If "The Maltese Falcon" doesn't qualify as the best private-eye yarn ever filmed, I don't know what does. Hollywood had brought Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel to the screen twice before this one, but never better. John Huston, in his directorial debut in 1941, also adapted the script for this fast-paced mystery; and Humphrey Bogart practically bought the rights not only to the character of Sam Spade but to every future movie gumshoe who would ever pull a gat. In tribute to the best, Warner Home Video's Blu-ray transfer of the film is truly "the stuff that dreams are made of."
For Bogart, detective Sam Spade was a breakthrough part. Consigned mainly to play second-fiddle tough-guy roles in the thirties, Bogart had usually played heavies who died in the final reel. He did get good notices as Duke Mantee in "The Petrified Forest" (1936) and Mad Dog Earle in "High Sierra" (1941), but he was mostly getting plugged at the end of things like "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938), "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), and "The Return of Doctor X" (1939). When he finally got his chance to play the lead in "The Maltese Falcon," he never looked back. The next year it was "Casablanca," and he had firmly etched his star into Hollywood's roster of all-time favorite actors.
As Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective, Bogart is the quintessential antihero. He is the loner with no particularly noble ambitions or romanticized notions. He is an ironclad realistic. When somebody murders his partner, he shrugs it off as part of the job. Everybody knows the risks. And when it comes to love and women, he is equally pragmatic. Bogart may have become the world's leading actor, but he would remain the cynical tough guy throughout his career, right up to his last, wry performance some fifteen years later in "The Harder They Fall."
"The Maltese Falcon" is a story of double-dealing and double crosses in the search for a fabulous "black bird." The object of all the mischief is a fabulous, jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon that has had people cheating, stealing, and killing to get their hands on it for over 400 years. Now, a new group of scoundrels are after it, and their trail has led them to San Francisco and the investigative agency of Spade and Archer. "Trust no one" should be the byword of everyone in the story and the caution to anyone who watches the film. Lies, treachery, deceit, and homicide are the order of the day as nearly all the characters in the movie try to stab one another in the back in their greed for the bird.
The supporting cast were so good together that WB invited many of them back to costar in later Bogart films. Mary Astor plays Brigid O'Shaughnessy (or is it Wonderly, or Leblanc?), whose lies seem to mystify even her. Peter Lorre is Joel Cairo, the weaselly, effeminate little crook who would sell out his mother for the right price. Sydney Greenstreet is the Fat Man, Kasper Gutman, the urbane heavy (really heavy) imitated in about 200 movies since. (The film's closing credits spell it "Kasper," but Hammett spelled it "Casper" in the book.) Elisha Cook, Jr. plays the young-punk gunsel, whose felt hat and twin automatics are bigger than he is ("The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter"). Ward Bond and Barton MacLane are the cops, the sympathetic Detective Polhaus and the hard-nosed Lt. Dundy, forever hounding Spade. Jerome Cowan plays Spade's partner, the dandy Miles Archer. Gladys George plays Archer's wife, with whom Spade has been carrying on an affair. And Lee Patrick is Effie Perine, Spade's ever-loyal secretary and assistant. The director even talked his father, actor Walter Huston, into playing a brief, unbilled bit part as Capt. Jacobi, master of the boat "La Paloma," a fellow shot in the chest and still clutching the falcon in his dying grasp. Apparently as a joke, the elder Huston required his son take hours of retakes for his moment of screen time.
The dialogue crackles in Huston's script--as it should, taken almost verbatim from the novel--and the direction is secure and taut. Critics often credit Huston and "The Maltese Falcon" with starting, or at least popularizing, the film noir style so favored by crime flicks of the later Forties and Fifties. The "Falcon's" city setting, frequently photographed at night, its murky shadows, and its grim, derisive attitude toward people and their motivations all influence our dark perceptions of the story. Yet it is not a depressing motion picture despite its surplus of shady characters and suspicious events. Huston doesn't allow it. The film's vitality and pacing do not permit us to ponder for long the consequences of any one scene or action. Instead, we get caught up in the pulse of the film, pretty much swept along by its deeds, not even particularly saddened or surprised by the pessimism of its ending.
Trivia notes: According to John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989), "the lead role of Sam Spade was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down because of his reluctance to work with an untried director. Geraldine Fitzgerald refused Mary Astor's role for the same reason. Portly stage actor Sydney Greenstreet, nervous and insecure in his first screen role, weighed 285 pounds at the time.... Appearing only briefly in the film, the 18-inch falcon statuette was actually one of seven duplicate figurines made as spare props, one of which made headlines in 1974 by being stolen from a Los Angeles art museum."
The WB video engineers used the best copy of the film they could find, digitally restored from original elements, to transfer to Blu-ray. Using a VC-1 codec and a dual-layer BD50, the engineers preserve the film's 1.33:1 (1.37:1) aspect ratio, maintain strong B&W contrasts, and provide equally good black levels, deep and solid. Object delineation is pretty good, too, a faint, natural film grain visible but not distracting, and no evidence of age deterioration anywhere. The high-def picture quality is first-rate.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural sound is also quite good for its age, coming up as well as we might expect. The lossless audio for the soundtrack renders dialogue cleanly and crisply, with little or no background noise at normal listening levels. The musical score, obviously restricted in frequency and dynamics, nonetheless comes across clearly and persuasively. This may be monaural sound, but it's good monaural sound.
Warner Bros. deck out the Blu-ray disc with most of the extras found on the studio's three-disc DVD edition, the exceptions being the two full-length movie adaptations that preceded the Bogart one. First on the BD is an informed and informative audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax. Next, we have a "Warner Night at the Movies 1941" that includes a vintage newsreel; the Oscar-nominated Technicolor musical short "The Gay Parisian" (twenty minutes of the ballet set to an arrangement of Offenbach tunes, "Gaite Parisiene," and performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo); a trailer for 1941's "Sergeant York"; and two classic cartoons, "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt," in color with Bugs Bunny, and "Meet John Doughboy," in black-and-white with Porky Pig.
After those items is the 2006 documentary, "The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird." It's thirty-two minutes long, provides a background on Hammett, the book, and the movie, and contains comments from filmmakers, actors, and authors like Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Deakins, James Cromwell, Michael Madsen, Frank Miller, and many more. After that Robert Osborne hosts "Becoming Attractions," a documentary made for the American Movie Classics channel. It's a look at the career of Humphrey Bogart as seen through the trailers for his movies, showing the various ways Hollywood marketed him. It's a novel idea. Then there's a hilarious, thirteen-minute studio blooper reel, "Breakdowns of 1941," where we get to hear famous old actors cussing out their mistakes; and that's followed by a one-minute series of makeup tests. The final items are audio-only bonuses from 1943 and 1946, three radio-show adaptations of "The Maltese Falcon," two of them featuring the original stars, plus another version starring Edward G. Robinson.
The extras conclude with twenty-eight scene selections; English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, and other subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
As a testimonial to the enduring public approval of "The Maltese Falcon" over the years, other movies have parodied it and its characters many times. "The Cheap Detective," "The Black Bird," "Murder By Death," and "The Maltese Bippy" are a just a few titles that come to mind, affectionate tributes to the original. "The Maltese Falcon" is a movie that a legion of fans continue to call a classic. Count me among them.