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The Maltese Falcon(1941)
A gallery of high-living lowlifes will stop at nothing to get their sweaty hands on a jewel-encrusted falcon. Detective Sam Spade wants to find out why—and who will take the fall for his partner's murder.
For more about The Maltese Falcon and the The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray release, see the The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on September 28, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond
Director: John Huston
» See full cast & crew
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray Review
With perhaps Bogart's most iconic role, and John Huston's debut as an auteur, 'The Maltese Falcon' is an enduring classic.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 28, 2010
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Hollywood took that adage to heart, if perhaps not for purely honorable reasons, as it attempted to adapt Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon for the screen. A 1931 version was rather faithful to Hammett's vision, if a bit faster and looser than Hammett's typically "hard boiled" detective fiction usually was. The film nonetheless was not a huge box office hit, perhaps due to its somewhat less than charismatic stars, Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. One thing the 1931 version had going for it was its frank and often overt sexuality, courtesy of being pre-Code. That meant when Warner went to re-release the film some years later, once the Code had been imposed upon all the majors, they found their 1931 Falcon was unreleasable. (In fact it became next to impossible to see the original unedited 1931 Falcon for decades after its initial release). That led to the second version of Hammett's iconic story to hit the screen, the sad debacle known as Satan Met a Lady. Though Bette Davis might seem the perfect femme fatale, at least from the scheming if not from the sexually alluring side, and in fact does rather well in the film, Satan is an often devilishly dull film that never really makes a great deal of sense, even as it slightly twists several events in Hammett's original conception. And that of course brings us to the hallowed ground of John Huston's 1941 adaptation, a film that supposedly jump started both the noir genre (questionable at the very least) and Humphrey Bogart's post-gangster role career (inarguable, at least according to Bogie himself). Though 1939 is often cited as the apex of the Hollywood studio system, convincing argument can really be made for any subsequent year, at least through 1943 or 1944, so ubiquitous are the classics which seemingly spilled from the major studios on a weekly basis. 1941 was no exception, with a laundry list of films which still top most critics' all-time classics list (Citizen Kane, anyone?), and Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon is certainly among the top two or three films released that year, which certainly places it at or near any reasonable film fan's all time greatest compendium.
Humphrey Bogart portrays Sam Spade, a private detective who, courtesy of both Hammett and Huston, is the walking embodiment of every tougher than nails investigator you could ever imagine. Within seconds of the film's opening, Spade is in the throes of a professional (and perhaps hopefully romantic) relationship with a mysterious femme fatale, one Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to tail a man. When Archer is murdered at a planned rendezvous that evening, Spade is propelled forward on an at times insanely complex turn of events which ultimately brings him into contact with three of the most iconic villains to ever blacken the screen, Kasper Gutman, also known as The Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), Gutman's deviant right hand man, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and their hapless, somewhat dimwitted gunslinger, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.).
Though The Maltese Falcon makes a least a little more sense than the most famously confusing of noirs, The Big Sleep, it still has its share of odd plot developments, and the fact is that the ultimate "prize" that everyone is seeking (and never actually obtains), the eponymous Maltese falcon, turns out to be one of the best examples of what Alfred Hitchock termed a "MacGuffin," the "mechanical plot element" which drives the story forward and gives the characters their putative motivations. It's a little fascinating (not to mention ironic), then, that we only find out about the falcon after the film has wended a rather twisty course through at least two murders and several near misses for Spade.
Though Huston was marginally more restrained than Roy Del Ruth needed to be in his 1931 pre-Code version, this film is unusually provocative, albeit subtly so, for a mainstream 1941 film. While the 1931 version made few bones about the homosexuality of Wilmer and Cairo, here Huston dances just this side of then accepted morés, with Cairo proffering a heavily perfumed card and Wilmer repeatedly proving he's unable to dominate anyone, even with several guns at his disposal. As politically incorrect as it is to suggest such things now, there was a rather pronounced double standard when it came to portraying women of ill repute back in the 1940s, and Huston didn't need to pull as many censorial punches to bring the duplicitous Ruth Wonderly (or is that Brigid O'Shaughnessy?) to the screen as he did having to handle the "gay element."
As Eric Lax mentions in his excellent commentary, this is a film where every cog in the wheel of the studio system was working in tandem to produce remarkable results. While Warner never really had the depth in their "bench" of supporting players that Metro did, where else could you get such a patently bizarre assortment of actors like Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook? This trio virtually emanates degradation from their very pores, and gives the film its rather unseemly subtext. But it's the star duo of Bogart and Astor that remain front and center, and rightfully so. Bogart is near perfection in this role, a character he rightly saw as his ticket out of second billing in villain roles. Probably under Huston's watchful eye, there's little grandstanding and virtually no typical "Bogie" mannerisms here. Everything is cut to the bone, lean and powerful. If Astor was a little long of tooth to be playing an irresistable seductress, her intelligence and almost genteel quality make her a force to be reckoned with. Her final scene with Bogart is a classic of sustained understatement.
John Huston scaled the heights to writer-director greatness with this film, launching his auteur status at a time when very few had attained that privileged title. It's rather interesting in fact to contrast Huston with Columbia's Frank Capra and Paramount's Preston Sturges, and the short-lived, tumultuous reign of Orson Welles at RKO. Huston's contribution to the Warner culture of this period cannot be underestimated, and The Maltese Falcon proved irrefutably that he was a great deal more than merely Walter's son. Seventy years after its release, The Maltese Falcon remains perhaps the prime example of the hard-boiled detective genre. Huston and company succeeded, and it's little wonder why no one felt the need to try again after this monumental 1941 effort.
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray, Video Quality
Editor's Note: the Blu-ray release of 'The Maltese Falcon' is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The images included in this review are not representative of the disc's quality.
OK, I'm ready for it, I'm probably going to take some heat for this, but I was a little disappointed with this Blu-ray of The Maltese Falcon, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Delivered via an VC-1 codec, in 1080p and the film's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the film looks pretty darned wonderful on Blu-ray, with a nice uptick in sharpness, contrast and detail from the previously released SD-DVD. So why the disappointment? Because I, along with so many others, have been so incredibly spoiled by the lavish restorations and gorgeous hi-def re-do's that Warner has regularly given us for the past few years. While The Maltese Falcon looks good, even great, I couldn't help but wish it looked even better. My main complaints, as relatively picayune as they probably seem to most of you, have to do with the film's sharpness and, to a lesser extent, the black levels. There just isn't that razor sharp clarity that Warner has brought to other films of this vintage. While detail is often exceptional, there's just a slight (very slight, in fact) gauziness to a lot of the imagery that I found bothersome. Grain is quite evident throughout the film, so you DNR-phobes have nothing to be concerned about, and black levels are good, if again not quite as robust as I, in my curmudgeonly mode, would have wanted. That said, some of the darker segments of the film now bristle with detail that wasn't clearly visible in previous home video releases. Note for example the background where Spade visits the death scene of Archer. In previous releases it was often a murky, muddy black mass; here on the Blu-ray you can actually make out walls and individual bricks. The bottom line is, The Maltese Falcon looks very, very good indeed on Blu-ray, and if we hadn't been so regularly spoiled by Warner with so many other lustrous releases, I daresay I'd be saying it looks incredible. So take this all in that context, knowing that there's little doubt this is a significant upgrade in image quality from the SD-DVD.
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Before I deal with the generally superb lossless rendering this film receives in its original English language soundtrack courtesy of the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio mono mix, I refer you to one of the foreign language tracks also included on the film. Just toggle over to the German Dolby Digital mono mix (make sure to do so either before the film starts or at the very latest by the Warner Brothers logo) and please tell me, if you can (or dare), what the frell is going on. I won't spoil the "surprise" for you, other than to say I'm virtually certain Adolph Deutsch is rapidly de-composing in his grave. (Sorry, little musical joke there).
OK, now on to the matter at hand. The Maltese Falcon's lossless mono track sounds very spry for its age, though hiss is more than evident for the bulk of the film's running time. Dialogue is extremely crisp and clear, and Deutsch's cues (at least on everything but the German track) are amazingly forceful (listen at the 13 minute mark, for example), with abundant fidelity through all ranges. While highs are a bit buried underneath the hiss, overall this is a very pleasing sonic experience, one which doesn't sound overly boxy or tinny and which gives a little extra "oomph" to the lows especially courtesy of the lossless audio.
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Almost all of the supplements of the great three disc Collector's Edition SD-DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray. Sadly, the inclusion of the two previous versions of the film has not. Otherwise, you get:
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Maltese Falcon is simply as good as it gets in virtually every department. Bogart has never been better, the supporting cast is terrific, and the film teeters just on the edge of some very depraved behavior, making it a fascinatingly provocative feature for the relatively prim world of 1941. John Huston became a titan overnight with the release of this film, and it's still easy to see why 70 years later. While I have some minor quibbles with this Blu-ray, more reasonable souls out there probably won't. Very highly recommended.
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The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Duo of Bogart Classics Announced on Blu-ray - June 28, 2010
Warner Home Video has announced two classic movies starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston for release on Blu-ray on October 5: the 1941 detective story The Maltese Falcon, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and the 1947 anti-heroic adventure The ...
• Warner Catalog Blu-ray Slate for 2010 Revealed - January 27, 2010
Veteran site DVD Town has published a post revealing the release dates for many titles that Warner Home Video intends to release on Blu-ray during all of 2010, including some bona fide classics, a comedy wave in August, science-fiction in September, a couple of ...
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