The Maltese Falcon (1941) doesn’t say much about San Francisco, and no, that’s not a cop out. Like Vertigo and Bullitt, this film makes an argument against using popular classics in a column like this. I’m almost afraid to take on Dirty Harry, lest I have nothing worthwhile to say about it. Rather than reveal social truths about San Francisco, these popular film classics become too much a part of the city’s collective history. Quite simply, there is too much time for saturation between their releases and the present day. Not to mention a universal cultural influence.
I could try to ramble on about the gay characters director John Huston tried to get past the censors. San Francisco attracts gay degenerates! And by gads, is that Peter Lorre imitating fellatio on his cane? (Yes, yes it is.)
In case you are a gay degenerate yourself and spend most of your time re-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Maltese Falcon is an iconic film noir. Humphrey Bogart plays the cold, ladies’ man private eye Sam Spade. Mary Astor is the femme fatale. Spade gets caught in a web of criminals while on a mission to find/steal back this unassuming, invaluable falcon statue thing. The 1941 film is a surprisingly close adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel.
More than 60 years later, it’s difficult to draw the line between where The Maltese Falcon ends and San Francisco begins. At least you could pinpoint a blip in the circle: John’s Grill. For $30.95, you can order Sam Spade’s lamb chops, served with a baked potato and sliced tomatoes. Allegedly, Hammett enjoyed a good meal or many at John’s Grill when he lived in San Francisco, working as a detective and writing his books. In the novel at hand, he paid homage to the restaurant:
Sam Spade went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, sliced tomatoes…and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee
So John’s Grill has returned the favor…and banks on this notoriety.
Though you could take a themed tour for a third of the cost, John’s Grill is clearly the place to be. It even has its own black falcon. Which also gets stolen from time to time.
While filming the movie, Bogart dropped the falcon prop (and visibly dented it), but the restaurant’s new statuette isn’t going anywhere. Not only does the bird sit in a reinforced display case, but a video camera also watches over the 150-pound block of bronze. Now why didn’t those crooks think of that?
For years, the falcon roosted on the restaurant’s second story. In the film, though, the prized treasure hardly has any screen time. For San Francisco and for a local restaurant that can capitalize on a classic film, the Maltese falcon is nothing more than an icon of greater notoriety. It’s a novelty, a claim to fame, a counterfeit. It has no inherent purpose other than luring unsuspecting people into the worst deception of all: the tourist trap.
The Maltese Falcon is available on iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon.
Starring San Francisco is Appeal events editor, Christine Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a locally set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at firstname.lastname@example.org.