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At the Spade and Archer detective agency in San Francisco, Samuel Spade is interviewed by the beautiful Miss Wonderly, who wishes to hire him to find her runaway sister. Sam's partner, Miles Archer, agrees to be present when Wonderly meets Floyd Thursby, her sister's seducer, and then follow him to his hotel in hopes of finding the missing girl. Later that night, Sam learns that Miles has been shot. He calls Wonderly and learns that she has checked out of her hotel. Then Thursby is found with four bullet holes in his back and Sam is visited by Lt. Dundy and Detective Tom Polhaus, two policemen, who suspect him of murdering Thursby out of revenge for Miles's death. The following morning, Wonderly summons Sam to her new address, where she confesses that her real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy and that the story she related the day before was completely false. Despite his doubts that she has told him the whole truth, Sam accepts her as his client. The announcement of Thursby's death draws an inquiry from a mysterious little man named Joel Cairo, who tells Sam that he is trying to recover a statue of a black falcon. When Sam denies any knowledge of the statue, Cairo pulls a gun and demands to search the office. Sam disarms Cairo, who offers the detective $5,000 to find the bird. Sam accepts the offer, and Cairo once again holds Sam at gunpoint while he searches the office. When Brigid learns of Cairo's visit, she asks Sam to set up a meeting with him and tells Cairo that she doesn't have the statue, but will in a few days. Their meeting is interrupted by the police, who have been sent by Miles's widow Iva, who is jealous because she and Sam had been having an affair. The police now begin to suspect Sam of Miles's murder, but he spins a complicated story to stop the police from arresting the three of them for questioning. Kasper Gutman, known as "The Fat Man," is also interested in the statue and summons Sam, but when Gutman refuses to explain his interests, Sam storms out. Later, Wilmer Cook, Gutman's gunman, brings Sam back to Gutman's apartment. Gutman tells Sam that after the Crusades, Charles V of Spain presented the Knights Templar with the island of Malta, requiring only the tribute of a falcon every year. The statue everyone wants is a golden, jewel-encrusted replica of a falcon that was stolen by pirates and afterward disappeared for centuries. After it reappeared in Greece, Gutman planned to buy it, but it was again stolen and he has been following its trail ever since. He offers Sam $50,000 to find it, but before Sam can accept, he passes out from doctored drinks. When he comes to, he searches the room and finds a paper announcing the arrival of a ship from Hong Kong, but at the docks, Sam finds the ship on fire. He returns to his office, where a dying man stumbles in with a package. The man is Jacoby, the captain of the Hong Kong ship, and the package contains the statue. A phone call from Brigid takes Sam on a wild goose chase, but first he checks the package and mails the claim check to himself. When Sam finally returns home, Brigid, Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer are waiting. Sam agrees to turn over the bird if Gutman will allow Wilmer to take the blame for the three murders. When Effie arrives with the package, however, it is quickly discovered that the bird is a fake. In the confusion, Wilmer escapes. After Gutman and Cairo leave, Sam calls the police and turns them all in. Brigid admits that she shot Miles, hoping to implicate Thursby. Even though he is fascinated by her dangerous beauty, Sam turns Brigid in for the murder of his partner.