The Maltese Falcon - From Malta to Hollywood

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short article about how the Maltese Falcon flew to Hollywood and became famous - The bird - The Novel - The films history

Submitted: September 04, 2015

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Submitted: September 04, 2015





The Malta - Hollywood Connection


The bird

The Peregrine falcon, (Lat. Falco peregrinus brookei), or the Mediterranean Peregrine Falcon, is a bird of prey. It happens to be the fastest bird (and animal) on earth because it can reach a speed of up to 320 km/h (200 mph) in a stoop. It is a large, crow-sized falcon, with a blue-gray back, barred white under-parts, and a black head. It is indeed the world's most widespread bird of prey. Its diet consists almost exclusively of small to medium-sized birds, although occasionally this falcon also hunts small mammals, small reptiles or even insects.


The Peregrine Falcon in Maltese history

In mediaeval times Malta was a well known hunting ground where to capture birds of prey such as the falcon. Agents of the King of Sicily used to travel from Palermo to Malta to buy birds of prey such as the Peregrine Falcon (known in Maltese as il-bies), to take back with them to the Court. There were indeed even official representatives appointed in Malta who on behalf of the King of Sicily e.g. Frederick II, were meant to monitor and ensure that the birds of prey were bred in abundance and trained to catch birds so that these would become worthy pets for the royal family and other lords to practice their hobby of falconry.

According to the history books, when Malta was ceded by Emperor Charles V of Spain to the Order of the Knights of St. John, the Peregrine Falcon became the symbolic gift that sealed the pact that recognised the Order as the legitimate tenant of the small Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo.


The Novel

The novel The Maltese Falcon was written by Dushiell Hammet in 1929, first in a serialised form, in Black Mask Magazine as pulp fiction. Then it was turned into a book novel in 1930. The story recounts the adventures of a private eye, Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer who are hired into service by a woman who calls herself Miss Wonderly, to follow a man, Floyd Thursby, who has allegedly run off with her underage sister.

Later in the story, Spade is visited by a man, Joel Cairo, who offers Spade $5,000 if the detective can retrieve a figurine of a black bird that has recently arrived in San Francisco.

As the story unfolds, a certain Gutman tells Spade that the figurine was originally a gift from the island of Malta to the King of Spain, a few hundred years ago, but was lost on ship in transit. It was covered with fine jewels, but acquired a layer of black enamel at some time to conceal its value that was estimated to be worth millions. Here the novel parts way from the historical reality and drifts into poetic licence. The Order of St. John's gift to the Emperor Charles was never a bejewelled falcon statue but a real peregrine falcon. The author informs us that the statue falcon was covered in a layer of paint to hide its precious decorative jewels.  This implies that the author must have also read a bit about the historic moment when the Order was expelled from the Maltese Islands in 1798 by Napoleon. Many history books claim that in order for the Order not to loose the silver gate they that closed the Chapel of the Sacred Sacrament inside St John's church, to the pillaging French troops, they had the gate painted in black paint as a way to hide its precious worth.

Gutman learned of the statue's whereabouts seventeen years before, and has been looking for it ever since. He traces it to the home of the Russian general Kemidov, then sends three of his agents, Cairo, Thursby and Wonderly (the latter now adopts the name O'Shaughnessy) to retrieve it. It was Thursby and Wonderly who supposedly did steal the figurine, but learned of its value and decided to keep it for themselves. The novel is full of deceitful characters.

One day an injured man, identified as Captain Jacobi of the ship La Paloma, shows up at Spade's office; he drops a package on the floor and then dies from his gunshot wounds. Spade opens the package, and finds the figurine falcon. This figurine is eventually turned to the police.


The films

The novel was soon turned into a film in 1931 and was directed by Roy Del Ruth. It stars Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels in the role of Ruth Wonderly/ Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

The title of the film is inspired by a supposedly bejewelled statue representing the Peregrine Falcon.  The film is sometimes shown under the title Dangerous Female to avoid confusion with the third version of the film.

The film was soon to be remade but provided with a different title, as Satan Met a Lady (1936). This version was directed by William Dieterle and starred Warren William and rising star Bette Davis as the femme fatale.  However, the falcon statuette was not included in the film. Instead it was replaced by a ram's horn.

In 1941, Warner Bros. produced the third version of the crime novel, again under the title of The Maltese Falcon. This time it had as its director John Huston, the movie stars Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade and Mary Astor as his femme fatale client. The film was Huston's directorial debut and was nominated for three Academy Awards. This is also the first film to be considered as dark or 'noir'.




Martin Morana 

7th September 2015 ©


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