Reportedly, Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice to play Sam Spade. Producer Hal B. Wallis initially offered the role to George Raft, who rejected it because he did not want to work with an inexperienced director, choosing instead to make Manpower, opposite Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich, with director Raoul Walsh. Raft had earlier turned down the lead role in Walsh's High Sierra, the film that effectively launched Bogart's career as leading man rather than chronic supporting player, and is believed by many to have passed up the role of "Rick", the cynical hero of Casablanca. The 42-year-old Bogart was delighted to play a highly ambiguous character who is both honorable and greedy. Huston was particularly grateful that Bogart had quickly accepted the role, and the film helped to consolidate their lifelong friendship and set the stage for later collaboration on such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), and Beat the Devil (1953). Bogart's convincing interpretation became the archetype for a private detective in the film noir genre, providing him near-instant acclaim and rounding and solidifying his onscreen persona. It was The Maltese Falcon that Ingrid Bergman watched over and over again while preparing for Casablanca, in order to learn how to interact and act with Bogart.
The role of the deceitful femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy was originally offered to Geraldine Fitzgerald, but went to Mary Astor when Fitzgerald decided to appear in a stage play. Hammett remembers that the character "had two originals, one an artist, the other a woman who came to Pinkerton's San Francisco office to hire an operative to discharge her housekeeper, but neither of these women was a criminal."
The character of the sinister "Fat Man" Kasper Gutman was based on A. Maundy Gregory, an overweight British detective-turned-entrepreneur who was involved in many sophisticated endeavors and capers, including a search for a long-lost treasure not unlike the jeweled Falcon. However, the character was not easily cast, and it took some time before producer Hal Wallis solved the problem by suggesting that Huston give a screen test to Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran stage character actor who had never appeared on film before. Greenstreet, who was then 61 years old and weighed between 280 and 350 pounds, impressed Huston with his sheer size, distinctive abrasive laugh, bulbous eyes, and manner of speaking. Greenstreet went on to be typecast in later films of the 1940s such as Casablanca (1942), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), The Verdict (1946), and Three Strangers (1946).
Greenstreet's characterization had such a strong cultural impact that the "Fat Man" atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II was named after him.
The character of Joel Cairo was based on a criminal Hammett arrested for forgery in Pasco, Washington, in 1920. In Hammett's novel, the character is clearly homosexual, but to avoid problems with the censors, this was downplayed considerably, although he is still noticeably effeminate. For instance, Cairo's calling cards and handkerchiefs are scented with gardenias; he fusses about his clothes and becomes upset when blood from a scratch ruins his shirt; and he makes subtle fellating gestures with his cane during his interview with Spade. By contrast, in the novel, Cairo is referred to as "queer" and "the fairy". The film is one of many of the era that, because of the Hays Office, could only hint at homosexuality. It is mentioned by The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about how films dealt with homosexuality.
Elisha Cook, Jr., a well-known character actor, was cast by Huston as Wilmer. Wilmer gets upset when Spade refers to him as a "gunsel", meaning a young homosexual in a relationship with an older man.
Gladys George had made her mark on Broadway with her starring role in Lawrence Riley's Personal Appearance (1934) (adapted for the screen in 1936 as Go West, Young Man); this comedy's huge success had been credited in great part to her comic performance. Her role as Archer's wife thus displays her versatility.
John Hamilton appeared in a minor role as District Attorney Bryan. Ten years later he would portray Perry White in The Adventures of Superman on television.
The unbilled appearance of the character actor Walter Huston, in a small cameo role as the freighter captain who delivers the Falcon, was done as a good luck gesture for his son, John Huston, on his directorial debut. The elder Huston had to promise Jack Warner that he would not demand a dime for his little role before he was allowed to stagger into Spade's office.
During his preparation for The Maltese Falcon, first-time director John Huston planned each second of the film to the very last detail, tailoring the screenplay with instructions to himself for a shot-for-shot setup, with sketches for every scene, so filming could proceed fluently and professionally. Huston was adamant that the film keep to schedule, and that everything be methodically planned to the fullest to ensure that the film never went over budget. By providing the cast with a highly detailed script, Huston was able to let them rehearse their scenes with very little intervention.
Such was the extent and efficacy of his preparation of the script that almost no line of dialogue was eliminated in the final edit of the film. Except for some exterior night shots, Huston shot the entire film in sequence, which greatly helped his actors. The shooting went so smoothly that there was actually extra time for the cast to enjoy themselves; Huston brought Bogart, Astor, Bond, Lorre and others to the Lakeside Golf Club near the Warner lot to relax in the pool, dine, drink and talk until midnight about anything other than the film they were working on.
Huston used much of the dialogue from the original novel. The only major section of the novel which wasn't used at all in the film is the story of a man named "Flitcraft", which Spade tells to Brigid while waiting in his apartment for Cairo to show up. Huston removed all references to sex that the Hays Office had deemed to be unacceptable. Huston was also warned not to show excessive drinking. The director fought the latter, on the grounds that Spade was a man who put away a half bottle of hard liquor a day and showing him completely abstaining from alcohol would mean seriously falsifying his character.
With its low-key lighting and inventive and arresting angles, the work of Director of Photography Arthur Edeson is one of the film's great assets. Unusual camera angles—sometimes low to the ground, revealing the ceilings of rooms (a technique also used by Orson Welles and his cinematograher Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane)—are utilized to emphasize the nature of the characters and their actions. Some of the most technically striking scenes involve Gutman, especially the scene where he explains the history of the Falcon to Spade, purposely drawing out his story so that the knockout drops he has slipped into Spade's drink will take effect. Meta Wilde, Huston's longtime script supervisor, remarked of this scene:
It was an incredible camera setup. We rehearsed two days. The camera followed Greenstreet and Bogart from one room into another, then down a long hallway and finally into a living room; there the camera moved up and down in what is referred to as a boom-up and boom-down shot, then panned from left to right and back to Bogart's drunken face; the next pan shot was to Greenstreet's massive stomach from Bogart's point of view.... One miss and we had to begin all over again.
Wilde's account suggests that the entire scene was edited into the finished film as a long take—an idea that has since been corroborated by numerous film historians, including Roger Ebert, who said in his review, "Consider an astonishing unbroken seven-minute take....Was the shot just a stunt? Not at all; most viewers don't notice it because they're swept along by its flow."
However, while the scene may have been built around a complicated master shot, in fact no long takes are used in any part of the finished film. Ebert does, however, accurately review Huston's innovative choices during the scene in which Spade is drugged:
...Greenstreet chatters about the falcon while waiting for a drugged drink to knock out Bogart. Huston's strategy is crafty. Earlier, Greenstreet has set it up by making a point: "I distrust a man who says 'when.' If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does." Now he offers Bogart a drink, but Bogart doesn't sip from it. Greenstreet talks on, and tops up Bogart's glass. He still doesn't drink. Greenstreet watches him narrowly. They discuss the value of the missing black bird. Finally, Bogart drinks, and passes out. The timing is everything; Huston doesn't give us closeups of the glass to underline the possibility that it's drugged. He depends on the situation to generate the suspicion in our minds.
Very nearly as visually evocative are the scenes involving Astor, almost all of which suggest prison. In one scene she wears striped pajamas, the furniture in the room is striped, and the slivers of light coming through the Venetian blinds suggest cell bars, as do the bars on the elevator cage at the end of the film when she takes her slow ride downward with the police, apparently on her way to prison and possible execution. Huston and Edeson crafted each scene to make sure the images, action and dialog blended effectively, sometimes shooting closeups of characters with other cast members acting with them off camera.
Fred Sexton (June 3, 1907 – September 11, 1995) was an American artist and sculptor of the Maltese Falcon statuette prop for "The Maltese Falcon." During the 1930s and 1940s, Sexton was championed by Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier, and his work was acquired by Los Angeles-area art collectors including actor Edward G. Robinson and movie director John Huston. Sexton also taught art and headed the Art Students League in Los Angeles between 1949 and 1953.
In August 2013, Michele Fortier, the daughter of Fred Sexton, was interviewed on camera by UCLA Professor Vivian Sobchack, Ph.D. Fortier recounted her father’s creation of the Maltese Falcon prop model for the film, as well as visits to the film set where she interacted with actors Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, and director John Huston.
Fortier recalled that her father made “preliminary sketches” for the Maltese Falcon prop on a “manila envelope,” and then sculpted the model for the prop in clay. During visits to the film set, she remembered seeing a prop that was “shiny and black,” but “not like patent leather shoes.”
Fortier also identified initials inscribed in the right rear tail feather of a plaster Maltese Falcon prop owned by Hank Risan as her father’s. Fortier explained that she owns many of her father’s paintings and commented that many of the signatures share the same idiosyncratic characteristics.
The "Maltese Falcon" itself is said to have been based on the "Kniphausen Hawk", a ceremonial pouring vessel made in 1697 for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire. It is modeled after a hawk perched on a rock and is encrusted with red garnets, amethysts, emeralds and blue sapphires. The vessel is currently owned by the Cavendish family and is part of the collection at Chatsworth House.
Several 11.5-inch (29 cm) tall falcon props were made for the film. A metal falcon was given to William Conrad by studio chief Jack L. Warner and auctioned off in December 1994, nine months after Conrad's death, for $398,500 to Ronald Winston, president and CEO of Harry Winston, Inc. At the time, it was the highest price paid for a film prop. The prop was used to model a 10-pound gold replica displayed at the 69th Academy Awards. In early 1996, Ronald Winston announced that he sold the prop to a “mystery” buyer for an undisclosed offer "I couldn't refuse." A 45-pound metal prop known to have appeared in the film was sold at auction on November 25, 2013, for over $4 million, including the buyer's fee.
On September 24, 2010, Guernsey's auctioned a 4 lb, 5.4 oz resin falcon for $305,000 to a group of buyers that included actor Leonardo DiCaprio and billionaire Stewart Rahr, owner of pharmaceutical and generics wholesaler Kinray. The prop was discovered at a flea market in New Jersey in 1991 by Emmy-winning producer/director Ara Chekmayan.
Adam Savage, co-host of MythBusters, has gone to great lengths to create an accurate replica.
The Maltese Falcon is considered a classic example of a MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the characters of the story, but otherwise has little relevance.