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Seeing a great picture like the original King Kong in Blu-ray can be deceptive when the film elements available do not include the original negative. Kong is a marvelous job of restoration that some viewers will undoubtedly still criticize. But we're happy to say that Warners' new Blu-ray of The Maltese Falcon really pops in HD, looking and sounding every bit as good as an original nitrate release print. I know, as I was lucky to see the studio's vault copy back at UCLA in 1974. We sat through a lot of grim-quality 16mm film back then, and when a truly great print went up on the giant Melnitz screen, we really took notice.
Humphrey Bogart has been confirmed as the most enduringly popular Hollywood movie star of them all, a claim that makes complete sense. When college-age kids rediscovered classic Hollywood in the middle sixties Bogart was the first to receive official icon status, closely followed by the clowns W.C. Fields and Mae West. A genuine miracle picture, The Maltese Falcon gave Bogie a solid career boost, boosted several character actors and launched John Huston as a major director. The timing was perfect for the incredibly lucky Huston; he entered the war years as a full writing-directing talent, leaving behind his image as the wildcat son of a show-biz acting family. The Maltese Falcon is also a solid step forward for the noir style, although its hardboiled pulp pedigree and the later noir mainstream are actually cats of a different stripe. Finally, Bogart's supreme personality glosses over what is really a stinker of a main character. That Sam Spade turns out to be a 'good guy' at the end is little more than a nod to commercial necessity.
Dashiell Hammett's original story was followed very closely, minus some censorable details. Hired by Miss Wonderley / Brigid O'Shaughnessy (the sensual Mary Astor), detective Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) is shot dead. To get at the truth, Miles' partner Sam Spade (Bogart) connives with the greedy schemes of a group of murderous adventurers. O'Shaughnessy leads him to the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and the devious, enormous Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), all of whom covet a purloined artifact allegedly worth a million dollars. Whatever his loyalties, Spade had better be able to explain a string of murders to the cops, who are beginning to suspect that his cynical attitude may be hiding an actual guilt.
The Maltese Falcon is another indicator of the rise of the writer-director hyphenate in Hollywood. Ace scribe Preston Sturges had just gotten started directing, and with this picture John Huston turned Hollywood moviemaking on its ear. Pulled straight from Hammett's book, his schemers are free of the stylistic restraints usually applied by the studios. They aren't glamorized in appearance or habitat and the movie hasn't been neutered with injections of 'comedy relief,' musical interludes or sentimental back-stories. No, audiences had to shut up and listen hard to keep up with this fast moving, smart talking film. The comedy is built into Hammett's hardboiled dialogue, but is nowhere as stylized as the zingers to come in pictures like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past. Bogart's Sam Spade doesn't sling quips to polish his ego, but to keep his opponents off guard.
This is Bogie's finest hour. Everything's in the dialogue, which leaves the actor little time for ticks and idle gestures. In other movies Bogart often twitches or hikes his pants up for want of something to do on screen. When Bogart got lazy he'd let his bedraggled face and haunted eyes do all the work, but here he's terrific, plain and simple. Bogie benefited from the fact that audiences knew him mostly as a villain and were rooting for him to prevail his way; his relative ruthlessness in The Maltese Falcon seemed much more credible than the fairy-tale idealism of something like The Roaring Twenties.
Huston gets away with sexual allusions that the Production Code normally forbade. Hammett's provocative names remain intact: Wonderley (Wonderful Lay?) and Brigid (Frigid?) are just as descriptive as Gutman (Fatso) and Dundy (Dunce). In 1941 terms the Joel Cairo character is a pureblood pansy, and is given a perfumed calling card for Spade to roll his eyes over. The obviously paranoid Wilmer (Wilma?) Cook is passive and testosterone-challenged. He appears to be in an intimate relationship with Gutman. Spade repeatedly takes Wilmer's two enormous pistols away from him. The film's biggest laugh comes when we're told that, even though Wilmer shot an old man twice, the codger still knocked him down and escaped. Brigid's role in the caper is fairly explicit -- she seduces problem partners like Floyd Thursby and anyone else who gets in the way. If a chump 'plays for the other team,' Joel goes to work. In other words, the Gutman gang is a remarkable bunch of (in 1941 terms) sexual deviates. This isn't coded behavior, as Cairo demonstrates his oral fixation on a cane-head and openly spars with O'Shaughnessy on female terms -- scratching and kicking. "Oooh!"
When it comes to negotiating a double-cross, Sam Spade can best of all of this riffraff put together. Spade sees through the pretense. He humors Brigid and bluffs Gutman, being careful never to reveal how little he knows of what's really going in. Spade has an advantage on the audience as well, as we have a hard enough time assembling the character of the opposition. We accept the phony Miss Wonderley at face value, at least at first. The notion that a detective's first interviewee is always lying wasn't the cliché that it is now, but we still fall for it.
Bogart's star charisma glosses over the fact that Sam Spade isn't a standard good guy. If we look at Spade's behavior for what it is rather than what Bogie makes of it, he's a complete heel. Spade's last-scene declaration of the Detective's Code is utter self-serving baloney. His scruples about honor between partners are a joke when we remember that he's engaged in an ongoing affair with Miles Archer's wife Iva (Gladys George). In another exchange, Spade's own secretary alludes to his skill as a lady-killer. Spade's first act after his partner is killed is to have the office signs changed. He openly admits that money can stretch his commitment to the law. For all we can see, Spade is quite willing to play along with his co-conspirators. He delights in shaking them down for money and may even be serious about setting up Wilmer as the fall guy, even though it later becomes clear that he's reserving Brigid for that honor. Spade is just as spellbound as the others when the Falcon is unwrapped, and only gets a 'noble' look in his eyes after the opportunity for a big payday vanishes.
As first explained by Julie Kirgo in her perceptive article in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Spade is particularly sadistic in his treatment of Brigid O'Shaughnessy. He sees through her fakery early on and spends the whole movie amused that she still thinks she's getting away with something. It's also implied that he sleeps with her. Brigid is guilty and deserves to go to prison, but Spade derives entirely too much pleasure from turning her in, while enjoying the luxury of acting high-handed about it. He pretends he was honor-bound to deal out justice from the very beginning, when he was obviously a cynical player, careful to leave all options open.
Warners' Blu-ray of The Maltese Falcon bests the 2006 DVD release in the expected categories -- more detail, a wider range of contrast, improved stability, a sharper image overall. To those observations add that the BD also captures a feeling of the surface texture of original WB B&W prints. Warners films weren't as bright or as slick looking as those high-key Paramount or MGM films, and Arthur Edeson's work here goes for a pleasing naturalistic feel. I think the Blu-ray communicates some of this quality.
Warners have retained the "Warner Night at the Movies" extras from the earlier special edition. They include a trailer for Sergeant York, a newsreel and a grandiose ballet short subject The Gay Parisian directed by Jean Negulesco and choreographed by Léonide Massine. The Friz Freleng color Bugs Bunny cartoon Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt and the Bob Clampett B&W Porky Pig cartoon Meet John Doughboy have racial stereotypes (and some fairly raw sexual innuendoes), yet play just fine without P.C. disclaimers. Some of these extras might be in HD, but others are clearly not. The feature has a second commentary track by Bogart biographer Eric Lax, who gives a brisk, fact-filled discourse on the film, all of the actors and the state of the studio during filming. This man knows a lot of back stories about Huston, Bogart and the production, and if you try the track you could very well find yourself listening to the whole thing in one go.
Also included is WB's good docu, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird. A long list of qualified interviewees explain the show from all angles. We see scenes from the earlier, less faithful versions of the movie, and get a good overview of the legacy of author Dashiell Hammett. A section of Humphrey Bogart trailers is actually a vintage Turner Classic Movies Becoming Attractions show, with a younger Robert Osborne hosting. An audio gallery offers three different radio adaptations, two with some of the original stars and one with Edward G. Robinson. Finally, the 1941 Warner Blooper reel is a great opportunity to enjoy one's favorite stars screwing up takes and spouting profanity. Yes, James Stewart does know how to swear.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.