Hollywood had already made two lukewarm attempts to film Dashiell Hammett’s story, but in 1941 everything fell into place and a film classic was produced. After playing low-life gangsters for a decade, Humphrey Bogart slipped into the shoes of anti-hero Samuel Spade and firmly established the screen archetype of the wise-talking private detective. He is matched by colourful turns from Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, playing the avaricious figures who cross Spade’s path in the hunt for a priceless gold statuette.
Shot to exaggerate the shadows, the film’s seedy nocturnal world was typical of the new cycle of urban crime thrillers that became known as film noir. John Huston would return to the theme of greed throughout his career. Bogart took on literature’s other great private dick, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, in Hawks’ The Big Sleep five years later.