TCM GREATEST CLASSIC FILMS: MURDER MYSTERIES (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP, DIAL M FOR MURDER, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE) - DVD review

Two of the greatest detective movies of all time, a classic film noir, and a Hitchcock. ...these sets are among the best values in history.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Again, let me remind you that Warner Bros. own what is probably the most extensive back catalogue of great older films in the world, and they never tire of devising new ways to repackage them. In 2009 they began a series of sets they call the "TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Greatest Classic Films Collection," which package four classic movies per set. Although the studio has released all of the films separately, the collections are a relatively inexpensive way for fans to acquire a large number of great motion pictures for a pittance. Just look at the titles in this particular collection: Two of the greatest detective movies of all time, a classic film noir, and a Hitchcock. Simply put, these sets are among the best values in the history of DVDs.

The set reviewed here, "Murder Mysteries," is in WB's third wave of collections and offers four top-notch Warner Bros. and MGM mystery classics. (For the other collections in WB's third wave, see the closing paragraph.) Each set contains two double-sided DVDs, one movie per side, enclosed in a double slim-line keep case, with a slipcover and unique bonus materials. Let's look at the movies chronologically.

THE MALTESE FALCON
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 twice to the screen 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.

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. 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.

Film rating: 10/10

THE BIG SLEEP
"Private eye," "private investigator," "private detective," "shamus," and "Doghouse Reilly" are among the various terms Humphrey Bogart uses to describe himself as P.I. Philip Marlowe. Director Howard Hawks brought author Raymond Chandler's 1939 fictional creation to the screen in this 1946 film-noir classic. "The Big Sleep" may not pack the punch of Bogart's earlier detective thriller, "The Maltese Falcon," but it does create a character and a milieu that other films would imitate more times over than any other private-eye flick in film history.

The reaction of novelist William Faulkner, who helped write the screenplay, best sums up the story's convoluted plot when he said he couldn't figure out from the book who killed one of the characters, namely, the chauffeur. To settle the matter he called up the author and asked him about it. Chandler admitted he didn't know, either. But don't worry about it. Chandler didn't. Just enjoy the proceedings as a multimillionaire named Sternwood summons Marlowe to his house and explains that somebody is blackmailing him, and he wants something done about it. Sternwood's two daughters, a high-society type (Lauren Bacall) and a nympho sex kitten who sucks her thumb (Martha Vickers), are trouble for Marlowe the moment he steps through the door. And things don't get any better as he gets involved with a host of shady individuals, double dealings, and multiple murders.

No, none of the characters are as memorable as the ones in "The Maltese Falcon," but they're plenty colorful and ominous, nonetheless, played by actors like Elisha Cook, Jr., John Ridgely, Regis Toomey, and Bob Steele. What's more, "The Big Sleep" skirts even more forbidden territory. In 1946 the self-imposed movie censorship codes disallowed direct references to sex, pornography, or homosexuality, all of which play prominent parts in Chandler's novel. So, we find dialogue filled with innuendo and many scenes strongly suggestive. For instance, we see Marlowe meet a young woman clerk (Dorothy Malone) in a book shop, flirt with her, and offer to while away an hour. She closes the store early, pulls down the blinds, and the scene fades to black. Or we see Marlowe walk into another bookstore across the street and snoop around, while the clerk with a knowing nod allows a furtive customer into a secret back room. We get the picture (and, apparently, so does the customer). Then when the police find the owner of the bookstore murdered, we wonder for a moment why his young male assistant seems so determined to go gunning for the assailant, until we see Marlowe going through the victim's handkerchiefs and finding them perfumed. That was about as far as a mainstream movie would take things in those days.

"The Big Sleep" is fast, witty, and exciting. It may not make a lot of sense, but it's got layers of mood and ambiance. Incredibly, a 1978 remake with Robert Mitchum moved the locale from Los Angeles to London and the time setting from the mid forties to the late seventies, effectively destroying the period atmosphere so essential to the story. Stick with the original; few detective yarns have equaled this one.

Film rating: 9 /10

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE
Quintessential film noir.

As you probably know, the French coined the term "film noir" (or "dark film") back in the Fifties to describe movies of the previous decade that derived from the cynicism of World War II, movies popularized in the United States, movies depicting a dark and despairing atmosphere where paranoia abounded. The settings for these enduring films were usually urban worlds of shadow, smoke, and fog, and the subject matter usually concerned some sort of crime or detection. A film like "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) is among the first good examples of the genre, which reached its peak in things like "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "The Third Man" (1949).

"The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946) exhibits all the characteristics of the noir film, including the femme fatale, the deadly female who lures the hero into a web of mystery. The filmmakers based the script on the best-selling novel by James M. Cain, whose admirers were none too pleased with the changes the filmmakers made to the author's rather racy book; but there was the Production Code to consider at the time, and the studio had to impose a good deal of censorship on the story. Which means they had to suggest almost everything in the way of sensuality rather than show it.

The movie features the enigmatic tough guy John Garfield as a drifter who picks up a job at a lunch room and garage located on a side road outside Los Angeles. Garfield's character, Frank Chambers, is a decent sort, but he's not above the occasional con game, and it's obvious he has led a rough-and-tumble life, never settling down. He's also something of a ladies' man, and the boss's wife, Cora, is a knockout. It takes him less than two minutes of meeting her before he plants a big one on her kisser, and she doesn't resist.

Movie siren Lana Turner plays Cora Smith, the young woman who has married a much older man, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), for security rather than love, and who is quick to see the prospects of the hired hand. The first time Frank sees Cora she's in shorts, all legs, and looking helplessly, teasingly sexy. It's a terrific introduction to Cora's character, actually, shown from the feet and ankles up.

From there, the movie develops two stories. The first is the romance between Cora and Frank being carried on under the nose of the naively trusting husband; the second is the mystery and its consequences when Cora and Frank decide the old man's got to go. Cora persuades Frank to arrange an "accident" for the unsuspecting sap.

But the local DA (Leon Ames) is on to them and their schemes, and before the movie's out, you'll find further infidelity, suspense, blackmail, double crosses, triple crosses, and surprises galore. In fact, if there is any serious problem with the film, it's that it tacks on too many twists, especially at the end.

Still, in addition to Garfield and Turner, you'll relish a standout performance by Hume Cronyn as the couple's clever but unscrupulous lawyer, a performance that almost upstages Garfield and Turner themselves. And along the way there is some smoldering passion, at least in appearance if not in deed, and some terrific noir cinematography in the use of light and shadow.

Finally, the film treats the viewer to a few delicious double entendres as well. If the censors wouldn't allow the filmmakers to show too much, at least they were going to imply what was going on, and the film projects an undercurrent of barely disguised passions and sexuality. The looks between Garfield and Turner are a joy to behold. Then there are lines like Garfield's "I could sell anything to anybody" and Turner's "You won't find anything cheap around here." Even the "Man Wanted" sign at the beginning of the picture suggests more than it says.

"The Postman Always Rings Twice" exemplifies the noir movement in Hollywood, as I've said, even if Hollywood didn't call it that at the time. Part sultry romance, part mystery thriller, the movie continues to keep audiences intrigued with its edgy character relationships and unforeseen tensions.

Film rating: 7/10

DIAL M FOR MURDER
To the dedicated movie buff, Alfred Hitchcock will always mean "The 39 Steps," "Rebecca," "Strangers on a Train," "Suspicion," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," things like that. But to the average moviegoer, several decades after the master director's death, his name means "Psycho" and maybe "The Birds." I learned this the hard way some time ago while teaching high school Film Studies. Almost all of my students over the years recognized Hitchcock's name, but almost none of them had ever seen a Hitchcock film. Asked who he was, most students would say something like, "Oh, he's the guy who wrote all those really scary movies." I would have to remind them, first, that Hitchcock was a director, not a writer; and, second, that "Psycho" and "The Birds," while among the director's most popular films, were aberrations, exceptions to his style. Critics even complained about Hitch's departures from the norm, a norm that for him was suspense, not horror. As I don't need to tell you, when people referred to Hitchcock as the "master," they meant the "master of suspense."

And that brings us to his 1954 production of "Dial M for Murder." It was one of a number of pictures Hitchcock made during a remarkable twelve-year period from 1951 to 1963 where he could do no wrong. He had a string of hits, which included, among others, "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "The Wrong Man," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "To Catch a Thief," "Vertigo, "North By Northwest," "Psycho," and "The Birds." As for "Dial M for Murder," Hitchcock said it practically filmed itself. He had the studio buy the rights to Frederick Knott's hit stage play and then hire Knott to write the screenplay. Hitch said he didn't change a thing, just pointed his camera. Which, of course, is nonsense. While it's true that Hitchcock left most of the play's dialogue intact and kept the single setting of the play's apartment, he did quite a bit more to bring the story to life.

Very few directors would dare confine their movies essentially to one room, as Hitchcock does in this movie. Most directors would want to open up a screenplay to multiple locations to give it variety and generate interest. Most directors don't trust the attention span of their audience or their own ability to keep an audience entertained for more than a few minutes at a time. Not so with Hitch. He was supremely confident of his ability to maintain an audience's attention. He had already proved it in "Rear Window," which takes place almost entirely in a single room, and in "Rope," which failed at the box office but for other reasons.

Anyway, the setting for "Dial M" is a London flat, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tony Wendice. Tony (Ray Milland) is a former tennis star, now forced to work for a living at something other than his sport. He's not used to working, but his wife has money so it doesn't much matter. In fact, he'd like to have all of his wife's money to himself; thus, he plots to kill her. You see, the wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), has long since lost interest in Tony, and, in fact, has fallen in love with another man, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American writer of television crime shows. Tony knows Margot is having an affair and is about to leave him, and the idea of fending for himself after she's gone is too much for him to take.

Tony's plan to murder his wife involves blackmailing an old acquaintance, a petty crook named Swan (Anthony Dawson), to do the dirty deed. And things almost come off. Almost. When they don't, when everything comes apart, Tony concocts another scheme, an even more brilliant and equally sinister one.

Milland is superb as the pampered, cultured, coolheaded scoundrel whose charm is hard for a viewer to resist. He's so cunning, so devious, so evil, yet so charismatic that you almost feel like rooting for him as the story unfolds. Kelly is her usual radiant self in this, her fourth film role, the part that would make her a star. Dawson is also good as the unscrupulous coconspirator, and John Williams, a Hitchcock stalwart, is the quintessential Scotland Yard Chief Inspector looking into the case. It's Cummings who's the weak link in the chain. He was a fine comedic actor, but I always found it hard to accept him in a dramatic role. He seemed forever to be smirking or on the brink of saying something that never came off. A more wooden and mechanical actor you could hardly find.

Since Hitchcock adapted a stage play, there are many instances when the story does, indeed, seem stagey and even stage bound; but Hitch keeps the pace moving at a good clip, and Milland's driving force as a most personable villain never fails to maintain our interest. Dimitri Tiomkin composed and conducted the musical score, which I found alternately melodramatic and intrusively sappy. However, while much of this music sounds more than a bit corny by today's standards, at least it doesn't boom raucously at us as the music does in so many modern thrillers.

Another fascinating aspect of the picture is that the studio insisted that Hitchcock photograph it in 3D, a process director resisted. He did it, although it's clear his heart wasn't in it. One can see some odd camera positions influenced by Hitch's awareness of the 3D effect, some overhead shots providing depth and perspective, for instance, and numerous shots of people and things moving toward the camera, all influenced by the 3D technique. It's moot for now, anyway, as Warner Home Video provide only the 2D version on the DVD.

Mostly, the film is about creating and maintaining suspense, which the director manages quite effectively in two scenes especially, at the beginning and at the end. The key to the mystery, you see, lies in.... Well, be aware that "Dial M for Murder" is an Agatha Christie-type crime tale, so expect the inevitable clever and faithful twists.

Film rating: 7/10

Video:
For "The Maltese Falcon," Warner Bros. obtained the best copy of the film they could find to transfer, and digitally restored it from original elements. A high bit rate ensures that the 1.33:1 ratio, black-and-white picture contrasts show up strongly, with the black tones, especially, almost always deep and solid. The picture quality is first-rate.

"The Big Sleep" displays decent black-and-white picture qualities, although it is not as spectacular as a print digitally restored. Most of the time the image is sharp and well contrasted. But at a few other times it fades out, especially on the right-hand side of the screen, turning several lighter shades of gray or brown.

Warners transferred the 1.33:1 ratio, black-and-white picture for "The Postman Always Rings Twice" from what appears to have been very good film stock, the image clean and free of most age marks. There are periodic faint, vertical lines that appear, but they are of little concern. One notices very few specks, flecks, scratches, and very little fading. The overall image quality is slightly gritty in the manner of films of that era, and some scenes are a bit on the soft side, especially nighttime shots. There is also in brighter scenes some small fuzziness around the edges of individual objects. Still, these concerns are not at all objectionable, and the viewer will hardly notice them, if at all.

The screen size and colors on "Dial M for Murder" are very much a part of the early Fifties era. Although Warners made the film very shortly after the introduction of widescreen, they originally filmed it in the old Academy ratio of 1.37:1. The Warnercolor is typical of the bright hues so beloved of the day, everyone looking tanner and more glowing than people would look in real life. The transfer has come off well, too, with very little added noise and reasonably good definition and detail. Stock outdoor footage, however, is unaccountably blurry, but, fortunately, there isn't much of it.

Audio:
On "The Maltese Falcon," the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound is quite good for its age, coming up as well as we might expect. The soundtrack renders dialogue crisply, and background music, naturally restricted in frequency and dynamics, is nonetheless clear and persuasive.

The Dolby Digital monaural sound for "The Big Sleep" is mostly noise free, with a surprisingly strong dynamic impact for its age. Just listen for those gun shots, and they'll have you sitting up and paying attention. The frequency range is adequate for reproducing Max Steiner's musical score, but don't expect a modern soundtrack.

The sound on "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is neither good nor bad. It's a Dolby Digital remastering of the film's original monaural soundtrack that appears to my ears somewhat bright and hard, but that's pretty much what soundtracks were like back then. There is a degree of background noise and hiss accompanying the sonics, too, exacerbated by a wide dynamic range that renders some sounds quite soft compared to louder sounds. Anyway, for an old movie, the audio comes off well, and dialogue is clear as a bell.

On "Dial M for Murder" the audio is a standard monaural of the period, reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0. What's more, it's a fairly ordinary mono, a bit rough, especially in some of Tiomkin's musical passages, with a slight background hiss, though not much. Voices are clear and easily understandable, which is all that matters in this largely dialogue-driven story.

Extras:
In terms of extras, "The Maltese Falcon" contains the feature film, with an informed and informative audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax; a theatrical trailer for "The Maltese Falcon" that contains an introduction by Sydney Greenstreet; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. In addition, the disc includes a "Warner Night at the Movies 1941," which includes a vintage newsreel. Following that we find the Oscar-nominated Technicolor musical short "The Gay Parisian," twenty minutes of Offenbach's ballet "Gaite Parisiene" in a performance by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Then, there's a trailer for 1941's "Sergeant York." And, finally, there are two classic cartoons, "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt," in color with Bugs Bunny, and "Meet John Doughboy," in black-and-white with Porky Pig.

"The Big Sleep" contains a fifteen-minute documentary hosted by UCLA film historian Robert Gitt comparing and contrasting WB's two renderings of the film, the 1946 theatrical version included here and an earlier, 1945 version. Additionally, you'll find production notes, a theatrical trailer, English as the only spoken language, and English and French subtitles.

There's not a lot extra material on "The Postman Always Rings Twice," but it's quality stuff. The first item is a five-minute introduction to the movie by USC film professor, historian, and author Richard Jewell. Next, and most important, there is a newly made, fifty-seven minute biographical documentary, "The John Garfield Story," narrated by the actor's daughter, Julie Garfield, and includes commentary by a score of people who knew the man, worked with him, and admired him, plus a recap of his later years when the House Un-American Activities Committee dogged him until his early death. After this are theatrical trailers for the original movie and the 1981 remake; a behind-the-scenes image gallery; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.

Accompanying "Dial M for Murder" are two items of special merit. The first is a twenty-one minute documentary, "Hitchcock and Dial M," with comments about the film by esteemed film people like directors Peter Bogdanovich and M. Night Shyamalan, film historian Robert Osborne, film critic Richard Schickel, Hitchcock's daughter, and others. The second item is a seven-minute featurette, "3D: A Brief History," narrated by Robert Osborne. The extras conclude with a theatrical trailer matted for the film's later widescreen rerelease; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
In addition to the "Murder Mysteries" collection, WB's third wave of "TCM Greatest Classic Films" includes "Horror" ("Freaks," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "House of Wax," and "The Haunting") and "Sc-Fi" ("Soylent Green," "The Time Machine," "Forbidden Planet," and "2001).

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
5
Extras
5
Film Value
8