Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

To straighten things out in his mind ("so I can be sure the parts that don't fit are covered up"), Spade additionally demands candid answers from Gutman about the plot information that he had missed:

Why did Wilmer shoot Thursby, and why and where and how did he shoot Captain Jacobi?

  • Brigid left the falcon with Jacobi in Hong Kong and came to San Francisco with Thursby. Thursby was Miss O'Shaughnessy's loyal ally - so eliminating Thursby would be an intimidating show of force for Brigid and persuade her to ally with them: "We believe that disposing of him in the manner we did would cause Miss O'Shaughnessy to stop and think that perhaps it would be best to patch up her differences with us regarding the Falcon." Gutman had tried to "make a deal" with Thursby before "giving him the works" [Wilmer was ordered to kill him]. Gutman reveals that he spoke to Thursby the very night of his death, but failed to reach an agreement: "I could do nothing with him - he was quite determined to be loyal to Miss O'Shaughnessy. So Wilmer followed him back to the hotel and did what he did."

    [This fact contradicts what Brigid had said about being betrayed by Thursby, and it places Thursby away from the Archer murder scene, thus placing the guilt for Archer's murder upon Brigid herself. She appears anxious during these revelations.]

  • Captain Jacobi's death was "entirely Miss O'Shaughnessy's fault," according to Gutman. After Cairo had run into a string of bad luck with Spade, he "recognized the mutual advantage of pooling forces" and "with nice judgment" allied himself back with Gutman. Brigid (and Thursby) deceived Gutman and Cairo in Istanbul, Turkey. She fled with him from Turkey to Hong Kong (and then to the US) - trailed by everyone. Cairo read the docking notice in the newspaper about La Paloma. He surmised that the Captain would be delivering the falcon to Brigid when the ship from Hong Kong arrived. Cairo had also remembered that he heard in Hong Kong that Brigid and Jacobi were seen together: "She had given the bird to Jacobi to bring here for her."

  • Spade was 'slipped a mickey' to keep him out of the way, so Gutman and Cairo could surprise Jacobi and Brigid at the dock - "to spare ourselves any possible embarrassment." Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer found Captain Jacobi with Brigid on the ship. She agreed to give up the black bird for a price at Gutman's hotel, but she never arrived, as promised: "In many ways, the conference was difficult, but we finally persuaded Miss O'Shaughnessy to come to terms, or so we thought. We then left the boat and set out for my hotel where I was to pay Miss O'Shaughnessy and receive the bird...Enroute, she, Captain Jacobi and the falcon slipped completely through our fingers. It was neatly done, sir. Indeed it was."

  • Wilmer, while trying to find the falcon on board the boat, was the one who ineptly set the fire on La Paloma: "No doubt, he was careless with matches."

  • Cairo and Gutman caught up with Captain Jacobi and Brigid at her apartment, with Wilmer covering the fire escape. As the Captain (carrying the falcon) attempted to elude them in flight down the fire escape, Wilmer shot him, but the rugged sea captain still made his escape: "While she was asking us who we were through the door and we were telling her, we heard a window go up. Wilmer shot Jacobi as he was coming down the fire escape. Shot him more than once. Jacobi was too tough to fall or drop the falcon. He climbed down the rest of the way, knocked Wilmer over, and ran off."

  • Under harsh questioning, Brigid was "persuaded" to tell them where she had told Jacobi to take the falcon - to Spade's office. She was further "persuaded" to try and lure Spade away from his office to Burlingame with a distressed phone call - before Captain Jacobi arrived. But the call was late in coming and the bird was already delivered into Spade's hands: "You had the falcon before we could reach it." The gang then reconvened in Spade's apartment to await his arrival, while Brigid hid in the shadows outside.

After Wilmer regains consciousness before being sacrificed as the 'fall guy,' Gutman fondly tells him:

Well, Wilmer, I'm sorry indeed to lose you, but I want you to know I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. Well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese falcon. When you're young, you simply don't understand these things.

When Brigid leaves the room to make coffee, Gutman requires that she hand over the money envelope with $10,000: "Business should be transacted in a business-like manner." Gutman examines the envelope, finding only nine bills instead of ten. He accuses Brigid of taking one of the bills and for once, she honestly denies having done so. After considering the accusation for a moment, Spade knows she didn't take the money - he suspects Gutman of deceptively palming one of the thousand dollar bills. Gutman is forced to turn over the bill - he merrily laughs and jokes about it as an example of gamesmanship.

Spade: You palmed it!
Gutman: Yes sir, that I did. I must have my little joke now and then. And I was curious to know what you'd do in a situation of this sort. I must say, you passed the test with flying colors.

Spade receives the envelope with $10,000 - the first installment of payment. The Fat Man advises that Spade be untrusting of Brigid and not give her much of the money ("...don't give her as much as she thinks she ought to have...Be careful."). But Spade won't let Gutman feel superior to Brigid's deceptive nature. He asks, rhetorically: "Dangerous?" Spade calls Effie with "the plot" - he asks her to get the claim check in an envelope at the post office and pick up the "bundle" and bring it to him at his apartment.

The next morning, Effie delivers the Falcon and it is placed on a table in front of the conspirators. The bundle is feverishly unwrapped by Gutman - he speaks a final word before disclosing its contents: "Now, after seventeen years..." Gutman stands the statue up, turns it slowly, and strokes and caresses it with lascivious lust. The others salivate at the sight of the valuable, ebony statuette. To "make sure" it is genuine, he repeatedly and frantically scrapes and hacks at the leaden bird with his penknife, marking it and peeling back layers - horribly realizing that its surface can be scarred and that the coated bird doesn't contain jewels. In total frustration, he declares memorably that it is a leaden forgery:

Fake! It's a phony! It-it's lead! It's lead! It's a fake!

Everyone is disappointed - Spade blames Brigid, but she denies substituting the bird, insisting that it is the bird she got from the Russian general Kemidov. In an eruptive, hysterical, almost tearful outburst, Cairo rages at fellow crook Gutman for being tricked and for finding a fraudulent, counterfeit black statuette. Cairo blames him for his earlier attempt to buy it - a purchase that revealed its real value to others:

You, it's you who bungled it, you and your stupid attempt to buy it. Kemidov found out how valuable it was. No wonder we had such an easy time stealing it. You, you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead!

Cairo collapses into an arm chair, blubbering and whimpering. Gutman rubs his fat, sweaty neck.

Recomposing himself and accepting another failed attempt, Gutman vows to continue his pursuit of the real bird that is still in Russian hands: "Well sir, what do you suggest? We stand here and shed tears and call each other names, or shall we go to Istanbul?" Gutman prepares to leave with Cairo, instantly his companion again, to continue their quest for the real falcon. They decide to spend yet another year on its trail by going to Istanbul ("We must spend another year on the quest. Well sir, it will be an additional expenditure in time of only five and fifteen-seventeenths per cent"). In the confusion, they realize that Wilmer has escaped from the apartment. Spade guffaws: "A swell lot of thieves."

Gutman holds a gun on Spade and demands the return of his $10,000 in the envelope. Spade cooperates, but calmly keeps $1,000 of the money for his "time and expenses." Gutman attempts to coax the detective and procure his assistance on a trip to Istanbul to continue the search:

Quite frankly sir, I'd like to have you along. You're a man of nice judgment and many resources.

When he is turned down, Gutman expresses magnanimity in defeat, and his regrets to Spade that there isn't going to be any fall guy. He leaves the falcon on the table as a momento - bequeathed to Brigid.

I leave the rara avis on the table there, as a little momento - heh, heh.

The overweight Gutman waddles out the door with his familiar penguin-like, waistcoated torso jutting forth - he leaves with fellow crook Cairo.

After they have left, Spade phones Sgt. Tom Polhaus and reports them - the police are to pick up Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer on their way to the Alexandria Hotel before they "blow town." (The Sergeant is told that Wilmer, ordered by Gutman, killed both Thursby and Captain Jacobi as part of his obsessive quest for the Maltese Falcon. Polhaus is also cautioned about the reckless gunsel: "And watch yourself when you go up against the kid.")

Sam is left with one final loose end - the deceitful, ruthless, and amoral Brigid. He turns to her after the call and urgently tells her that Gutman will talk once he is apprehended - and they will both be implicated: "They'll talk when they're nailed about us. We're sitting on dynamite. We've only got minutes to get set for the police." Spade has it all figured out - and convinces her to talk and lead him toward the real truth. In the climactic confrontation with Brigid, he pushes mercilessly for a confession of murder from her, expressing his over-riding motive for self-protection and preservation. If she confesses the truth, then he is released from the gallow's rope. Brigid admits her crime - she killed Miles as he suspected:

Spade: Now give me all of it fast. When you first came to my office, why did you want Thursby shadowed?
Brigid: I told you, Sam. I thought he was betraying me and I wanted to find out.
Spade: That's a lie...You wanted to get rid of him before Jacobi came with the loot so you wouldn't have to split it with him. Isn't that so? What was your scheme?
Brigid: I thought if he knew someone was following him, he'd be frightened into going away.
Spade: Miles wasn't clumsy enough to be spotted the first night. You told Thursby he was being followed.
Brigid: I told him. I told him. Yes, but please believe me, Sam. I wouldn't have told him if I thought Floyd would kill him.
Spade: If you thought he wouldn't kill Miles, you were right, angel. Miles hadn't many brains but he'd had too many years experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing up a blind alley with his gun in his hip and his overcoat buttoned. But he'd have gone up there with you, angel. He was just dumb enough for that! He would have looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone, grinning from ear to ear. And then you could have stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with a gun you got from Thursby that evening.
Spade (impatiently): The police will be here any minute. Now talk!
Brigid: Oh, why do you accuse me?
Spade: This isn't the time for that school girl act. We're both of us sitting under the gallows. Now, why did you shoot Miles?
Brigid: I didn't mean to at first. Really, I didn't. But when I found out that Floyd couldn't be frightened, I...oh, I can't look at you and tell you this... (hiding her head in her hands)
Spade: You thought Thursby would tackle Miles, and one or the other of them would go down. If Thursby was killed, you were rid of him. If it was Miles, you'd see that Thursby was caught and set up for it, isn't that right?
Brigid (sobbing): Something like that.
Spade: When you found that Thursby wasn't going to tackle him, you borrowed his gun and did it yourself, right? And when you heard Thursby was shot, you knew Gutman was in town, and you knew you needed another protector, somebody to fill Thursby's boots. So you came back to me.
Brigid: Yes. But oh, sweetheart. It wasn't only that. I'd have come back to you sooner or later. From the very first instant I saw you, I knew...

[He learns that she hired them as detectives and then told Thursby that he was being followed. She had hoped that Thursby would kill - or be killed - by Archer. She had, it seems, intended the murder of Archer to be pinned on Thursby, her partner, so that she wouldn't have to split the booty with him once Jacobi docked on La Paloma. However, Thursby wouldn't abide by her plan to commit violence, so she murdered Spade's partner Archer herself. She borrowed Thursby's gun and lured Archer to his death - in order to incriminate and implicate her accomplice Floyd Thursby. And then, when Thursby was murdered shortly thereafter, she understood that Gutman and Cairo were on her trail again, and she turned to Spade to be her new "protector."]

To save herself, Brigid attempts to throw herself at Spade once again, hoping that he will continue to protect her and conceal her crime. With a fluttery, bogus innocence, she wildly professes the existence of her love for him and begs him not to turn her in. Relishing her fear, he coldly and flatly tells her:

Well, if you get a good break, you'll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck...Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.

At first, Brigid thinks his threat to turn her over to the police is only for dramatic effect. She responds by accusing him of playing with her and tries to laugh away the threat: "Don't, Sam. Don't say it even in fun. Ha, ha, ha. Oh, I was frightened for a minute. I really thought...You do such wild and unpredictable things." Almost hateful of her, Spade tells her that he is resolved:

Spade: Don't be silly. You're taking the fall.
Brigid: You've been playing with me. Just pretending you care to trap me like this. You didn't care at all. You don't love me!
Spade: I won't play the sap for you!
Brigid: Oh you know it's not like that. You can't say that.
Spade: Do you ever fight square with me for half an hour at a stretch since I've known you?
Brigid: You know down deep in your heart and in spite of anything I've done I love you.
Spade: I don't care who loves who!! I won't play the sap for you. I won't walk in Thursby's - and I don't know how many other's - footsteps. You killed Miles and you're going over for it.
Brigid: How can you do this to me, Sam? Surely, Mr. Archer wasn't so much to you as... (crying)

Brigid is stunned by the realization that Spade is going to turn her into the police for Miles' murder. Even though he loves her, Spade resolutely describes his professional integrity and his committed belief to adhere to a strict code of honor among detectives. It is to his own self-motivated, self-protective advantage ('good business') to discourage the murder of fellow detectives - it protects his own life and business. This explains why he is turning her in. [Spade, however, is giving lip service to the code. He cares nothing about avenging her victim or the illegality of her act. And he conducted a casual affair with his partner's wife!]:

Spade: When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's - it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere.
Brigid: You don't expect me to think that these things you're saying are sufficient reasons for sending me to the...
Spade (interrupting): Wait'll I'm through. Then you can talk.

At a crossroads, he discusses how he weighed the pros and cons of both alternatives, ultimately deciding to turn her in and let her take the fall. After weighing all the reasons for turning her in or risking letting her go, Spade admits that he can't completely deny his love for her. But the main factor that makes it impossible to turn his back on Miles' murder (and let her go) is that he distrusts her treachery and murderous, lying nature - he is not sure that someday she might kill him, playing him as the sucker:

I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you, and, if I do this and get away with it, you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me some day. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant - I won't argue about that - but look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.

Although he feels emotionally involved with her, Spade denies his feelings and refuses to let himself love Brigid, because he admits that her manipulative nature dangerously outweighs the possibilities of mutual love. It is too great a risk for him. In the end, he shows Brigid the same disdain that he maintained toward Archer's widow:

Brigid: You know whether you love me or not.
Spade: Maybe I do. Well, I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over, but that will pass. If all I've said doesn't mean anything to you, then forget it and we'll make it just this: I won't because all of me wants to, regardless of consequences, and because you counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with all the others.

Too late, Brigid learns that Spade is not as crooked as people suppose him to be, although people talk that way simply because it is good for business. She insinuates that his determination to put her away might have been different if the falcon had been real and he had been handsomely paid: "Would you have done this to me if the falcon had been real, and you'd got your money?" Uncertain about the criminal temptations facing him, Spade retorts that a lot more money may have tipped the scales in Brigid's favor:

Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy, but a lot more money would have been one more item on your side of the scale.

Brigid maintains that love could never be outweighed by the factors he has outlined: "If you'd loved me, you wouldn't have needed any more on that side." She offers him one last kiss.

After all her timid, transparent, agonized protests, the police arrive after apprehending the departing crooks, and Brigid is handed over to the cops for the murder of Miles Archer. To divest himself of all the evil antagonists and their environment, Spade also hands over to the police Wilmer's gun, the $1,000 bill given him by Gutman (lying to Polhaus that he was bribed with it in exchange for his silence: "the thousand dollars I was supposed to be bribed with"), and the fatal black bird - "this black statuette here that all the fuss was about."

The cold-hearted, tough Spade has slickly and skillfully manipulated all the major characters in the film, descended into the netherworld of crime and decadence (suspected as being indistinguishable from that world by the police), flirted with the evil inherent in the guise of an attractive woman (that he has affectionately called Angel and Precious), and slipped away from evil's grasp at the last moment by refusing to identify with the group of accomplices - all because of his self-protective instincts and commitment to protecting society.

Brigid is escorted out the door and led away to the hallway's elevator by Dundy. The lieutenant openly appears frustrated and disappointed ("broken-hearted") that Spade is not among the guilty (i.e., that he didn't kill Archer or Thursby). Spade asks: "Well, shall we be getting down to the hall?"

Police Sergeant Polhaus delivers one of the film's final lines when he looks down at the heavy black bogus statuette and lifts it up as they are leaving the room: "It's heavy. What is it?" Spade responds grimly while touching the bird [paraphrasing from Prospero's speech in Act IV of Shakespeare's The Tempest]:

The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.

The actual final word of the film is the sergeant's puzzled response, "Huh?" Spade takes the statuette from Polhaus' hands, cradles it, and walks to the stairs in the hall.

In a memorable parting close-up, Brigid is tearfully being taken away next to Dundy, and waiting in the elevator for the gates to close. The steel cage is pulled in front of her like the bars on a captive's cell, framing her frightened, motionless, lonely face staring fixedly between the bars of the gate. The outer door shuts (paralleling the closing of a theatre's curtains at the conclusion of a performance) and the elevator drops from view - she disappears down the elevator shaft. Spade walks off-stage by taking the stairs with Polhaus.

The case is closed.

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