The iconic falcon statuette at the center of John Huston's 1941 film-noir masterpiece "The Maltese Falcon" (Warner Bros.) is one of the most important and recognizable objects in the history of cinema. As the legacy of the film has continued to grow, more so has the intrigue surrounding the seductively mysterious falcon statuette.
In "The Maltese Falcon", Humphrey Bogart plays the role of private detective Sam Spade, and after his partner is murdered, he's offered a large sum of money by a foreigner named Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) to find a "black figure of a bird". The statuette is the priceless object of desire at the heart of the film, inspiring passion and greed as it is fervently hunted by all of the film's principal cast members, including Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and went on to be named one of the greatest films of all time. The Maltese Falcon statue has become the most coveted film prop in the world.
Hollywood studios have always produced multiple copies of key props. Humphrey Bogart was known to have dropped the first falcon during filming, which makes the need for copies obvious. Accordingly, several duplicates of the falcon were made by the studio for the film. Three falcons from the film are known to exist today. Two of them are made of lead, weighing in at a hefty 47 pounds each. The third statuette from the Pugliese Collection, the only known Maltese Falcon made of resin, is offered here.
One of the lead statuettes (S.N. "WB 90067") is owned by a Beverly Hills collector and was exhibited in 1992 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at the Pompidou Center in Paris. The second (S.N. "WB 90066"), was formerly owned by actor William Conrad, who received it as a gift from Warner Bros. studio chief Jack Warner, and it was exhibited at the Disney M.G.M studios. Neither of the lead copies shows the detail and high level of craftsmanship seen in the resin copy.
The resin falcon, weighing 4 pounds 5.4 ounces and standing 11 1/2 inches tall, was discovered by Emmy-winning producer/director Ara Chekmayan in New Jersey in 1991. Recognizing the Warner Brothers "WB 90456" serial number scratched into the base, Mr. Chekmayan began to extensively research the figure. He found that among those familiar with the production of the film, the consensus was that the resin copy was indeed the falcon that appeared in several 8 x 10" publicity photos pictured in the hands of Bogart on the film set. These photographs of the actor and the statuette became the most recognizable images from the film.
Importantly, a technical report on tests performed on the falcon "WB 90456" by Systems Applications of La Crescenta, CA was produced December 8, 1999. After carefully lighting and photographing images of the resin bubbles in the falcon, the technology analysis firm scanned the photos at high resolution and then compared them with images of the falcon from the movie itself, also at high resolution. The 26-page report summary concludes by positively stating: "Correlation of the location of minute pits on the falcon caused by air bubbles trapped in the resin during the molding process with identically positioned marking on both sets of photographs removes any uncertainty as to the authenticity of the model."
Although it is difficult to identify specific falcons used in specific scenes, the film's script supervisor Meta R. Carpenter (the last surviving witness to the actual filming) has stated that the lighter weight resin falcon was used in moving shots where Bogart couldn't be burdened by the lead statuette: "When we were on walking shots, on moving shots, he [Bogart] would have a lighter falcon in his hands, a six pound one. Why should he carry around a 47 pound thing?" When Bogart's vital statistics are considered, height 5'8" and weight approximately 140 pounds, it becomes very clear that a lead falcon statuette would have been over one-third of his total body weight.
The falcon first appears in the film wrapped in newspaper and carried with ease by the director's father, Walter Huston, suggesting it to be a resin statuette and not lead. Likewise, when Bogart throws the bundle under his arm, it does not appear to be heavy. There is, however, little doubt that the resin Maltese Falcon is used in the film's ending sequence of shots as Sam Spade is seen cradling the falcon as he exits his apartment descending the stairs.
The mystery of the elusive Maltese Falcon is left unresolved in the film, and in this way has paralleled the interest surrounding this fascinating piece of American cinematic history. In a final sequence, after all the characters have been ravaged by their passionate quest for the falcon, the statuette is handed to the police. When asked what the figure is, Bogart replies "The stuff that dreams are made of."