Directors have been building trustworthy bonds with recurring actors long before all the contemporary hand-in-hand conglomerates that populate Hollywood nowadays. One of the more legendary of these pairings, of course, is that of Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, whose collaborations over their twelve years together range from enveloping adventures like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to talky crime dramas like Key Largo that gravitated towards film-noir sensibilities. Then, there's The Maltese Falcon, Huston's earliest directorial effort and, obviously, the first time he and Bogie paired together, which serves as a genesis for both their adventurous tales and their endeavors into noir. In fact, it's the catalyst for Hollywood's fascination with the noir genre as a whole, though the breadth of its tonal scope -- existing as one of cinema's finest creations -- clearly doesn't limit its appeal to just genre appreciators.
With Huston also as screenwriter as he adapts Dashiell Hammett's '30s detective novel in an Academy Award-nominated effort, The Maltese Falcon centers on private investigator Sam Spade (Bogart) as he makes heads-'n-tails about a motley crew of world-traveling hooligans out to find a gem-encrusted statue. A simple trail-'n-observe job quickly turns into a murder investigation after his partner is shot, lugging Spade in between high-rise buildings in San Francisco to sort out the details surrounding his client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). It's tricky enough to pry answers from Ruth's compulsive lying, later called Brigid O'Shaughnessy; but when smarmy Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and a ritzy, worldly "fat man" Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) begin making high-dollar offers for Sam to bring them the statue, the actual reason why Brigid hired the detectives, Spade starts thinking on his feet and pushing buttons -- both to solve the case and to locate the statue himself.
Like many films that ignite a trend or sub-genre, The Maltese Falcon projects the typographical points that have come to hallmark the film-noir genre in restrained, less-obvious ways -- especially when it comes to its aesthetics. Shadowy silhouettes, flashbacks, and reflective narration aren't too be seen or heard as Spade maneuvers about the city and interrogates his subjects, though cinematographer Arthur Edeson's capturing of high-contrast "chiaroscuro" lighting and skewed photographic angles do begin to outline that stylish veneer. Yet when the light pours into the Spade-Archer office and bounces off the billows of smoke and against Spade's pin-striped suit, it generates a mood that's impossible not to revel in from start to finish -- carrying an alluring, metropolitan spark that leaves the audience wanting more after the credits roll and the mystery finds a conclusion. It clearly shows off the vaulting points of film-noir's roots in Hollywood, as the Huston-Edeson combo coat the picture with an opaque, sophisticated finish.
On the flipside, there aren't very many components at-play in The Maltese Falcon that fall in line with the era's crime-action pictures, like Angels with Dirty Faces, with little gunfire and even fewer scenes involving speeding cars -- none, even. This is a picture that moves from one smoky box of a room to another without guns being drawn upon every flinch, filling the walls with bigheaded archetypes of characters instead of rowdy, bold theatrics. Huston keeps the physical tempo low as scenes move from dimly-lit location to location, emphasizing the verbal and body language between the characters. Then, when guns actually are drawn by characters with dollar signs and desperation in their eyes, they're given a true sense of weight that veers from being flippant revolver-slinging melodrama. Its strategic use of these elements of danger are what continue the film's reputation as one of the period's earliest, and most elegant, triumphs in the detective-mystery genre.
The Maltese Falcon makes its dialogue -- and the gradient of off-kilter, universally flawed noir-ish characters -- the paramount focus, creating jittery suspense in the many twists and turns that arise from simple verbal developments. Huston's meticulously labored-over script, both its furious rhythm and the razor-sharp stream of memorable dialogue, emanates a level of stylish craftsmanship that demands the audience's well-attenuated attention, though that won't be difficult to obtain. From the first conversation with Ruth in the Spade-Archer office, it becomes paramount to pay close attention to every thread and detail within the conversations, while also allowing their demeanors to speak louder than the potentially false content each character spews out. And it's all so wittily pleasurable to behold, all under the atmosphere of early-40s architecture and a few symbolic visual orchestrations.
In that, The Maltese Falcon constructs exceptionally captivating characters, all of which gear towards the film's kinetic stratagems. When Peter Lorre slithers into Sam's office as the meek but unsettling Joel Cairo, reminding us of his unsettling place in Fritz Lang's M for a moment, he introduces the idea of true villainy around the hunt for the falcon statue through the eyes of a man utterly driven by its existence. Conversely, the conniving allure of portly kingpin Kasper Gutman, fleshed out by Sydney Greenstreet, reflects on a character that's as captivated by the item's existence, yet world-weary and elegant in his maneuvering to obtain it -- as well as respectful of its origins. His sly glances and carriage during the scene where he sits with Sam Spade and describes the falcon's history, all while observing the P.I.'s manner as he drinks a spiked cocktail, mesmerize with both the character's distinction and deviance.
But Huston's take on Hammett's detective novel wouldn't be the enduring classic that it's become without Humphrey Bogart as the quintessential anti-hero, along with the way he both manipulates and falls under the salacious manipulation of Mary Astor's femme fatale. Carrying the momentum he generated from roles in Dark Victory and the John Huston-written High Sierra, Bogart neatly exudes the attitude of a cool, collected and ultimately acquisitive detective pushed to his limits with Sam Spade, falling into the quick-fire dialogue with observable shifts in his calmness. Within Spade's scheming, nickel-and-diming his assorted acquaintances and raising the stakes for his location of the falcon, he deftly balances both the noble and ostentatious sides of the character into one of the more three-dimensional entities in cinema. As Brigid tells lie after lie in rigid attempts to yank on Sam's strings like a marionette, the way he strategically alternates between conceding and walling up translates into a unforgettable string of situational exchanges between the two. Is it romance, or is it all a ploy? That might never be answered.
The Maltese Falcon burns bright and hard for the entirety of its 100-minute span, concentrating on quick exposition and subtle-yet-punchy twists that lead into a thrilling conclusion which never leaves the confines of a single room -- for the entirety of thirty or so minutes. There, the crew of cutthroats, strong arms, detectives and manipulators all gather in a whirlwind of plot illumination and crafty double-crossing embedded with skillfully assembled dialogue, simmering and itching to pull the trigger on the opportunity to obtain the falcon for mixed motives. Yet that's one of the most intriguing things about Huston's film: we're never allowed to see the bird for ourselves until it's absolutely necessary, which emphasizes the figurative ground that the film predicates on -- and why Spade's "the stuff that dreams are made of" line endures as a classic, meaningful trope delivered from the cinematic world. They're all warring over the idea of holding the statue in their hands, of victory, showing how the drive to obtain the near-obtainable can consume, inspire, and ultimately destroy those devoted to it.
Video and Audio:
Simply put, Warner Bros. treat their heavy-hitter classics with the utmost refinement on the home video front (check out Casablanca and North by Northwest for reference), and The Maltese Falcon's beautiful 1.33:1 1080p VC-1 encode certainly doesn't veer away from that consistency. Arthur Edeson's cinematography covers a lot of ground when it comes to contrast fluctuations, many of which are rather dark and moody, and the changes in depth are handled nimbly on this disc -- such as the layers on Sam Spade's suit, a dark street sign visible in an extremely dark frame, and the low-lit ambiance in interior shots. But it's also a bit different than the starkly-handled Casablanca disc and some of Criterion's grayscale images, while also presented with opposition from Warner's own three-disc special edition DVD -- an exquisite standard-definition image that, upon comparison, stands up extremely well against the Blu-ray image.
Some extremely impressive renderings of fine high-definition detail also can be spotted, like in the weave pattern on Gutman's henchman as he sits in the lobby and the scratches and woodgrain on Archer's desk when Sam looks over from his seat. With that same idea in mind, it's a marvel to see the differing arrays of fabric in the costume design, from the muted sheen on Mary Astor's robe in her place to the natural shine on a leather couch. All of that pours through a healthy, supportive layer of film grain that admirably reflects the film's early '40s age within an exquisitely clean print, which also sees a tighter grip on the frame through reduced jitter (note the "Shadowing Thursby" newspaper bit). There are a few exceptions to the accolades; one scene involving Sam Spade and Miles Archer's wife shows off the disc's intermittent problem with slight softness, while the black levels are rendered with a deeper, opulent richness than expected. However, while in 24fps motion as it gracefully moves through its stark hour-and-a-half with the audience, The Maltese Falcon really does look striking in Warner's Blu-ray image.
Similarly, the Mono DTS HD Master Audio track also has to stand against a fine Dolby Digital Mono track from the DVD -- but there are, of course, some notable differences that give the high-definition audio a distinct edge. Both express a fine balance that masks the age of the film rather well, but the Master Audio track blankets the age further with a cleaner stream of dialogue clearness, musical balance, and sharply-pitched sound effects. Bogie's raspy voice hits the lower-middle bass space a bit deeper and more naturally, while the more forceful musical thrusts exhibit a bit less distortion. Elements like gunfire, the clanking of a dropped glass, and the ringing of Sam's phone in the middle of the night hit higher pitches with improved clarity, while the subtle bass from punches exhibit a throatier oomph at the low end. Remember, a lot of this stems from subtle differences that really only become readily apparent when compared head-to-head, but overall this audio track excellently mirrors the visual treatment. German, Spanish, and Portuguese language tracks are also available, as are English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazilian), Danish, Suomi, Russian, Nordic, and Swedish subtitles.
Recently, Warner Bros. have been maintaining a pretty rigid status-quo with their catalog Blu-rays that's both pleasing and a bit frustrating in regards to supplements, in that they're remembering to include all previous features without anything new to discuss. The Maltese Falcon continues that by carrying over all of the supplements from Disc One and Disc Three from the 2006 release -- nothing more, nothing less. Note that this does not include the material from Disc Two of the set, which means that the original The Maltese Falcon ('31) and Satan Met a Lady aren't on this Blu-ray. Therefore, plan accordingly; if you're adventurous, like this reviewer, just grab an empty two-disc case and toss the second disc into the packaging.
From Disc One, a Commentary with Bogart Biographer Eric Lax follows along a rhythm of historical content that remains stiff and not scene-specific but textually insightful for the entire run, talking of how The Maltese Falcon is the epitome of the Hollywood machine, how Mary Astor transition from silent to talkie films, and about the somewhat volatile stream of events in casting Sam Spade. Really, this is a track that'd be just as effective with or without the television on for accompanying video. Along with that, Warner Brothers have also carried over the Warner Night at the Movies experience, which adds animated shorts -- Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (7:74, SD VC-1), Meet John Doughboy(7:00, HD VC-1) -- the live-action Technicolor dance number The Gay Parisian (20:02, SD VC-1), a Vintage Newsreel (1:25, SD VC-1), and a Trailer for Sergeant York (2:00, SD VC-1 16x9) to the front of the film.
From Disc Three, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird (32:05, SD VC-1) piece arrives under the "Behind The Story" section of the disc, along with the Eric Lax commentary. It features interviews with actors, filmmakers, and historians -- as well as Julie Rivett, Dashiel Hammett's granddaughter -- while narration covers the escalation in Hammett's career from "pinkerton" to author, the earlier Maltese Falcon productions, and the emergence of a third adaptation of the novel that'd become one of cinema's legendary pictures. After that, the interviewees ratchet through generic, expected topics, from Bogie's place as a heroic anti-hero and the other actors and actresses to the 35 pages that encapsulated the film's final thirty-minute climax. Also included are several other related and semi-related features, including Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart (44:45, SD VC-1), the studio-wide gag reel Breakdowns of 1941 (12:53, SD VC-1), and Mary Astor's Makeup Tests (1:16, SD VC-1). Topping things off, all three of the Audio Vault Recordings -- the Lux Radio Broadcast (57:39), the Screen Guild Theater Broadcast (28:46), and the Academy Award Theater Broadcast (27:34) -- have been ported over, as have Trailers for Satan Met a Lady (2:30,SD VC-1) and The Maltese Falcon '41 (2:41, SD VC-1)
If you've never seen The Maltese Falcon, you're in for something special. John Huston's freshman attempt in the director's chair adapts Dashiell Hammett's detective novel with a shrewdly-constructed script that's full of some of cinema's very best dialogue, all while telling a superb mystery within the confines of a handful of set pieces and only a few cast members -- showing off a much grander level of storytelling than the confined setting. Paramount of its stellar performances, of course, being Humphrey Bogart, who's bewildering to watch as anti-hero Sam Spade, while the rest of the star-encrusted cast -- from femme fatale Mary Astor and eerie Peter Lorre to the skillfully downplay allure of Sydney Greenstreet -- populate the mystery with equally-dimensional, questionable entities. Out of all Bogie's pictures, and all of Huston's, this one's a personal favorite.
Warner Bros.' Blu-ray offers outstanding audiovisual merits that showcase a very clear, satisfying upgrade over the three-disc special edition DVD from a few years back, though the difference isn't quite as night-and-day due to the excellence of that image. Because of that lower gap in quality, and because Warner only included the (excellent) special features from the previous edition with nothing else added, The Maltese Falcon earns a very, very High Recommendation -- naturally, though, it's a no-brainer for folks who adore the film.
Note: Screenshots from this review are from Warner Brothers' Special Edition DVD and do no reflect the quality of the Blu-ray disc reviewed.