Originally entitled The Maltese Falcon and based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, a womanizing detective is hired to find a precious statue but solves three murders instead.
In San Francisco detective Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) receives a call from his partner's wife Iva Archer (Thelma Todd), and returning Miles Archer (Walter Long) listens. Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) asks Sam to get her sister back from Thursby. She gives them $200, and Archer says he'll do it. Sam learns that Archer was killed. Lt. Dundy (Robert Elliott) questions Sam about Thursby's murder shortly afterwards. Sam calls on Ruth, who admits she lied. She pleads with Sam to help her and says Thursby killed Archer. She says she has $500, and Sam asks for it. Dr. Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson) calls on Sam and offers $5,000 for a statue of a black bird. Cairo pulls a gun, but Sam gets it away from him. Sam tells Ruth, and she puts her arm around him. Police Dundy and Tom (J. Farrell MacDonald) ask Sam about Iva Archer. Ruth screams, and they find her holding a gun on Cairo. Sam tries to explain it. Sam offers Ruth his bedroom and kisses her. As she sleeps, Sam takes her key and searches her apartment, returning with groceries. Iva calls on Sam and sees Ruth in her kimono. Iva threatens to go to the police.
Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges) tells Sam the history of the valuable falcon from the Crusades to the present. Sam says he can get it in two days, and Gutman offers him $50,000, giving him $1,000. Cairo tells Gutman they can get it from Captain Jacobi. Gutman gives Sam a drink to knock him out and takes back his $1,000. At Sam's office Jacobi staggers and dies. In a suitcase marked "RW" Sam finds the statue. He takes it to a baggage check and mails the ticket to himself. The District Attorney questions Sam and gives him 24 hours to find the murderers.
Sam and Ruth are held up by Gutman and Cairo. Sam says they need a "fall guy" for the police and suggests Gutman's friend Wilmer (Dwight Frye). Sam says he can't get the bird until morning. Money is missing, and Sam makes Ruth take off her clothes; then he says Gutman palmed it. Sam calls his secretary Effie (Una Merkel) to get the suitcase and bring it over. As they open the case, Wilmer goes out a window. Gutman says the bird is a fake, and he uses his gun to get his $10,000 back from Sam before leaving. Sam calls Tom to arrest Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer, who killed Thursby and Jacobi; Sam has his guns. Sam accuses Ruth of killing Archer. She says she loves Sam and kisses him. Dundy and Tom arrive, and Sam gives them Wilmer's guns. They say that Wilmer killed Gutman too. Sam says that Ruth killed Archer with Thursby's gun. Ruth is convicted, and Sam visits her in jail to tell her he has been hired as chief investigator by the District Attorney.
Although Sam says he too is for himself, he manages to survive and prove the guilt of the culprits, who murdered in their greed. This intriguing story published only the year before would be adapted for comedy in the 1936 Satan Met a Lady and become a classic in The Maltese Falcon of 1941. This pre-code version is the most sexually explicit, as the suave Sam Spade of Ricardo Cortez clearly loves the ladies, and Gutman seems to love Wilmer.