Following a September 1941 preview, Variety called it "one of the best examples of actionful and suspenseful melodramatic story telling in cinematic form":
Unfolding a most intriguing and entertaining murder mystery, picture displays outstanding excellence in writing, direction, acting and editing—combining in overall as a prize package of entertainment for widest audience appeal. Due for hefty grosses in all runs, it's textured with ingredients presaging numerous holdovers in the keys—and strong word-of-mouth will make the b.o. wickets spin.
Upon its release, Bosley Crowther called it "the best mystery thriller of the year", saying "young Mr. Huston gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field"; according to Crowther, "the trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school—a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos."
The film received three nominations at the 14th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor, and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay.
As a result of the film's success, Warner Brothers immediately made plans to produce a sequel entitled The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, which Huston was to direct in early 1942. However, due to Huston's high demand as a director and unavailability of the major cast members, the sequel was never made.
In 1989, The Maltese Falcon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going in the first year of voting. Roger Ebert added it to his "Great Movies" list.
American Film Institute recognition
- 1998 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies – No. 23
- 2001 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills – No. 26
- 2003 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains:
- Kasper Gutman – Nominated Villain
- Brigid O'Shaughnessy – Nominated Villain
- 2005 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes:
- "The stuff that dreams are made of." – No. 14. The expression is based on Act 4 of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, wherein Prospero says, "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on".
- "You're good, you're very good." – Nominated
- 2007 – AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – No. 31
- 2008 – AFI's 10 Top 10 – No. 6 Mystery Film