The Maltese Falcon (1941 Film)

The Maltese Falcon (1941 Film) Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What does Sam have to choose between at the end of the film?

    At the end of the film, Sam must choose between his romantic affections for Brigid, and his sense of duty, which include his desire to do "good business" and honor the death of his partner, in order to do well by detectives everywhere. He must choose between his feelings and his principles. It is not much of a choice, however, as he confidently tells Brigid he plans to turn her in. He only waivers when she accuses him of betraying her trust, at which point he tells her he simply cannot trust her, and that he must stand firmly by his principles and by his duty to his job as a detective. When Brigid asks him if their love meant nothing, Sam snaps at her, "I don't care who loves who. I won’t play the sap. I won’t walk in Thursby’s and I don’t know how many other’s footsteps." While Sam eventually admits that his turning in Brigid will make him feel sad for a few days, his principles are more important.

  2. 2

    How are information and sex conflated in the film?

    Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the classic femme fatale, is an enticing woman to Sam and Miles from the start. She is the quintessential femme fatale, a woman whose beauty and seductive powers lure men into complicated and often shady territory. She is a self-professed liar, but Sam cannot help falling for her, abruptly kissing her when she refuses to give him any information about her situation. In addition to possessing a seductive allure, Brigid has a great deal of information that would benefit Sam's ability to solve the case. She has the power to reveal information about Gutman's identity, about the nature of the Maltese Falcon, and, most dramatically, about the death of Sam's partner Miles. However, she withholds this information, all the while encouraging Sam to love and trust her. Thus, we see that the "confidence" that Sam so longs for from Brigid is both a desire for the information to which she has access, as well as a desire to be able to trust her, and by extension, love her without reservation. If Brigid would only tell Sam about what she's running from or what's going on in her life, he would trust her enough to help her, but he cannot. The quality which makes Sam stay and continue to give her a chance is Brigid's beauty and his undeniable attraction to her; that is, sex. In a rather complicated moment, Sam kisses Brigid, just after asking her what she can offer him besides money, perhaps in hopes that sex will entice her to be more forthcoming with him. Sex, in the world of film noir, is a currency and a form of power, which can be withheld and used strategically, just like information.

  3. 3

    What are some of the traits that make Gutman and his cohort so villainous?

    Many of the things that make Gutman and Co. so villainous are the fact that they appear so unassuming and eccentric. Neither Gutman, Cairo, Brigid, or Wilmer are imposing- or scary-looking people. Gutman is rotund and jolly, Cairo is effeminate and unusual, Brigid is demure and beautiful, and Wilmer looks like a child holding a toy gun. When these seemingly unthreatening characters reveal the evil lengths to which they will go to achieve their aims, the revelation is all the more terrifying. When Cairo pulls a gun on Sam, it is terrifying precisely because he had seemed like such a harmless and weird fellow. The image of Cairo with a gun is uncanny. Similarly, when Gutman gives Sam a drugged drink after having played the consummate host, the evil of his deed is all the more jarring. The contrast between their temperaments and evil-ness is what is so off-putting about Gutman and his gang.

  4. 4

    Is Sam Spade an ethical protagonist? Why or why not?

    Sam Spade acts in accordance with his sense of duty. He never does anything he thinks is wrong, but he is willing to be deceitful and to put on airs of being crooked or corruptible in order to get what he wants. When Brigid confronts him about his plan to betray her by handing her in to the police, the viewer sees her point—how can he profess to love her and still turn her in?—but this betrayal is only a betrayal of his emotions, and his turning her in is actually the right thing to do, given that she murdered Miles. Sam does not go about solving mysteries with the same plodding pace of the police force. Rather, he distinguishes himself as a private detective by getting fully embroiled in the dealings of his enemies, in order to capture them. As such, he must lie and deceive, but his deceptions are all in the service of solving crime. Sam can aptly be described as an anti-hero, a man who is certainly not perfect, and who does not exhibit traditionally heroic traits, but who gets the job done, and ultimately, does the right thing. The anti-hero is a common protagonist of noir.

  5. 5

    What are some of the defining features of film noir?

    Film noir is defined by the central mystery of the plot, a crime story that often contains many twists and turns. Indeed, mystery and the unknown abound in film noir, not just in the concrete elements of the narrative, but also in its tone and other formal qualities. In noir, danger lurks in the shadows, it's a dog-eat-dog world with every man for himself, and nothing is quite as it seems. Archetypal figures of noir include the anti-hero, a flawed protagonist who does what he needs to solve the mystery, the femme fatale, a mysterious, alluring, but deceptive woman who leads the man into danger, and usually a threatening band of villains. The film noir of this era was typically shot in black and white, took on a highly stylized aesthetic, and usually had an ultimately cynical outlook or perspective on human nature.