With the possible exception of The Thin Man, the novel The Maltese Falcon could well be Dashiell Hammett's most famous work. There can be little doubt that much of the novel's lasting fame is due to the enduring popularity of the 1941 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart in the role of Sam Spade. What many in the general public do not realise, although many classic film buffs do, is that the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon was not the first adaptation of the novel. In fact, it was not even the second.
For those who have neither read the novel The Maltese Falcon nor seen any of the film versions, the novel begins simply enough with detective Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer being hired to find the missing sister of a woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly. After Spade's partner Archer winds up dead the case becomes more complicated than it initially appeared. Ultimately Sam Spade finds himself involved with some very shady characters, all of whom are looking for a priceless statuette of a bird called "the Maltese Falcon".
In writing The Maltese Falcon we definitely know that Dashiell Hammett drew upon one source of inspiration and it seems likely that he drew upon another as well. In his introduction to the 1934 edition of the novel Dashiell Hammett makes it clear he was partly inspired by the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon, a yearly tribute the Knights Hospitaller made to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The tribute consisted of one falcon (an living bird instead of a statue) given to the Emperor each year on All Saints Day in return for the grant of Tripoli, Malta and Gozo to the Knights Hospitaller. It is from the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon that Mr. Hammett took the name of both the novel and the priceless statuette.
While we know that Hammett was inspired by the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon, it seems likely that another source of inspiration may have been an actual, priceless figure of a bird dating to the 17th century. The Kniphausen Hawk is a ceremonial drinking vessel made for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1697. It portrays a hawk standing atop a rock. It is covered in a large number of jewels, including amethysts, emeralds, red garnets, and blue sapphires and stands nearly one foot in height. In 1819 it was purchased by William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. The Kniphausen Hawk is still in possession of the Cavendish family, and is currently on display at their house Chatsworth.
In addition to these sources of inspiration, Dashiell Hammett also drew upon two of his earlier short stories for some of the concepts that appear in The Maltese Falcon. "The Whosis Kid" found Hammett's character The Continental Op involved with a diverse cast of criminals, a femme fatale, diamonds, and pearls. Other concepts for The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett drew from the Continental Op story "The Gutting of Couffignal". According to his introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett thought he "...might have better luck with these two failures if I combined them with the Maltese lease in a longer story."
The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask in five parts starting with its September 1929 issue. It was published as a book by Alfred A. Knopf in 1930. The Maltese Falcon proved very popular, so much so that its first screen adaptation was not long in coming. The 1931 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was directed by Roy Del Ruth, and starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly.
The Maltese Falcon (1931) followed the novel fairly closely, to the point that it included several things from the novel that later would not be allowed under the Production Code. In The Maltese Falcon (1931) it is blatant that Joel Cairo is a homosexual, just as it is in the novel. That having been said, in many other respects it departed a good deal from the novel. The film over all had a lighter tone than the book. What is more, Richard Cortez's Sam Spade seems just a bit too refined and gentlemanly to be the same character as in the book. The Maltese Falcon (1931) also differed from the novel in other ways, including the omission of a major revelation regarding Ruth Wonderly.
While one has to suspect many Dashiell Hammett fans thought The Maltese Falcon (1931) missed the mark upon its release, it was much more faithful to the novel than the second adaptation would be. Still holding the film rights, Warner Bros. decided to film another version of the novel in the mid-Thirties. Unfortunately Satan Met a Lady (1936) was a very loose adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Not only did Satan Met a Lady lack the black bird of the novel (it was changed to a ram's horn filled with precious jewels), but it didn't even have Sam Spade (the hero was private eye "Ted Shane", played by Warren William). Satan Met a Lady was not well received by critics upon its release, nor did it do very well at the box office. Even Bette Davis, the female lead of the film, hated it. She would refer to it as "one of the worst turkeys I ever made."
Of course, as classic film buffs well know, Satan Met a Lady would not be the last adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. The now famous, 1941 version was the first film directed by John Huston. Not only would it become regarded as a classic, but it would also become one of the most influential films of all time. It is often considered the film that made Humphrey Bogart a star and there are those who consider it the very first film noir. It has certainly had an impact on the detective genre ever since.
While today Sam Spade is considered one of Humphrey Bogart's signature roles, amazingly enough he was not the first actor considered for the role. Warner Bros. had cast screen heavy George Raft in the role of Sam Spade. In fact, Mr. Raft was even scheduled to report to the set as late as four days before shooting was to begin. While Warner Bros. wanted George Raft for the movie, Mr. Raft was not too keen on the idea. He did not like working with someone new to directing (John Huston) and he did not feel that The Maltese Falcon was a very important film. George Raft had a clause in his contract that allowed him to veto films that he did not think were worthy of him, and so he exercised that power on The Maltese Falcon. Warner Bros. then briefly considered Edward G. Robinson for the role before deciding upon Humphrey Bogart.
Warner Bros. had also initially wanted another actress for the role of Ruth Wonderly. Initially the studio wanted to cast Geraldine Fitzgerald, whom they had under contract, in the role. Despite this Geraldine Fitzgerald showed little interest in the film. Fortunately, Mary Astor had read the script and saw something special both in the story and in the role of Ruth Wonderly.
Over all The Maltese Falcon (1941) would be very faithful to the novel. In fact, the vast majority of dialogue in the film came straight from the novel. Most of the scenes in the novel made into the film as well, with John Huston only omitting one scene when he realised it could be handled through a phone call instead. There would be some major changes from the 1931 adaptation due to stricter enforcement of the Production Code. The sort of overt references to homosexuality in the 1931 version simply would not be allowed in the Forties. As a result homosexuality is only strongly implied in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Other references to sex from the novel also had to be removed. The Production Code Administration also wanted the consumption of alcohol to be reduced, although John Huston refused to do away with it entirely as it was central to the character of Sam Spade.
Of course, at the centre of the novel and The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the black bird itself. The statuette for the film was designed by sculptor Fred Sexton. Two "Maltese Falcon" props were made for the film, but only one actually appeared in the movie. The surviving Maltese Falcon (and the one that appeared in the film) would be sold at auction in 2013 for $4,085,000. This made it one of the most expensive pieces of film memorabilia ever sold.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) would open to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The film also performed well at the box office. What may be surprising given its current status as one of the best loved classic films of all time is that it only received three Academy Award nominations: Best Picture; Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor; and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Today The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often counted among the greatest films ever made. It is little wonder that the first two adaptations of the novel are nearly forgotten by everyone but classic film buffs and Dashiell Hammett fans. Indeed, it would seem the novel The Maltese Falcon is a prime example of how the film industry could mishandle a property twice only to finally get it right on the third try. The Maltese Falcon (1941) may have been the first adaptation of the novel, but it is by far the best and most loved. In fact, it may be be the best adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel ever made alongside The Thin Man.