The Frick's Velázquez in "The Maltese Falcon"

Midway through The Maltese Falcon—John Huston’s 1941 classic film noir about Sam Spade’s quest for a foot-high golden statuette sheathed in black enamel—the protagonist, played by Humphrey Bogart, confronts a baby-faced goon named Wilmer Cook in the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere.

A man in a fedora stands in front of furniture and a wall with sconces and a framed portrait of a standing man
Still from Warner Bros.’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). The Frick’s King Philip IV of Spain appears behind the shoulder of Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart.

Hanging in the background of the scene is Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’s King Philip IV of Spain (1644). It is seen only twice, first with its top edge truncated by the frame and later with its bottom-left corner occluded by Spade’s shoulder. Nonetheless, the subject’s distinctive military costume and accessories—notably his baton, felt sombrero, and broad valona collar—establish that it is the Frick’s so-called “Fraga Philip,” executed while the Spanish king was in the Aragonese village of Fraga to oversee the siege of nearby Lérida during the Franco-Spanish War of 1635–59. The presence of the painting in this scene has not been commented upon before.

Considered in the context of the film, it seems that Velázquez’s King Philip IV of Spain may be more than just an incidental detail. The Maltese Falcon has been likened to a mythological katabasis, or descent into Hades, in which Spade, a private detective, is thrust by the murder of his partner into San Francisco’s criminal underworld, presided over by the genteel supervillain Kasper Gutman. Aided by Cook, Gutman hunts for the missing (and fictional) statuette in the movie’s title, which was given in 1539 to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by the Knights of Rhodes in exchange for the right to live in Malta. In Gutman’s telling, the bird was seized by a fleet of buccaneers on its way to Charles’s Hapsburg court and eventually found its way to the home of a Russian general in an Istanbul suburb. Sometime before 1840, the bird was encased in black enamel to disguise its value.

Portrait of a man with a mustache wearing a red outfit with a white collar and silver embroidery holding a staff and a black hat
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660), King Philip IV of Spain, 1644. Oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 39 1/8 in. (129.9 x 99.4 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

Charles V is the great-grandfather of the painting’s sitter, Philip IV, and both share the trademark feature of the Hapsburg dynasty—a protruding jaw. (Curiously, Spade is also described as having this feature in the opening sentence of the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett from which the movie is adapted: “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth.”) Did Huston or a member of the crew mistake Philip IV for Charles V? Is the purpose of the painting to evoke the Hapsburg dynasty? Or was it hung in the background simply because the set required a generic Old Master painting to complement the marble pilasters, damask-upholstered armchairs, and potted plants of the Hotel Belvedere?

The Maltese Falcon was not filmed on location in San Francisco but rather on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles. Thus, the San Francisco presented on screen is a simulacrum of the city manufactured by the movie’s crew. Questions abound as to the painting itself: While it seems likely that it is a photographic reproduction, it is not inconceivable that it is instead a copy made after the Frick painting. Three copies are known—one in Dulwich Picture Gallery, in London; another in a London private collection; and a third sold at auction in November 1911 at Christie, Manson & Woods, also in London. (The latter’s whereabouts are unknown, but the buyer’s surname, Helmsley, is inscribed next to the entry for the painting in a copy of the auction catalog held in the Frick Art Reference Library.)

It is tempting to think that a heretofore unknown copy might have belonged to Bogart, a noted art collector. However, the actor was just starting out in his career when the movie was made, and even if the painting were to his liking, he would not have owned such a picture at the time. The answer to these questions may lie in the University of Southern California’s Warner Bros. Archives—which hold at least four drawings of the movie’s Hotel Belvedere set—but the archives are temporarily inaccessible due to the pandemic.

Man sitting in a chair reading a newspaper with the bottom of a painting showing in the top-right corner
Still from Warner Bros.’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). The bottom half of the Frick’s King Philip IV of Spain appears at top right.

In his Cocktails with a Curator episode on the Frick’s Velázquez, Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, notes that, shortly after the Frick portrait was made in 1644, it was shipped to Madrid to be exhibited at the church of San Martín under the auspices of the city’s Catalonian community. Displayed under a golden baldachin, Philip’s likeness was a surrogate for the absent king that allowed him to preside in effigy over the congregation—appearing, according to a preacher’s sermon marking the occasion, like a “living Sun.”

Similarly, at the Hotel Belvedere, the monarch presides in effigy over the seekers of the Maltese Falcon, but this time Philip is less a living Sun than a dying star, barely visible in the penumbral light of the lobby. This is a place for watching, and as Spade watches Cook, and Cook watches Spade, Philip watches over them both. One can only speculate as to Philip’s function in this modern-day telling of the Holy Grail, in which the prized cup has been replaced by “a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to feet with the finest jewels,” as Gutman describes the object of his quest. I prefer to think that Philip IV asserts the Hapsburgs’ rightful claim to the black bird—and that his presence in the movie is a reminder of the debt that has yet to be paid.

Further reading

D’Ors, Pablo Pérez, and Michael Gallagher. “New Information on Velázquez’s portrait of Philip IV at Fraga in The Frick Collection, New York.” The Burlington Magazine 152, no. 1291 (October 2010), 652–59.

Tallack, Douglas. “‘Waiting, Waiting’: The Hotel Lobby in the Modern City.” In The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis, edited by Neil Leach, 139–51. London, 2002.

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