“In 1539 The Knight Templars of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels — but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token, and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.”
What is not a mystery today is the significant role that The Maltese Falcon has played in cinema history. The film itself was a remake. In fact, it was actually Warner’s third attempt to film the Dashiell Hammett novel in a single decade. The first version came in 1931 and stared Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. That film also featured Dwight Frye as Wilmer Cook. The film was a moderate success but never really delivered on the potential of the source material. Five years later Warner would attempt a comedy version of the story in Satan Met A Lady. It was a total flop. It would only take another five years before the studio took its third crack at the material. In this case, the third time certainly was a charm.
Sam Spade (Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Cowan) take on a case when a young woman (Astor) tells them a tale of being followed and of being in danger. The case gets Archer killed and Spade framed as the prime suspect. Things get even more dangerous as Spade stumbles upon a connection with a group of cronies who are on the trail of a jewel encrusted golden falcon. The crooks “The Fat Man” (Greenstreet), Joel Cairo (Lorre), and Wilmer Cook (Cook) make Spade an offer to get the bird from the woman. It’s a game of trust no one, and the last one holding the bird might just get out of it alive.
The success of the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon has to begin with a first-time director named John Huston. Today, we know the name well. Huston would go on to have both a prolific and accomplished career. He would even team up with Bogart and other cast members here for some of those classic films. It was a team that would deliver the goods time and time again. Huston was mostly known as a writer at the time. He had already written the Bogart film High Sierra. He is credited with writing the script for The Maltese Falcon. In this case, the rumor has him telling his secretary to type the original book up in script format, and that became the working script for the film. Here he makes his first good decision. Since it was Hammett’s atmospheric tale that inspired so much confidence at the studio to keep trying with the story, it stands to reason that the book must also be a strong foundation for the movie.
The next brilliant move came in the casting. You have to remember that Humphrey Bogart was not yet considered a leading man. The part was originally offered to gangster actor George Raft, who turned it down. In fact, Raft would make a habit of turning down roles that would become iconic parts for Bogart. There is surprisingly little real action in the movie. It’s loaded with rapid-fire dialog that could easily fall flat if it wasn’t delivered in just the right way. Bogart would not only establish his own leading-man credentials in the movie, he would also redefine the American detective for films, televisions, and even novels to come. Every detective since that time owes a debt to Bogart’s Sam Spade. From Columbo to James Rockford, Hammett and Bogart teamed up to take the detective out of high society and put him down in the street with the criminals he was tracking. Holmes might have been the father of deductive reasoning detectives, but Spade gave them street cred. Helped in part by Hammett’s own job as a Pinkerton detective, the source material oozed with reality. Bogart just picked it up from there and ran with it.
The rest of the cast was equally important. The trio of Peter Lorre, Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet would appear in many films to follow. It was a combination of wonderful chemistry and unique characters both in physicality and personality. Greenstreet would be the mold for all of those “Fat Man” villains that would menace characters like James Bond for decades to come. Mary Astor was a bold choice as the leading lady and femme fatal. She was one of Hollywood’s first tabloid scandal stars. An ex-husband had released a tell-all book that detailed some rather infamous sexual escapades of the young actress. By today’s standards the information would be hardly worth mentioning. In fact, it might have helped her career. But, these were much different times and the scandal made her a risk for any film she was in. Huston took a chance that truly paid off. Finally, a young Elisha Cook takes on the role of the temperamental hood who wants nothing more than to take out Sam Spade, but is restrained from such action by the interests of his boss.
The final brilliant stroke was in the production team that was assembled for the film. Of particular note here has to be cinematographer Arthur Edeson. Together this crew practically invented the film noir genre with this movie. The important elements of contrast, shadow, and odd angles make this film appear to be much more of an action film than it really is. The camera is taking the audience on a journey of its own with characteristics that would go on to define an era in filmmaking. There’s a hint of German expressionism that puts the audience at slight odds throughout the film, with unfamiliar angles and shadows. These choices aren’t merely there for style reasons alone. They help to define the characters, and they tell an important part of the story. It all seems familiar and even cliché to an audience of today, but this was groundbreaking cinema in its day.
One of the other trend-setting elements of The Maltese Falcon is the character of Sam Spade himself. In a day when censor boards had very strict rules about the good guys and the bad guys, The Maltese Falcon managed to turn that morality on its head. Spade is the unquestioned hero of the piece, but he is no heroic character. He’s having an affair with his partner’s wife, and he’s cold and calculated about everyone he knows. He only cares about number one. When his partner is killed, he puts the spotlight of suspicion on himself with his lack of emotion toward the slaying. He dismisses it as the way of the business. He’s changing the window sign to remove his partner’s name and moving out his desk before the body has time enough to get cold. He’s ready to deliver a woman he has professed loving over to the cops with only a casual comment about how unfortunate it would be if she were to be hung. This is not the stuff heroes were made of before 1941.
The Maltese Falcon is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec at an average of 26 mbps. The image presentation is perfect. The contrast alone is so important that I think this is the first time a modern audience can truly appreciate the filmatic style at work here. Black levels are excellent. Shadow definition defines film noir in so many ways. The print is in very nice condition here. This is one of those movies whose importance has been appreciated for many years. There have been several restoration projects, and it’s on the AFI list of “Protected” films. The detail will not disappoint. There’s a lot to be seen in the faces of these characters and actors. You’ll find it very clear here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono is really the only choice to be made for this film. As much as I appreciate a full-on surround-fest for my ears, this movie is presented exactly as it should be. There is no hiss or distortion to mark its age. Dialog is everything here, and it has been remastered with incredible care and respect. To wish for more would be to completely misunderstand the film itself.
There is an Audio Commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax.
One Magnificent Bird: (32:45) This piece examines first the life of John Huston and Hammett as well as some of the other participants in the film. The feature then goes on to examine the various groundbreaking elements of the movie. It plays a lot like an A&E Biography episode.
Make-up Tests: (1:16)
Audio Vault: You get three audio presentations of the story for a combined two hours of material. Two of the performances feature Bogart and other original cast members. Another features Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade.
There are tons of Bogart trailers.
If you’ve never seen The Maltese Falcon, you have missed an important moment in cinema history. You can’t consider yourself a fan of film and not have watched this one. There are few movies that have had the impact on what came after than The Maltese Falcon. This is the kind of movie you could study for years and only scratch the surface. Did this cast and crew know they were contributing such a significant milestone in the industry?. Of course they didn’t. That’s why it worked. I see too many films where someone involved brags about how they’re changing the movie business or how a certain genre is going to be seen in the future. It’s delusions of grandeur 100 out of 100 times. You wanna see real impact? This Blu-ray release is the place to start. You’ll never watch another film the same way again. This truly is “the stuff dreams are made of”.