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Warner Home Video presents
The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Special Edition) (1941)

"When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!"
- Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: October 19, 2006

Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor
Other Stars: Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook, Jr.
Director: John Huston

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:40m:23s
Release Date: October 03, 2006
UPC: 012569679863
Genre: mystery


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AAA A+

DVD Review

As Humphrey Bogart soberly opines in the movie's final seconds, the Maltese Falcon is "the stuff that dreams are made of." And for a while, the Hollywood Dream Factory seemed just as obsessed with that cursed black bird as the avaricious trio in Dashiell Hammett's novel. Surely, the three Warner brothers fell under its powerful spell, for why else would they film the book three separate times over the course of a single decade? (An early talkie with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels came first, followed by a 1936 comic spoof that was so ill-advised it provoked Bette Davis to breach her Warner contract and flee to England.) There's no denying Hammett's hard-boiled tale of a coveted ornithological statue ranks among the best mysteries of all time—and almost single-handedly transformed detective stories into literature—but such preoccupation seems excessive, even by Hollywood's bloated standards. Though several oft-quoted maxims could explain Warner's willingness to continually recycle the material ("If at first you don't succeed..." chief among them), "the third time's the charm" fits best. With Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in iconic supporting roles, writer-director John Huston's telling of The Maltese Falcon stands as the definitive version, as well as the quintessential private-eye film. And after it was released in 1941, no one in the movie industry dared touch the property again.

And rightly so. Every element of this magnificent picture is top-notch—direction, casting, music, photography—but the screenplay outshines them all. Huston brilliantly translates Hammett's terse, gritty prose into the language of celluloid, with images and dialogue that mirror the novel's every page. Sure, he takes a few liberties—softening Spade somewhat, cutting the final scene, and only hinting at another character's homosexuality (due, in part, to the era's rigid production code)—but the tone remains blessedly faithful to Hammett. Though a Rubic's cube might be easier to align than the tangled threads of this fascinating yarn, every tricky plot point, carefully constructed deception, and oblique relationship somehow finds its way into Huston's script, and the result is a textured tableau that requires several delicious viewings to fully digest.

To many, adapting The Maltese Falcon would be challenge enough, but the film also marked Huston's directorial debut, and he handles his dual duties with the maturity and aplomb of a far more experienced craftsman. Mastering camera angles and continuity, deftly handling a big-name cast, and developing artistic flair often take years, but the 35-year-old Huston possesses the whole package right out of the gate. Never does he stumble or feel his way, like most novices; a brash confidence pervades the film, and with enviable ease he merges the story's dingy settings, tough talk, and sordid actions with a satiny narrative style that seamlessly connects each scene. "Elegant" isn't a word often used in connection with this genre, but in The Maltese Falcon, Huston—much like Martin Scorsese would do years later—makes the morally repugnant not just accessible, but also palatable, even beautiful.

The intrigue begins when a distraught Brigid (using an alias) enlists private detectives Spade and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to tail a shady character named Thursby, who might have abducted her sister. Archer winds up dead (along with Thursby), and much to his cynical chagrin, Spade finds himself the chief suspect. He presses Brigid for answers, but she remains exasperatingly vague, and though he doesn't buy her damsel-in-distress routine, he has trouble resisting her vulnerable veneer. Soon, however, the oily Joel Cairo (Lorre) darkens Spade's door, and hopes the detective can help him recover "an ornament that has been mislaid." That ornament turns out to be a mysterious, jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon that has beguiled and eluded fortune-hunters since the 16th century. It's also the engine that's spinning the ever-widening web of deceit in which Spade finds himself ensnared. Brigid—along with Cairo and Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), a rotund and ruthless collector—consider the priceless bird their Holy Grail, and go to obscene and violent lengths to obtain it.

Though it's often difficult to process the convoluted plot (especially the first time through), concentrating too intently on all the twists, turns, and double-crosses makes one miss many of the subtleties that make The Maltese Falcon so rich and satisfying. The humor, atmosphere, pacing, and performances all need to be savored to fully appreciate them. In addition to the quartet of leads, Huston spices up his full-flavored brew with such fine character actors as Gladys George, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Ward Bond (as well as the aforementioned Cowan).

Yet most importantly, The Maltese Falcon gives birth—at long last—to the Bogart persona. Finally playing the hero instead of the heavy, and given the chance to strut his considerable stuff, Bogart burns his image into the lens, and embraces the jumble of contradictions that would forever after define him—tough yet tender, cynical yet sensitive, droll yet serious, honest yet corruptible, noble yet selfish. Though he shares the screen with a formidable array of actors—two of whom (Lorre and Greenstreet) would never fully eclipse their superb performances (or escape the subsequent typecasting)—Bogart commands the screen, and never relinquishes control, no matter how hard his colleagues try to wrangle it away.

The falcon may be elusive, but this classic film captures the essence of Bogart, Huston, and the hard-edged detective genre. Others may argue, but to me, that's worth far more than any jewel-encrusted black bird. Case closed.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The packaging promises a "new digital transfer...from restored elements," and delivers it in—pardon the pun—spades. The image is as crisp, clear, and shiny as a freshly minted penny, with only minimal grain and the black-and-white photography reminding us of the film's age. The nicely varied gray scale features delectably inky blacks, and the slightly muted contrast preserves the subtle noir flavor. Virtually no specks or grit sully the pristine print, which ranks among the best of Warner's classic movie transfers. Never—not even on its initial release, I'm sure—has The Maltese Falcon looked this good.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The original mono audio has been carefully remastered, erasing such telltale signs of age as hiss, pops, crackles, and distortion. The exquisite dialogue, even when it's recited with rapid-fire alacrity, is always easy to comprehend, and Adolph Deutsch's music score enjoys a robust fullness of tone.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Sergeant York, Satan Met a Lady
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Warner Night at the Movies 1941, including a vintage newsreel, short subject, and two classic cartoons
  2. Breakdowns of 1941, studio blooper reel
  3. Makeup tests
  4. Three radio adaptations
Extras Review: This three-disc special edition contains not only the main feature, but the two previous incarnations of The Maltese Falcon, as well as a disc full of extras almost as enticing as the old bird itself. And there's nothing fake about any of them.

Let's begin with Disc 1, which houses Huston's masterwork. The substantial supplements open with the always enjoyable Warner Night at the Movies program, which recreates a typical evening at the cinema during Hollywood's Golden Age. This 1941 edition kicks off with a re-release trailer for Gary Cooper's Sergeant York (which won him a Best Actor Academy Award), followed by a vintage newsreel focusing on a Churchill-Roosevelt summit aboard a U.S. battleship, and the Oscar-nominated, Technicolor short subject, The Gay Parisian, a sophisticated, terpsichorean pantomime starring the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and directed by Jean Negulesco. (Who knew the studio that produced Little Caesar and The Public Enemy could be so highbrow?) Rounding out the lineup are two seven-minute Looney Tunes cartoons—the Oscar-nominated Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (an early Bugs Bunny effort in color) and Meet John Doughboy (a black-and-white animated newsreel introduced by Porky Pig and featuring a "cameo" by Jack Benny and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson).

An audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax contains moments of insight and a few entertaining anecdotes, but is poorly organized and often frustrating. Rather than opening with a discussion of the original novel or a chronicle of the film's production, Lax immediately launches into a litany of dry bios of actors and crew members, then follows up with lengthy discourses on High Sierra, John Huston's early screenwriting efforts, and the Warner Bros. studio—all quite interesting, but only tangentially related to The Maltese Falcon. Later on, Lax gains steam and focuses more intently on the picture at hand, but still only seems to scratch the surface. More time spent on Hammett, the novel, character analysis, and studio memos (of which there are several) would make this commentary more compelling.

An original theatrical trailer completes the Disc 1 extras.

Disc 2 houses Warner's two previous stabs at The Maltese Falcon, and though both significantly pale when compared to Huston's effort, they're fun to watch and possess enough individual merits to make their inclusion relevant. The first attempt, directed by Roy Del Ruth in 1931, holds up quite well, and nicely adheres to Hammett's novel despite a running time that's 20 minutes shorter than the version a decade later. The screenplay puts more emphasis on romance (which detracts slightly from the story's tension), and the period's looser moral code allows more sexuality to heat up the proceedings. It's too bad, though, more sparks don't fly between the two leads. Far less incendiary than Bogart, the bland Ricardo Cortez plays Spade as a dapper playboy instead of a down-and-dirty detective (and makes one wonder what Cary Grant might have done with the part), but he's macho and tough when he needs to be. As the Brigid O'Shaughnessy character (named Ruth Wonderly here), Bebe Daniels—best known as the diva who surrenders the spotlight in 42nd Street—is more comely, youthful, and overtly manipulative than Mary Astor, but can't match her successor's intensity or talent. Unfortunately, the primitive filming techniques of the early sound era lend the movie a drab, static quality, and while Warner technicians can't fix that, they've tried their best to clean up the bruised print and scratchy audio. The results are mixed, but considering the picture's advanced age (and diminished reputation), one couldn't hope for a better transfer.

The same is true for Satan Met A Lady, which possesses a slighter sharper, more modern look. Aesthetics alone, however, can't salvage this mildly entertaining yet all-too-goofy oddity, which changes up Hammett's story while severely dumbing it down. Warren William takes a leaf from William Powell's Thin Man playbook (they even look alike!) as he transforms Spade into Ted Shayne, a slick, dashing private dick who falls under the spell of Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis), a glamorous yet unscrupulous dame who'll stop at nothing to retrieve a priceless, jewel-stuffed ram's horn. (Yes, I said ram's horn! Go figure.) The usual suspects stand in her way, including Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth), who—thanks to a sex change—becomes the female equivalent of Kasper Gutman. Davis tries to inject some sanity into the proceedings, but can never rise above the dopey script. Still, it's a hoot to watch her flail about in this embarrassing mess, yet her always impeccable professionalism prohibits her from giving a bad performance. As a bonus, Warner includes the film's original theatrical trailer, which betrays the picture's slapdash nature by shockingly misspelling Hammett's first name.

Disc 3 opens with the all-new documentary, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird, another stellar offering in Warner's series of classic film featurettes. The 32-minute homage includes comments and analysis from such authorities as Hammett's granddaughter, Julie Rivett (who discusses the writer's background), director Peter Bogdanovich, director Frank Miller, historian Rudy Behlmer, and actor James Cromwell. Fellow scribe Raymond Chandler once observed that Hammett forever changed the face of mystery writing by taking murder "out of the drawing room and (dumping) it in the alley where it belongs," and by examining the story's appeal and themes, the film's noir elements, and the terrific performances of the four leading actors, the documentary proves The Maltese Falcon is not only crackerjack entertainment, but an influential and enduring work of art.

Up next, Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne hosts Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart, an enjoyable look at the evolution of the actor's career as seen through the marketing lens of Warner's publicity department. The 1997 TCM program runs 45 minutes and alternates a dozen Bogart previews with introductions and comments from Osborne. In addition to such classics as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a few rarities are sprinkled into the mix, including The Return of Doctor X, Bullets or Ballots, and Passage to Marseille.

More fun is on tap with the annual studio blooper reel, Breakdowns of 1941, which allows us to laugh along with our favorite Warner actors as they flub lines, goof around, and break up on the sets of such films as Torrid Zone, No Time for Comedy, The Bride Came C.O.D., The Great Lie, and The Sea Wolf. These vintage outtakes really are amusing, and the 13-minute short doesn't let anyone off the hook. James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Rosalind Russell, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan, Claude Rains, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and Humphrey Bogart are only a few of the stars whose gaffes have been preserved for all eternity.

A few rare Mary Astor makeup tests (totaling just over a minute and presented without sound) follow, and then it's time for the Audio Vault, which includes three Maltese Falcon radio adaptations. The first, a Lux Radio Theater broadcast from February 1943, stars Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade, Gail Patrick as Brigid, Laird Cregar as Gutman, and a young Bea Benaderet (best known for her role as Kate on Petticoat Junction) in the role of Spade's secretary, Effie. Robinson and Patrick both give marvelous performances, and the tight script condenses the story without compromising it (although the famous last line is strangely deleted). The second adaptation aired a mere seven months later (in September 1943, as part of the Screen Guild Theater series) and reunites the film's original cast. This time, the tale of the black bird is whittled down to a mere half hour, yet somehow Bogart, Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet preserve its power and essence. It would be three years before the third and final radio go-around (again truncated to 30 minutes), which hit the airwaves in July 1946 with the original stars (minus Lorre) once more reprising their roles. Strangely, Bogart gives away the ending during his opening narration, but his portrayal, as well as those of Astor and Greenstreet, remains pitch perfect. The audio quality of all three programs is spotty, with noticeable hiss and static, but it's a treat to hear the different versions and size up the variations in style and plot that distinguish them.

Extras Grade: A+

 

Final Comments

The Maltese Falcon is the stuff that great movies are made of, and this comprehensive three-disc special edition from Warner treats this classic with the respect and reverence it has long deserved. Combine Hammett's complex and compelling tale with a spotless remastered transfer, two previous film versions, and plenty of absorbing extras, and you get one of the premier DVD releases of the year—one that no true film aficionado can afford to be without.

 


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