Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, smooth private detective and “a chap worth knowing”
San Francisco, Spring 1941
Film: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly (credited for gowns)
Now considered a seminal film noir, The Maltese Falcon celebrated its 80th anniversary last month. Dashiell Hammett’s excellent 1930 detective novel had already been adapted twice for the screen—once as a “lewd” pre-Code thriller and recycled as a zanier mid-’30s vehicle for Bette Davis—before Warner Bros. finally got it right.
The Maltese Falcon was the directorial debut for John Huston, who had faithfully adapted Hammett’s source material for his sharp script and demonstrated his sense of methodical efficiency, resulting in a masterpiece that benefited from the formula of director of photography Arthur Edelson’s low-key cinematography and a perfect cast led by Humphrey Bogart as the wisecracking gumshoe who “don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
…and trouble indeed finds Sam Spade in the form of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a.k.a. Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), followed by curious cohorts like the corpulent and corrupt Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and the weaselly gunsel Elmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), all newly arrived in the City by the Bay in search of “uh, the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready, don’t you?
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?
The Maltese Falcon was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, in addition to nominations for Huston’s screenplay and supporting actor Greenstreet, who was 61 when he made his screen debut as Kaspar Gutman. In addition to launching the careers of nearly all involved, The Maltese Falcon also established many film noir archetypes, such as shadowy cinematography, snappy and innuendo-laden dialogue, and characters like the alluring femme fatale and the cynical private eye.
What’d He Wear?
In Bogart, their definitive biography of the actor, A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax address his wardrobe in The Maltese Falcon:
Bogart’s wardrobe—provided, unlike Astor’s and Greenstreet’s, by the actor himself—did not vary all that much from his earlier films. Nostalgic recollection to the contrary, Bogart’s detective did not wear a trench coat wrapped about him like a latter-day crusader’s cape; that came a year later, in Casablanca. Instead, he wore the double-breasted pinstripe suit—wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped—that was his virtual trademark and, for a change of pace, a gray single-breasted number. For the economy-minded actor, it meant a bit more mileage from his working wardrobe. Visually, this echo from past films connected Sam Spade to the long line of Bogart killers and added to his aura of moral ambiguity.
The Chalkstripe Double-Breasted Suit
“Prior to World War II, single- and double-breasted suits sold in almost equal numbers,” wrote Alan Flusser in Dressing the Man, adding that the double-breasted suit was “the driving force behind tailored menswear in the twenties and thirties.” Indeed, the interwar era has been oft described as the “golden age” of menswear, a period of such sartorial sophistication that every other suit one encountered could theoretically be an elegantly tailored double-breasted piece.
Adapted from the world of Dashiell Hammett and his irregularly shaped characters like the massive Kaspar Guttman (Sydney Greenstreet) or the diminutive Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), The Maltese Falcon may not be the most refined cinematic example from this era, but Humphrey Bogart’s suit from Sam Spade’s first scene remains what I consider to be an exemplar of double-breasted tailoring.
When we meet Spade, he’s dressed in a dark chalkstripe flannel double-breasted suit that resembles Bogart’s wardrobe in many of his prominent movies across the decade, like The Roaring Twenties (1939), Across the Pacific (1942), Conflict (1945), and The Big Sleep (1946), to name a few. Given that this was an era where actors—particularly bigger stars—often wore their own clothing on screen, it’s safe to say that this style was clearly a Bogie favorite, which makes it all the more fitting that this was his attire for the introduction of what would be a star-making role.
The true color of Sam’s first suit is lost to history, though it’s likely a blue, charcoal-gray, or earthy olive or brown in keeping with American business dress conventions of the era. The suit is made from a woolen flannel, which—combined with the full wrap of the double-breasted jacket—would make the two-piece suit effectively warm for a San Francisco spring day.
The double-breasted jacket has sharp peak lapels that direct the eye to the padded shoulders and roped sleeveheads, all wide enough to build up Bogart’s lean frame without entering the exaggerated breadth of the “Bold Look” that would emerge later in the decade after World War II.
Spade’s double-breasted suit jacket follows the classic 6×2-button configuration, with a vestigial top row of two widely spaced buttons above two parallel rows of two buttons each, both functional and both typically worn fastened. The welted breast pocket gently slants down toward the center without following the dramatic angle of the lapel, and the two jetted hip pockets are positioned straight along the waist line, about an inch from the lowest row of buttons. Each sleeve is finished with four buttons at the cuff, and the back is ventless.
The suit’s matching trousers rise to Bogart’s natural waist, where he holds them up with a slim dark leather belt that closes through a curved single-prong buckle. Modern conventions recommend pleats for either the retro-minded or larger-framed gents who benefit from extra fabric guiding trousers over their hips, though pleats were more universal during this period oft-celebrated as the “golden age”, flattering wearers’ legs with an elegant drape extending down from the high-rigged waistline.
Spade’s double forward-pleated trousers have side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottom. Consistent with common practices of the era, he wears a key-chain hooked around the belt loop positioned just starboard of the button-up fly, with the connected keys—presumably for his apartment and his office—carried in his right-side pocket.
Spade wears a light-colored cotton shirt in a non-white shade suggested by its contrast against his white pillows when detectives Dundy (Barton MacLaine) and Polhaus (Ward Bond) corner him in his bedroom. The shirt has a spread collar, front placket, and double (French) cuffs fastened by a set of metal links that are detailed with four-square faces.
Spade first wears a dark solid-colored tie that gently swells as it approaches the blade that falls about an inch short of Bogart’s trouser waistband. This tie length may be considered short by modern standards but is proportional to this era of higher-waisted trousers and the general practice of keeping one’s tie blade covered either by a closed jacket or waistcoat.
Spade later swaps out for a lighter, patterned tie, though the foulard he selects is still relatively subdued, arranged in a neat all-over geometric print.
The Dark Three-Piece Suit
The second suit that Spade wears on screen hearkens to the styles of the era when Hammett’s novel had been written, serialized, and published from the late 1920s through the early ’30s, also recalling Ricardo Cortez’s wardrobe from his more dashing portrayal of the detective in the 1931 adaptation.
Sperber and Lax report the suit was “a gray single-breasted number”; if this description was informed by historical record, I’d propose the suit is likely a charcoal-gray worsted wool.
The suit’s single-breasted jacket has been rigged with wide peak lapels, as commonly found on double-breasted tailoring. This configuration of double-breasted revers on a single-breasted jacket grew visibly popular during the interwar era and has cycled through in fashionability every forty years or so, beginning with the re-emergence of peak lapels on single-breasted jackets during the slim-featured tailoring of the early ’60s before the following decade saw a boom in wide-winged peaked lapels flaring from single-breasted jackets on the disco floor. The style went relatively silent again until the early 2010s as more designers, perhaps led by Tom Ford and his “Windsor” model prominently worn by Daniel Craig’s James Bond, returned single-breasted jackets with peak lapels to sartorial prominence.
Spade’s wide peak lapels have slanted gorges, cleanly rolling to just above the jacket’s two button front. The direction of his lapels and the suppressed waist work to build up Bogie’s shoulders, presenting the lean actor with a more athletic silhouette that supports his natural confidence while laughing off the gun-toting Joel Cairo. The ventless jacket has four-button cuffs, a welted breast pocket, and jetted hip pockets.
Bogart wears the suit’s matching single-breasted waistcoat (vest) with all six buttons fully fastened, including the lowest button above the notched bottom. There are four welted pockets, the lower-right pocket giving Spade a smooth draw for his oft-used tobacco pouch; the novel mentioned Bull Durham, but the only identifiable brand on screen is his La Croix Fils Wheat Straw rolling papers.
Spade hooks his key chain around the same belt loop on his trousers, though the glimpses we get of his belt reveal a very light-colored leather, likely a shade of tan.
These suit trousers are similarly styled and cut like the chalkstripe suit, with a long rise, double forward pleats, side pockets, and cuffed bottoms.
Again, Spade wears a light-colored cotton shirt that looks a shade away from white, detailed with a spread collar and French cuffs, though the plain front lacks a traditional placket. His tie appears to be a medium-colored cotton, knotted in a four-in-hand sans dimple.
Spade’s fedora is made from a darker shade of felt, with a dark grosgrain band and a self-edged brim.
Spade wears a heavy herringbone tweed overcoat, split with a long single vent extending up the center back to his waist. The knee-length coat has a 6×2-button double-breasted configuration, with each descending row of buttons tapering closer together. The coat has three-button cuffs, welted breast pocket, and straight flapped hip pockets.
Spade’s shoes are black leather cap-toe oxfords, arguably the most versatile men’s dress shoe at the time of production as it could be effectively worn with business suits and evening-wear. (A briefly glimpsed silhouette of Spade’s footwear as he strides through the hotel lobby suggests that Bogart may have been wearing ankle boots in some scenes, perhaps to give the 5’8″ actor some additional “leading man” lift.)
On his left wrist, Spade wears a square-cased wristwatch with a plain, light-colored square dial on a dark leather strap.
The Maltese Falcon was arguably the movie that propelled Bogart to stardom, though he evidently didn’t yet have the pull that permitted him to wear his personal jewelry on screen as would be seen in most of his films from Casablanca onward. We get a brief slip-up as Spade asks Effie to host Brigid in her home, where we see Bogie wearing not only the gold three-stone ring he received from his father but also his wedding band on his left hand.
The Literary Sam Spade
The second chapter of The Maltese Falcon depicts Sam Spade being roused from sleep with the news of the murder of his partner, Miles Archer:
He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes… he put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.
The next few chapters aren’t as comprehensively descriptive, but they build the image of Spade wearing a blue three-piece suit, another detachable shirt collar and tie, and his regular complements of hat, coat, and wristwatch.
Go Big or Go Home
Though not depicted in the movie The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s novel includes a brief vignette where Spade stops for a quick dinner at John’s Grill, where he “asked the waiter to hurry his dinner of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes.”
During my visit to San Francisco in the summer of 2010, I made sure to visit the actual John’s Grill, an elegantly old-fashioned eatery at 63 Ellis Street with tributes to the The Maltese Falcon throughout, including the third-floor Hammett’s Den and the second-floor Maltese Falcon Room, which includes a statue of the eponymous black bird that drove the plot.
One of my favorite paranoid security tips comes from The Maltese Falcon not by way of Sam Spade, but instead via the mysterious Floyd Thursby. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy relates:
I do know he always went heavily armed and that he never went to sleep without covering the floor around his bed with crumpled newspapers so that nobody could come silently into his room.
“You picked a nice sort of a playmate,” coos an amused Spade. “Only that sort could’ve helped me,” Brigid responds.
Lt. Dundy: What kind of gun do you carry?
Sam Spade: None, I don’t like ’em… ‘course, there are some at the office.
We never see any of these guns, but Spade first arms himself with a Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket he easily takes from Joel Cairo. In the novel, Cairo’s pistol is described in the novel as “a short compact flat black pistol,” though Spade later dismisses it as “only a thirty-two,” so Hammett likely intended it to be the slightly larger—and more powerful—Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless model instead of the diminutive .25-caliber Model 1908 featured on screen.
The subcompact, striker-fired Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket was appropriately named for its ability to be smoothly slipped inside a waistcoat pocket, though such easy concealment came at the cost of power, as the weapon took six-round magazines of the relatively anemic .25 ACP ammunition.
After Lieutenant Dundy and Sergeant Tom Polhaus break up a late night session with Brigid and Joel, Spade asks the coppers to leave Joel’s .25 behind, and the miniature Colt again falls into Spade’s possession.
A few scenes later, Spade demonstrates an oft-touted way of disabling an opponent by drawing his coat down over the back of his shoulders so it functions like a straitjacket, disabling Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) just long enough for Spade to disarm him of his two .45s. As Hammett wrote, “in each of Spade’s hands, when they came out of the boy’s overcoat pockets, there was a heavy automatic pistol.”
Unlike his fellow gunsel Cairo, Wilmer packs considerably stronger firepower in the form of two full-sized M1911A1 service pistols, chambered to fire the powerful .45 ACP cartridge most frequently associated with the weapon. John Browning had developed the M1911 after several rounds of prototypes, in time for the U.S. military to authorize it in time for World War I. The design was revisited during the 1920s, leading to the development of the M1911A1 variant with modifications like an arched mainspring housing, shortened hammer spur and longer grip safety spur, among other changes.
“The boy Wilmer came out of the kitchen behind them,” Hammett wrote in a later scene. “Black pistols were gigantic in his small hands.” Interestingly, this observation afforded to the dual-wielding Wilmer corresponds with a Bogie screen insecurity, as the slight-framed actor didn’t want to be dwarfed by full-size pistols like the .45-caliber 1911. Even though he was frequently depicted carrying 1911s in posters and promotional artwork, Bogart’s characters were increasingly armed with smaller on-screen armament, like .38-caliber revolvers or .32-caliber Colt semi-automatics, unless he was portraying a military character who would have reason to carry the designated service pistol of the era.
Less used by Spade but still significant to the events of The Maltese Falcon, we get a glimpse of the relatively rare Webley-Fosbery used in Miles Archer’s murder. This distinctive revolver is both cosmetically and operationally unique, from its zigzag-grooved cylinder to the recoil-operated action.
Using a modified Colt Single Action Army, Colonel George V. Fosbery had devised his prototype of an “automatic revolver” that followed the operational philosophy of the then-burgeoning semi-automatic pistol by devising a function that would slide the entire upper assembly against the frame with each shot, simultaneously turning the cylinder and cocking the hammer fro the follow-up shot. He spent the latter half of the 1890s improving his design before taking it to Webley & Scott, who began production of the revolver in 1901, first for the .455 Webley service cartridge and then in the now-defunct .38 ACP civilian round, in various barrel length configurations ranging from four to seven inches. .455 versions carried six rounds in the cylinder while the smaller .38 ACP round meant eight shots could fit in those models.
The book identifies the specific weapon as the latter as Spade identifies it as a “Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver… thirty-eight, eight-shot. They don’t make them any more.” (The movie inexplicably changes the line to “a Webley-Forsby[sic], .45 automatic, eight-shot,” which doesn’t exist as the .455-caliber models could only carry six rounds.)
While revolutionary, the Webley-Fosbery was unwieldly and ultimately unreliable, particularly when fielded in wartime use, which limited its manufacture to less than 5,000 by the time production ended by 1924. (You can read more about the Webley-Fosbery and its use in The Maltese Falcon in Jason Schubert’s 2019 article for The Claremore Daily Progress.)
What to Imbibe
I distrust a man who says “when”. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much, it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.
— Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet)
Now we’re getting into some subject matter that Sam Spade does like. The Hays Office was enforcing the infamous Production Code that inspired many filmmakers, particularly those helming now-classic noir, to get creative in how they presented the various vices that characterized their pulp sources. In addition to neutralizing the homoerotic undertones of Wilmer Cook and Joel Cairo’s relationship, The Maltese Falcon was also under fire as John Huston was warned not to show excessive drinking, a point that John Huston had argued would “seriously falsify” his depiction of the character, according to Michael Mills for Palace Classic Films.
Spade has just poured himself a glass of Bacardi Superior Oro when the fuzz roll in, a direct carryover from the novel where Hammett described:
He dropped his hat and overcoat on the bed and went into his kitchen, returning to the bedroom with a wine-glass and a tall bottle of Bacardi. He put bottle and glass on the table, sat on the side of the bed facing them, and rolled a cigarette. He had drunk his third glass of Bacardi and was lighting his fifth cigarette when the street-door-bell rang.
Bacardi had been a familiar spirit in the United States since the Spanish-American War drifted cocktails like the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre statewide, where the latter would be simplified into the two-ingredient “rum and Coke”. The growing international demand led to Bacardi’s expansion from Cuba into Spain and the United States, where it would be bottled for nearly a decade until the New York City facility was shut down in response to Prohibition.
The company took the Volstead Act as an opportunity to encourage tourism to Cuba, where Americans could freely and openly enjoy Bacardi, providing the company with enough business to finance the fashionable Edificio Bacardí skyscraper in Havana as well as distilleries in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The latter gave Bacardi a particularly strong foothold in the United States after Prohibition ended.
How to Get the Look
As Sperber and Lax deconstructed, The Maltese Falcon doesn’t present Humphrey Bogart in the classic “private eye” trench coat, instead layering a heavy tweed topcoat over his fashionably tailored suits.
- Dark chalkstripe flannel suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Off-white cotton shirt with semi-spread collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Dark tie
- Charcoal-gray wool suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat with four welted pockets and notched bottom
- Double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Off-white cotton shirt with semi-spread collar, plain front, and double/French cuffs
- Medium-colored cotton tie
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Dark socks
- Dark herringbone tweed 6×2-button knee-length overcoat with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and long single vent
- Medium felt fedora with dark grosgrain band, pinched crown, and self-edged brim
- Key-chain attached to trouser belt loop
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
The Maltese Falcon has a special significance for me as the first movie I ever saw in theaters with my now-fiancée… and no, I’m not pushing 100; she and I enjoyed a showing at Pittsburgh’s excellent Row House Theater in the spring of 2016.
The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.