears to be the victim many times, and deceives the audience into thinking Cairo and Gutman are the two antagonists.
However, her deception fails when Sam does not fall for her charms and all is revealed. Relationships are integral to The Maltese Falcon, specifically the one between Sam and his partner, Miles Archer and Sam and Brigid. The first relationship, Sam and Archer, is the driving force for pursuing the case. Archer is mysteriously killed by a person off-screen. Sam receives a call informing him his partner is dead (06:21) but there is a noted apathy, and lack of emotion from receiving what should be devastating news. It is not until the end of the movie (1:33:08) that Sam states: “when a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” His subdued emotions were not indicative of apathy, but rather, renewed interest and motivation to chase the Maltese Falcon. We see very little of Miles Archer, but from the repertoire between him and Sam, they speak in shorthand suggesting they are very close. The actors might have spent a lot of time together to be as comfortable in-character in the movie. Humphrey Bogart and Jerome Cowan play Sam and Miles respectively as talking quickly and casually with each other to suggest that working together is routine and that they have been partners for a long time. This is conveyed very well in the acting choices and dialogue delivery.
Sam and Brigid’s relationship is one that quickly blossoms from attraction to love. The interesting thing is that Brigid’s duplicity confuses the audience of her sincerity. The audience never knows if she really loves Sam, but despite that, Sam still struggles with doing the right thing. His choices are to turn Brigid in, or to run away with her and trying to live a happy life. Mary Astor, who plays Brigid, might have invested in this relationship by playing up the emotion in every scene which she does. The men in the movie have a very subdued attitude, but Brigid is constantly flailing, shouting, and crying. Her emotions convey passion and sincerity, even though her motives are selfish. Humphrey Bogart helped deliver the style or genre of the film in an effective way by playing Sam as fast talking and aggressive. 1940 movies seem to have very rigid gender roles and Bogart plays Sam as the brave, witty, and uber masculine Sam Spade.
Mary Astor plays the crying, flailing, helpless woman who achieves her goals through betrayal and murder. The most distinct choices in this film noir movie are the clothing and the style of talking. The clothing is noted to be all dark suits, and the way of talking is a fast paced rhythmic style that is characteristic of 1940’s movies. The Maltese Falcon is an early film noir movie that stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, a street smart private detective who is hired to find a priceless statue. In it, we see a combination of man vs. man and man vs. self conflicts that unravel throughout the mystery. Sam Spade has to fight his way through enemies and a manipulative woman to find the true murderer of his partner, and find the Maltese Falcon.