Handsomely packaged in a four-fold, slipcase box set, Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros. presents their Essential Classics: Drama series, gathering together director John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, director Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and director William Wyler's Ben-Hur. Priced inexpensively, each title utilizes the very best transfers from their most recent DVD releases, along with some (but not all) of the bonuses that accompanied those previous collector editions. A perfect gift for someone who just wants the titles (and who doesn't care if all the bonuses are there), or if you need to build up your library at little cost, the Essential Classics: Drama -- The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, and Ben-Hur is a terrific four-disc DVD compilation.
While the grouping of these three seminal titles may make you scratch your head initially, if you think about it, nobody guessed wrong here. These are essential dramas, the very best examples of their genres (if you can even place Citizen Kane into a single genre), and titles that invite repeated viewings -- as well as endless discussions and critiques: The Maltese Falcon, a brilliant distillation of the private eye picture (and a precursor to film noir); Citizen Kane, long considered one of the single greatest films of any genre produced, and Ben-Hur, the supreme example of Hollywood epic filmmaking at its most outsized, as well as its most intimate.
Unlike most of my reviews, I see no need to try and "sell you" on these titles, or offer a perspective you may not have thought of concerning these timeless classics. Frankly, to try would be pointless (and most probably futile on my limited part). These three titles (particularly Citizen Kane) occupy a critical space that essentially moves beyond criticism in its traditional sense and usage. There are no arguments anymore on whether or not these films "work" or "succeed" in an artistic sense. They simply do. Only arguments that further parse what has already been said by countless other critics really suffice, or perhaps a stray observation here or there that sounds fresh or new, might be necessary. Otherwise, these three behemoths of cinema stand inviolate; they've proven their worth over decades of viewing. They continue to draw fascinated audiences fifty and sixty years after their premieres - the only true artistic (the degree of "art" is relative, however) yardstick for the success of a film. So I'm quite content here to go briefly over the films, throwing out an observation here or there, safe in the knowledge that no matter what foolish thing I say about each of these titles, they will survive quite well with or without my help.
THE MALTESE FALCON
Containing one of my favorite Bogart performances, director and screenwriter John Huston adapted Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled detective novel into a Chinese puzzle of interconnecting cons and lies, perpetrated by a charming rogues' gallery of desperate killers all searching for "the stuff that dreams are made of." Private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself up to his neck in intrigue when sexy, deadly wasp Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) enters his office and starts him off on a wild goose chase to acquire the famed Maltese Falcon, a jewel-encrusted statuette that thieves have pursued throughout the ages. Joining the chase are perverse, strange Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), gargantuan whale Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), and cheapjack punk Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Alternately toying with and taunting these at times funny killers, Spade finds himself falling for O'Shaughnessy, despite his code of ethics that demands he take the fall for no one.
Watching The Maltese Falcon for what has to be the twentieth time, I'm constantly amazed at the level of humor that director Huston infuses into the story. Listen to the marvelous soundtrack by Adolph Deutsch; many times the musical cues comes straight out of a screwball comedy film. Naturally, Lorre's and Greenstreet's roles are broadly comedic, but Bogart's sneering, intelligent performance, a quantum leap forward compared to his previous gangster/tough guy roles, is played mostly for laughs, until Huston increasingly invests Spade with feelings for Brigid, turning things deadly serious for the detective. Huston had a curious ability to bring humor into the most unfunny situations (try watching something like Reflections in a Golden Eye or The Treasure of Sierra Madre and see how comedic much of the material comes across), and The Maltese Falcon is no different. But then again, that artistic gestalt may best sum up Huston's avowed Irish personality: laughter in the face of supreme sadness. And The Maltese Falcon is quite sad, with Astor's brilliant performance noted often for its wit and iciness, but not very often for the depth of morose sadness she often slips into her various scenes (her final perceived "betrayal" by Spade is hauntingly played). It's that bemused, emotional detachment from life's concrete betrayals that I find a most interesting thread throughout Huston's work, and it's clearly evident here in his first directorial effort.
Utilizing the immaculate full frame transfer from the previous three-disc collector's edition, The Maltese Falcon looks stunning in Arthur Edeson's crisp, chiaroscuro black and white cinematography. Unless you have the previous DVD release, you've never seen The Maltese Falcon look this good before.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono soundtrack is more than adequate for the job here. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. Close-captioning is available.
There are no additional, new extras for this DVD release; they're the same ones available on the last collector's edition release. There's an informative commentary track from Eric Lax, along with a cool feature that recreates a night at the movies in 1941: Warner Night at the Movies 1941. The bonus items in this feature include a trailer for Sergeant York, a vintage newsreel, The Gay Parisian, a Technicolor musical short subject directed by Jean Negulesco, Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt, an early Bugs Bunny cartoon, Meet John Doughboy, an early Porky Pig cartoon, and a trailer for The Maltese Falcon.
Cruel, cynical, grimly humorous and above all, supremely cool, Humphrey Bogart defined the image of the private detective, while director John Huston delivered a perverse comedy of errors masquerading as a slick whodunit. Surprising even today after numerous viewings, The Maltese Falcon is required viewing.
Do I really have to give you a synopsis? Of course you've seen Citizen Kane, dear reader, but I'll give the very barest of bones synopsis. Wunderkid director Orson Welles directs himself in a thinly veiled assault on real-life media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Charles Foster Kane, farmed out to be raised by a bank when his poor parents unexpectedly come into money, Kane rapidly acquires one of the largest personal fortunes in the world. Wielding at first benevolent power in the form of a crusading big-city newspaper, Kane quickly degenerates into a power-hungry tyrant who believes he can control those around him as easily as he influences the politics of the American society. He soon learns, however, that he's powerless to make people love and respect him, and he dies alone and abandoned within his moldering, crumbling pleasure dome of an estate.
Watching Citizen Kane for the umpteenth time, I was most struck by how much the whole thing plays like a horror film. The opening in particular is the best Universal monsters opening that Universal never shot, and throughout the film, Kane is viewed with awe and dread by the supporting players, as if he's some kind of Golem who devours everything and everyone in his path. Of course, what one notices right away is the incredible cinematic techniques that Welles utilizes for Kane, but that quickly fades as you're drawn up in the story, an epic filled with absolute gloom and doom. What levity there is - and there are quite a few humorous moments in the film - is constantly leavened by a feeling of airless, air-tight constriction, a monumental exercise in directorial control that leaves no room for the audience to breathe comfortably. It's a remarkably pessimistic take on personal ambition and love, and feels as fresh as the day it was made. If I had my druthers, I'd make a case for The Magnificent Ambersons being Welles' greatest masterpiece -- even with the missing footage -- but no one can deny that Citizen Kane is an astounding piece of filmmaking, made even more miraculous because it was the first cinematic effort of its young director.
The DVD transfer for Citizen Kane is flawless, with Gregg Toland's deep-focus cinematography brilliantly alive here.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono soundtrack is up to the task. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Close-captioning is available.
Included here are two fascinating full-length commentaries by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich. As well, there's footage from the original New York premiere back in 1941, as well as the original trailer. Text info on the production (including storyboards, call sheets and a still gallery), post production (script notes on deleted scenes, ad campaign, original press book and info on the opening night), and Production notes on the entire production.
Justly considered one of the greatest films ever made, Citizen Kane delivers something new every time you see it. While many comment on the technique of Welles the director, Kane is also one of his greatest performances, filled with epic, volcanic rages, snits, sneering humor, and bone-dry wit. You have to see it at least twice.
Based on that old popular literary war-horse by General Lew Wallace, and a remake of director Fred Niblo's classic 1925 silent version, 1959's Ben-Hur was the horse that failing M-G-M was betting on saving their studio. Crippled by television's inroads into their audience, as well as several years of underperforming films, M-G-M put the then-unheard of sum of $15 million dollars into remaking this popular tale of a Jewish prince and his spiritual awakening in the presence of Jesus. Filmed on a scale not equaled even today, director William Wyler put the emphasis on widescreen action and splendor (utilizing M-G-M's 65 mm Camera 65 process), and topped off the religious spectacle with a chariot race that to this day, outperforms all other action sequences. The result, of course, was Oscars for everybody, and a huge payday for M-G-M.
Telling the tale of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), Ben-Hur follows Judah's fall from wealthy prince to galley slave, courtesy of old childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman centurion sent to Judea to break the backs of the rebellious Jews. Betraying Judah, Messala sends him to a certain death sentence: rowing in the Roman galleys. But Judah survives long enough to save captain Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who adopts him. Now, Judah fights for Judea's honor against Messala in the chariot races, which he promptly wins. Now, he must find his mother and sister, who were last seen in the Valley of the Lepers, sentenced there by a vengeful Messala.
Watching Ben-Hur for like the 40th time (every Easter for decades, plus assorted viewings throughout the year), what strikes me as most fascinating - as it does for most of Wyler's big scale pictures like the similarly structured The Big Country - is his willingness to be presentation in his style. In no way afraid to present spectacle for spectacle's sake, his set pieces succeed largely because such meticulous care is taken in presenting them as set pieces. Wyler makes no apologies for stopping the film several times to present a beautifully tempoed, metronome-timed action piece (the galley rowing sequence, the chariot race). Indeed, Wyler appears to be afraid of nothing here in Ben-Hur. While many directors might have skirted the more melodramatic elements of the script (the good white horses of Ben-Hur versus the bad black horses of Massala, for example), Wyler plunges straight ahead, turning potential camp into realistic, weighted drama. It's a basic seriousness that Wyler brings to Ben-Hur (there's no levity here) which is the only approach for such a massive undertaking. Any deviation in his focus, and the production would have spun wildly out of control in both tone and cohesiveness. Despite recent pretenders to the throne, Ben-Hur still stands as the epitome of exquisite Hollywood craftsmanship in service of epic themes.
Looking at about 2.4 to 2.7:1 aspect ratio, the widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs digital transfer for Ben-Hur is simply breathtaking. I had the good fortune to see this film projected in its proper ratio on a huge screen, and this transfer approximates that superior image most closely.
Available in a speaker-blasting Dolby Digital English Surround 5.1 stereo mix, this closely approximates the original stereo theatrical presentation. A French Surround 5.1 is also available. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available, as well as close-captioning options.
Unfortunately, the only extras included on this two-disc DVD of Ben-Hur includes a commentary track by T. Gene Hatcher, with intermittent commentary by Charlton Heston. There's also a music-only track available. That's it -- not even the original trailer is included.
Spectacle on a scale not attempted before or since (and remember, no CGI effects), Ben-Hur succeeds stupendously on that level alone. The dramatics strike some as stolid, but I find them sincere and well acted. An absolute must for any film student or fan trying to understand the Hollywood language of the epic.
Final Thoughts on the Boxed Set:
Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros.' Essential Classics: Drama -- The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, and Ben-Hur box set is a handsomely packaged, cheaply-priced way to get three essential classic library titles, flawlessly transferred with some enticing extras, in a convenient three-pack -- a perfect gift for a film fan who doesn't want to be bothered with the expensive, individual collectors' editions. I highly recommend Essential Classics: Drama -- The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, and Ben-Hur.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.