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 christine@sfappeal.com.

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  • Plug1

    i have an 18-inch replica of the Maltese Falcon in my cube at work: http://twitpic.com/4476v (plug2 thinks it to be hideous, and wont let me keep it in the apartment).

  • Greg Dewar

    I remember seeing this for the first time ages ago and being surprised at the references to “burlingame” in the film…great movie, for sure…

  • hhayes

    The association of the Maltese Falcon with San Francisco isn’t so much about the movie as it is the book and its author Dashiell Hammett. More than one Hammett work was set in San Francisco, and mentioned local San Francisco establishments, it’s just that the Maltese Falcon was the most famous one by virtue of being filmed with Bogart in the lead.

    Hammett lived and worked in San Francisco (including in an apartment at the corner of Post and Hyde). He also definitely did eat at John’s Grill on more than one occasion, which makes perfect sense given that John’s is right by the Flood Building where Hammett had his office, and far from being a tourist trap has been frequented by generations of locals like Dashiell Hammett. It still is a local hangout for some folks, although tourists of course do go there (it is right by the cable car turnaround after all, and one of the few restaurants in the area that can accomodate very large groups). There are San Franciscans who have been having lunch or cocktails there regularly for decades.

    At 100 years old, John’s is an integral legacy of historical San Francisco and was an established local restaurant since well before the Maltese Falcon was written or filmed. It’s therefore inaccurate to dismiss it, as this article seems to do, as simply a tourist trap.

  • Eve Batey

    Word on “There are San Franciscans who have been having lunch or cocktails there regularly for decades.” I worked with a guy at the Chronicle who lunched there every day. I always thought that was pretty rad.

    But I also think, from just casually talking to regulars, that even they feel it’s been overrun by tourists (perhaps by proximity to so many hotels). It raises a somewhat interesting a question — what makes a place a tourist trap, is it tourists or the trap? Do we think of a place as a tourist trap because it’s got a lot of tourists in it, or because it sucks and is full of tourists? Or does a place start to suck when it’s full of tourists?

    I like John’s Grill, but more for the ambiance than the food (I’m not a meat eater so you can’t listen to me about food, though). I think that if the tourist to regular ratio shifted much more into the tourist side of things, though, I would not enjoy it nearly as much.

  • hhayes

    It depends a lot on when you go and where you sit. and by the way I think that Chron guy–or a Chron guy anyhow–still goes almost every day.

    I can see that some might feel that it’s been “taken over” by tourists, just as you might feel that the cable cars have been, or Union Square. But that doesn’t make it a tourist trap, as the article implies. Sure, when I ride the cable car 3 to 5 days a week on my way home from work it’s often full of tourists, but that doesn’t make it any less of a valid, and charming, form of regular transportation. Just because tourists want to ride them doesn’t make the cable cars into a Disney ride any more than the attraction of tourists to John’s makes it into the Hard Rock Cafe.

    And anyway, is it so terrible that people from other places want to see the places that we are lucky enough to go any time we want? I don’t begrudge them their opportunity to have some part of the experiences that I love most in my chosen city, like a drink and a steak at John’s Grill. In a way it almost makes it better to remember that I’m fortunate enough to be a regular in a place where everyone else is only lucky enough to visit once before leaving again.

    No matter how many groups of Midwesterners or Frenchmen are dining on John’s 2nd or 3rd floor, there’s still always room for a regular at the bar. And if Dashiell Hammett’s granddaughter feels like coming in with her mother for a steak, as I hear she does every once in a while, she’s not going to be deterred or displaced by the SF visitors that are discovering the place that generations of her family also enjoyed. In fact I’d venture to guess that she might be touched by the way that the establishment keeps the memory of her famous grandfather alive.

    We can agree to disagree about whether SF institutions like these are too full of tourists, but that doesn’t change my main issue with this article, which is that it wrongly implies that John’s Grill is a tourist trap and successful only because it capitalizes on the Maltese Falcon film. It’s been around and way longer than the film and would be a San Francisco institution even without the falcon.