“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
The Maltese Falcon is a symbol of the pursuit of avarice and greed, but it’s also one of the films that made Humphrey Bogart a household name, leading man, and eventual pop culture icon.
Warner Brothers brings the fabled black bird to Blu-ray with a clear transfer and plainly a selection of great extras.
Private detectives Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are hired by Miss Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to find her missing sister who is involved with Floyd Thursby. She is supposed to meet Thursby later in the evening and Archer is to follow her to the meeting.
Later that night, Spade gets a call that Archer has been murdered. He calls Wonderly but she has checked out of her hotel. Spade is then hauled in for questioning by Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) and Lt. Dundy (Barton MacLane) when Thursby also turns up murdered and the suspicions of the authorities are moving towards Spade, who had an affair with Archer’s wife (Gladys George).
Spade is released and discovers Wonderly, now calling herself Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in his offices saying that Thursby was her partner and probably murdered Archer.
Spade agrees to take on the case. Another case falls into his lap when gardenia scented Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) offers him $5000 to find a black bird statue… before pulling a gun on Spade to search his office for the mysterious object. Spade knocks out Cairo, but does take the case when he revives.
Later Cairo and O’Shaughnessy meet each other and seem to know one another and are connected to the “Fat Man.” Spade is later taken to the “Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) by his gunman Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who is also looking for the black bird, the Maltese Falcon.
That fabled object comes into Spade’s possession when a dying ship captain (Walter Huston, the director’s father in a “stumble onscreen and die” cameo) deposits it in his office. Now he has to figure out the motives of all the involved parties, who murdered Archer, and generally clear his own name without getting murdered himself.
Hard to believe, but Humphrey Bogart would be resigned to thug roles and never the lead. Many times losing out to hot property George Raft, who is largely forgotten now. Raft would turn down the Sam Spade role, offered to him by producer Hal Wallis, because he didn’t want to work with fledgling director John Huston, who would also go on to bigger and better.
Huston was actually pleased with the rejection since Bogart accepted the role and the two would be lifelong friends. Bogart enjoyed the duality of the role since he was the hero yet a greedy one adding shades of grey to Spade. Maltese Falcon would be based on the Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, but had been filmed before in 1931 and 1936 (as Satan met a Lady).
Huston’s 1941 adaptation would cement Bogart’s onscreen personality as well as serving as the standard for hard as nails private investigator. That Bogie personality was already in my mind when I first watched Falcon so it was established; it was Sydney Greenstreet that was a revelation.
Ironically it was the same worldwide at the time as he was a stage actor and Falcon would be his first film. His performance and delivery is so fascinating to watch. The cast is peopled with delightful, yet shifty, characters from Peter Lorre to twitchy Elisha Cook Jr. Mary Astor also provides a performance that is full of surprises.
The film’s success would cement Bogie, but it would also be the beginning of a wonderful career for Huston, who at the time was just known as the son of actor Walter Huston but from this moment on would be known as the director of the Maltese Falcon. The Maltese Falcon would be known as the gold standard of the detective film.
The Maltese Falcon is presented in a 1080p high definition transfer (1.33:1). It looks fabulous when compared to other releases. Better definition makes small details, looked muddy in older releases, legible. Special features are presented in standard definition and begin with a commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax.
The 32 minute “One Magnificent Bird” details the production and legendary status of the film. The 13 minute “Breakdowns of 1941” is a Warner Brothers studio gag reel (so you’ll see many stars of the time).
You also get 1 minute of Astor’s makeup tests, 44 minutes of Bogart trailers hosted by Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osbourne, three radio adaptations, trailers for the other film adaptations (sadly the entire film didn’t make the crossover as they were on the deluxe DVD set), and the Warner Night at the Movies that has 40 minutes of 1941 trailers, newsreels, and shorts that you might see if you bought your ticket in 1941.
The Maltese Falcon is the archetype of the detective film. The irony is that nobody at the time knew it and they may have even thought it was to flop since Huston was an untested director at the time.
However, the film has withstood the test of time and has become one of the best films of all time. The stuff that dreams are made of indeed.
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