The film noir genre classically plays with established notions of masculinity and femininity. Noir films often portray women as powerful, strong, layered, and capable, with their male counterparts coming across buffoonish and threatened. As a pioneer of the genre, The Maltese Falcon (1941) is certainly no exception to that trend.
The Maltese Falcon is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The film is a nearly word-for-word, shot-by-shot visualization of the novel, absorbing its primary character motivations and narrative constructs. One chapter of the novel, aptly titled “Three Women,” specifically illustrates the roles of the three main female characters in the story and uses their archetypes to characterize Spade.
As TrueClassics says, “Through astute casting and subsequently strong performances, the film fleshes out three very different (yet familiar) female archetypes: the helpmate, the “spider,” and the conniving bitch. Spade’s interactions with the three women whose lives are intertwined with his own–Effie, Iva, and Wonderly (soon to be revealed as Brigid O’Shaughnessy)–reveal much about his character, and also illuminate how the über-masculine Spade rejects the very notion of femininity, even while he is, in some ways, very much at the mercy of the so-called “weaker” sex.”
Though Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) does not become diminished by the power of women, he is constantly challenged by a number of them in an effort to constantly defend his masculinity, himself becoming an archetype of the typical male chauvanist. The other male characters are undone by the connivance of Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), the film's primary antagonist.
The “spider,” also more treacherously referred to in classic film analysis as “the black widow,” is represented in The Maltese Falcon through Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She’s the beautiful and cunning tether around which all the film’s balls swing, so to speak. Brigid is an antagonist who receives punishment in the film’s conclusion, but women classified as black widows, despite the negative connotation of the name and the dubious nature of their film characters, are regarded as pioneers in progressive representations of women in film. As would become true of Phyllis in Double Indemnity (1944) or Helen in Murder, My Sweet (1944), the black widow female is “evil and homicidal, but also smart and ambitious,” says the University of Washington. “They were not adjuncts of their men but competitors who often succeeded at least to a point. They tended to be destroyed in the end, but their very independence and skill at power politics has been seen by some feminist scholars as a positive step in developing representations of women. The flip side of this new empowerment of female characters was the emasculation of many of the male ones, an aspect of the genre that plays itself out repeatedly.” The spider in the case of Maltese fill the role of nemesis, but her strength and intelligence is an important contribution to the way women were perceived as being more than sexual objects or secondary to their mates in film.
The "helpmate" female in The Matlese Falcon is Effie (Lee Patrick), Spade’s secretary. Effie seems the only person aware of all Spade's various faults in his life and character, tending to his needs with almost maternal concern. She follows all his instructions without question and he regards her affectionately for that loyalty, more commonly referring to her as “angel” than her real name. There exists an easy level of objectivism in her treatment despite that sentiment, but it stems from a place of adoration rather than contempt, which is the veil through with Spade views the other women in the film. Effie doesn't collect a whole lot of screen time, but her sidekick existence and necessity to Spade's success makes her archetype pivotal to Spade's own character.
Iva (Gladys George), the wife of Spade’s late partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), fits the bill as the traditional “woman scorned,” a concept that extends outside the realm of noir. She’s so deluded about her hold over Spade, with whom she was having an affair, that she immediately thinks he killed her husband just to be with her. Spade quickly becomes annoyed with her advances, and as TrueClassics continues, “her fury over his short-sighted rejection of her (and the drama surrounding her) leads to Iva informing the police about their affair. In this case, Spade underestimates the trouble that a woman could cause him, and it ends up putting even more pressure on him as he tries to unravel the mystery of the black bird.” This reality sees some of Spade's undoing at the hand of an underestimated woman, much in line with noir themes.
But of course, the femme fatale of The Maltese Falcon, Brigid, is the one who wraps herself around every man in the picture and manipulates them to her end. She serves as an example of the spider archetype but not of its traditional fate. Film Noir Studies says, “Brigid provides a model for the femme fatale of film noir, but in the end her inability to control Sam Spade and the manner of her defeat separate her from the classic "spider woman" of film noir. The femme fatale in such films as Out of the Past and Double Indemnity uses her sexual attractiveness to control men in order to gain independence, money, and power. She rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother and, like the men offilm noir, she looks for sexual fulfillment outside of marriage. Brigid uses Floyd Thursby and attempts to use Sam Spade as protection against Gutman and Cairo, apparently with the intention of discarding them when they have served their purpose. Sex is her only weapon, and she uses it often and very effectively. Like the "spider women" of later noir films, Brigid is defeated in the end, but — in a clear departure from film noir — she is defeated in such a way that her power is neutralized and order is restored. In film noir, the plot is generally resolved when the femme fatale is killed — she is almost never captured alive.”
Even the masculinity of the men in The Maltese Falcon is challenged, as Spade deems them all effeminate and unthreatening. Cairo (Peter Lorre) is skinny, weak, and described as smelling like lavender. Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) the "gunsel" is small, easily disarmed, and alluded at being a homosexual as far as the Hays Code in place in the 1940s would allow. And the large Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) may very well be Wilmer's lover, despite his appearance as the most masculine of the cohorts. The feebleness of these "villains" only amplifies the cunning natre of Brigid and drives home the role of women in the picture.