Based on Dashiell Hammett‘s book of the same name, The Maltese Falcon begins in San Francisco, 1941. Ruth Wonderly arrives at the office of private investigators Sam Spade and Miles Archer. She claims her sister’s missing, and she needs help finding her because she’s involved with a man named Floyd Thursby. Archer calls dibs on the hottie, and helps Ruth track down her sister later that evening.
In the dead of night, an early morning phone call suddenly wakes Spade. The local police tell him someone shot and killed Archer. Spade heads over to the murder scene where Police Detective Tom Polhaus greets him. After a brief chat, Spade leaves to tell Archer’s wife the news.
As Spade arrives home, Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy also arrive to question Spade about the murder. During their grilling, they let it slip that someone offed Floyd Thurdsby that evening too. Dundy not-so-subtly suggests that Spade killed Archer so he could have Archer’s wife all to himself. Spade angrily kicks the officers out of his apartment.
Spade heads to Ruth’s apartment. She’s now calling herself Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and now claims she was partners with Thursby. She says he was the one who most likely killed Archer. Spade doesn’t trust her as far as he can throw her, but agrees to investigate the murders when she offers to pay him $500.
Spade returns to his office where the fragrant Joel Cairo waits for him. He offers Spade $5,000 to find a “black figure of a bird”, and then pulls a tiny gun on him so he can search Spade’s office for it. Spade knocks out Cairo, and then searches his pockets for clues. When Cairo comes to, he still hires Spade, and then pulls the gun on him again to search the room; which Spade lets him do.
Spade meets with O’Shaughnessy again, and tells her about about Cairo, whom she wants to talk to. So, Spade invites Cairo to his place, and when he arrives, it’s clear the two know each other quite well. Cairo loses his patience with O’Shaughnessy, and reveals “Fat Man” is in San Francisco. The police arrive again to talk to Spade further, but he doesn’t let the cops in. It’s only when Cairo screams for help that the police enter Spade’s place. He gets them to take Cairo downtown for questioning.
The next morning, Spade goes to Cairo’s hotel to talk to him again. In the lobby, he spots Wilmer Cook, a young kid that’s been following Spade for the last day. He abruptly gives Wilmer a message for his boss, the “Fat Man”. Soon after, a man named Kasper Gutman calls Spade; wanting to meet him.
Spade meets Gutman, aka the “Fat Man”, in his hotel suite to talk about the black bird, but Gutman evades Spade’s questions. To throw Gutman off, Spade fakes a temper tantrum and storms out of the meeting. Later, Wilmer arrives, and requests Spade come with him…at gunpoint. Back at the hotel, Spade overpowers him, but meets Gutman anyway since that was his plan all along.
Gutman tells his story of the Maltese Falcon, and then offers Spade $25,000 for it and a $1,000,000 from the proceeds from its sale. While they negotiate, Spade passes out from a Gutman spiked drink. Wilmer, Cairo, and Gutman leave the scene while Spade sleeps on the floor for a bit.
Eventually, Spade comes to, and he takes the opportunity to search the hotel room. He finds a newspaper with the arrival of the freighter La Paloma circled. When he arrives at the dock, he finds the ship on fire, so he heads back to the office. While talking with his secretary, Effie Perine, La Paloma’s Captain Jacobi staggers into Spade’s office, and dies from gunshot wounds. In his hands sits the wrapped up Maltese Falcon.
O’Shaughnessy calls Spade for help at a specific address, and then lets out a shriek before the phone goes dead. Spade heads to a bus terminal to hide the Falcon, and then takes a cab to the address O’Shaughnessy gave him. However, the address leads to an empty lot for sale.
The cab takes him home where he finds O’Shaughnessy hiding in a doorway. The two head to his apartment where Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer wait for him. Gutman gives Spade $10,000 for the Falcon, not the $25,000 he promised. Unfazed, Spade tells Gutman that if he’s going to proceed, he needs a fall guy for the murders of Floyd Thursby and Captain Jacobi. He suggests Wilmer be the one, but Gutman balks. Spade taunts Wilmer until he loses his temper, and then Spade knocks him out. Gutman and Cairo then reluctantly agree to Sam’s plan.
As dawn arrives, Spade calls Effie, and asks her to bring him the bundle from the bus station. When she arrives, Gutman inspects the statuette, but finds it is a fake. While he and Cairo bicker about the revelation, Wilmer escapes.
Gutman chuckles to himself, and then invites Cairo to return to Istanbul with him to continue their search for the Maltese Falcon. After they leave, Spade calls the police, and tells them to pick up the duo before they skip town. When Spade hangs up, he confronts O’Shaughnessy with the truth—she killed his partner Archer. While she confesses, she begs Spade to not turn her in to the police. For some reason, Spade has feelings for her, but he suppresses them for justice. He hands O’Shaughnessy over to the cops for the murder of Miles Archer.
As for the falcon, well, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.