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Sam Spade and Miles Archer are hired by a Miss Wonderly to follow a man, Floyd Thursby, who has allegedly run off with Wonderly's younger sister. Spade and Archer take the assignment because the money is good, but Spade implies that the woman looks like trouble.
That night, Spade receives a phone call telling him that Archer is dead. When questioned by Sgt. Polhaus about Archer's activities, Spade says that Archer was tailing Thursby, but refuses to reveal their client's identity. Later that night, Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy visit Spade and inquire about his recent whereabouts, and say that Thursby was also killed and that Spade is a suspect. They have no evidence against Spade, but tell him that they will be conducting an investigation into the matter.
The next day, Archer's wife Iva asks Spade if he killed Miles. He tells her to leave, and orders his secretary Effie Perine to remove all of Archer's belongings from the office. Visiting his client at her hotel, he learns her real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, she never had a sister, and Thursby was an acquaintance who had betrayed her.
Later, Spade is visited by Joel Cairo, who offers Spade $5,000 if he can retrieve a figurine of a black bird that has recently arrived in San Francisco. Cairo suddenly pulls a gun, declaring his intention to search Spade's office, but Spade knocks him unconscious. When O'Shaughnessy contacts Spade, he senses a connection between her and Cairo, and casually mentions that he has spoken to Cairo. O'Shaughnessy becomes nervous, and asks Spade to arrange a meeting with Cairo. Spade agrees.
When they meet at Spade's apartment, Cairo says he is ready to pay for the figurine, but O'Shaughnessy says she does not have it. They also refer to a mysterious figure, "G", of whom they seem to be scared. As the two begin to argue, Polhaus and Dundy show up, but Spade refuses to let them in. As they are about to leave, Cairo screams, and they force their way in. Spade says that Cairo and O'Shaughnessy were merely play-acting, which the officers seem to accept. But they take Cairo with them to the station. Spade tries to get more information from O'Shaughnessy, who stalls.
Spade confronts and instantly dislikes a kid named Wilmer Cook, telling him that his boss, "G," will have to deal with Spade. He later receives a call from Casper Gutman, who wishes to meet him. Gutman opens their conversation with whiskey and says he will pay handsomely for the black bird. Spade bluffs, saying he can get it, but wants to know what it is first. Gutman refuses to offer any more information than that it is of unimaginable value. Spade leaves, only to be summoned to visit Gutman again later in the day. Spade disarms Wilmer before this next meeting, where Gutman tells him that the figurine was a gift from the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain, but was lost in transit. It was covered with fine jewels, but acquired a layer of black enamel to conceal its value. Gutman had been looking for it for seventeen years. He traced it to Russian general Kemidov, and sent Cairo, Thursby, and O'Shaughnessy to retrieve it. The latter pair stole the figurine, but kept it. Spade realizes that his whiskey was drugged, and when he tries to leave, Wilmer trips him and kicks him in the head.
After Spade returns to his office, Captain Jacobi of the La Paloma arrives, drops a package on the floor, and then dies. Spade opens the package, and finds the falcon. He receives a call from O'Shaughnessy, asking for his help. He stores the item at a bus station luggage counter and mails himself the collection tag. At the dock, the La Paloma is on fire. He goes to the address O'Shaughnessy gave him, and finds a drugged girl, her stomach scratched by a pin in order to keep her awake. She gives him information about Brigid, but it is a false lead.
When he returns to his apartment, O'Shaughnessy, Wilmer, Cairo, and Gutman are waiting. Gutman gives Spade $10,000 for the bird. Spade takes the money, but says that they need a "fall guy" to take the blame for the murders. Cairo and Gutman agree to give him Wilmer. Gutman proceeds to tell Spade the rest of the story. Gutman then warns Spade not to trust O'Shaughnessy. Spade calls his secretary and asks her to pick up the figurine. She brings it to Spade's apartment, and Spade gives it to Gutman. He quickly learns that it is a fake. He realizes that the Russian must have discovered its true value and made a copy. Meanwhile, Wilmer escapes. Gutman regains his composure, and decides to continue the search. Gutman asks Spade for the $10,000. Spade keeps $1,000 for expenses. Cairo and Gutman leave.
Immediately after Cairo and Gutman leave, Spade phones Sgt. Polhaus, and tells him about Gutman and Cairo. Spade then uses the impending arrival of the police to get O'Shaughnessy to admit to and explain why she killed Archer. She says she hired Archer to scare Thursby. When Thursby did not leave, she killed Archer, to pin the crime on Thursby. When Thursby was killed, she knew that Gutman was in town, so she came back to Spade for protection. Spade says that the penalty for murder is most likely twenty years, but if they hang her, he will always remember her. O'Shaughnessy begs him not to turn her in, but he replies that he has no choice. When the police arrive, Spade turns over O'Shaughnessy. They tell Spade that Wilmer was waiting for Gutman at the hotel and killed him when he arrived.
Spade continues business as usual, though his secretary is cold to him and he must deal with Iva.