Maltese Falcon flies the coop
Copy of famed statuette, long a resident of John's Grill, is stolen over the weekend
John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
The busted cabinet doesn't look like much. It's old wood and is stained with the smoke of a thousand cigarettes. A piece of molding on the front dangles from a nail like the hopes and dreams of every tourist who ever fell in love with the foggy city on the Bay.
It's the last place anyone ever saw the Maltese Falcon. Except for the weasel who took it.
John Konstin owns the joint. It's been in his family forever, or 40 years. That writer, Dashiell Hammett, used to eat at his place, called John's Grill over on Ellis. When he wrote the book, "The Maltese Falcon," he mentioned the place a couple of times. Said Sam Spade used to eat there. Chops, potatoes and sliced tomatoes, to be exact. And smoked there.
So John's Grill is some kind of shrine to Hammett and Sam Spade and "The Maltese Falcon." The book and the movie with that actor, Humphrey Bogart.
Konstin likes the Maltese Falcon so much, he tried to buy it once. The real one. The one from the movie. Which wasn't worth anything, if you saw the flick, but everyone thought it was worth a fortune. "The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of," Spade says at the end of the moving picture show.
The real one was made of lead and heavy like the stone you'd tie around a dead man's neck before you tossed him into the bay. They said Bogey dropped it on his toe and limped through the whole picture. The movie people made a couple others, for publicity, out of plaster. This was one of those.
Konstin got it from one of the actors in the movie, Elisha Cook Jr. A local boy made good in the movie business. If you saw the movie, you remember him as Wilmer the gunsel. Spade's favorite whipping boy. There's a line in the movie, Spade humiliating the young thug, hitting him and saying, "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it."
Later, Wilmer says, "Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver."
Spade responds: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?"
Konstin misses the bird. It's a part of his spirit and soul. He looks at the empty shelves of that old cabinet like he can't believe his eyes.
"At first I thought it was a joke, or maybe the waiters were playing a prank," he said, pouring a glass of sparkling water. The kind Spade would have spat on the already-spat-on sidewalk.
It was no joke.
Now the coppers want to know who lifted the goods. The list of suspects is as long as the line of tourists waiting to get on the cable car at Powell Street.
Konstin showed off the Falcon in a corner cabinet on the second floor. The bird kept company with books. Lots of books. Old books by Hammett himself, and signed. Even a copy of a Herb Caen book. All gone now.
Konstin reckons it was one of his many customers. The second floor is open only for dinner. The thief was probably someone who had dinner in the upstairs dining room and saw the Falcon and the books. He might have hid up there, waiting for the right moment to leap out, bust open the door and snag his booty.
Or was it an inside job?
"Don't look at me," said waiter Jimmy Hazard. That's Hazard, he said, as in "trouble."
The caper could have been about jealousy and revenge. And maybe Jack Immendorf, who's been a private dick in this town since giants walked the Earth, wanted it. He threw in with Konstin years ago to buy the real McCoy, and he admits that he loves Spade and Hammett and all that old San Francisco lore.
"Yes, I suppose I could be a suspect," Immendorf said with a laugh. He was clearly startled by the idea. Before that, he went on and on about who might have been the skell who did it.
Could have been a common thief who figured to sell it to make a quick bundle. Could have been a fan of the movie or the book or the writer. Could be a private collector. Could be a lot of people.
Konstin wants the bird and the books back so much he's willing to fork over some cash. $25,000 in cold, hard for whoever brings the stuff back to his joint.
"No questions asked," he said.
They never are. Not in this town.
The Falcon legend
The statue: In Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Maltese Falcon" and the movie starring Humphrey Bogart, the falcon was a jewel-encrusted gold statuette of a bird, covered in black enamel to hide its value.
The story: Stolen again and again over the centuries, the falcon apparently found its way to San Francisco, pursued by detective Sam Spade.
The twist: A copy of the statuette used in the movie resided at John's Grill for years until it was stolen over the weekend.
E-mail John Koopman at email@example.com
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle