The Maltese Falcon is a film noir detective tale about Sam Spade, a private eye, who becomes involved in a grand scheme surrounding a priceless statue. His partner is killed working a case for a mysterious and beautiful femme fatale. He takes over and finds that no one is honest in their pursuits.
Spade is a blue-collar, everyman character. He is handsome and hyper-masculine, displaying the ideal for any man in the 30s and 40s. In the film, Spade’s character is the protagonist, illustrating what American society valued and trusted during the time period. Many of his actions, namely how he treats women, seem appalling by modern standards, yet most audiences are quick to write off his behavior as a product of the times. The time period and its societal expectations do not justify Spade’s behavior, but do reflect the struggles faced by anyone who did not fit into the Anglo-American white male category.
The women in the film are either hyper-sexualized or desexualized entirely. Iva is nothing but a sex object for Spade when she’s not being a nuisance. Brigid’s independence and strength are compromised when Spade seduces her. In the end, her freedom relies entirely on Spade’s decision to turn her into the police or let her go free. He strips her of her power by sleeping with her. Effie, Spade’s secretary, is the most empowered of the three women as she has a job and is not subject to the sexual advances of the man she works for, but she is juvenilized by Spade as he refers to her with childish pet names and does not inform her of the details of the case. Spade treats women dismissively. Even Effie, whom he trusts and values more than Brigid or Iva. When Effie offers her insight on the murder of Spade’s partner, he laughs and patronizes her efforts.
Spade also demeans the other men in the film. Much of the distrust and degradation are born out of a xenophobic attitude. The two police officers, Dundy and Polhaus, both have very ethnic names (Dundy being Scottish and Polhaus German). They are treated as incompetent and foolish by Spade as he never cooperates with them. The two villainous male characters, Cairo and Gutman, are both vaguely foreign and are also portrayed as very effeminate. Cairo dresses delicately and Gutman never engages in a physical altercation with Spade, electing instead to drug him in order to incapacitate him. Spade distrusts both men immediately. Throughout the film he uses his own brute masculine force to defeat or intimidate both Cairo and Gutman.
Spade is the poster boy for the American society of the late 1930s that was wary of the empowerment and enfranchisement of women and minorities, as well as the great influx of immigrants, all of which threatened the power the white male patriarchy had established in American politics, the job market, and the media.