Friday, October 1, 2010

THE MALTESE FALCON: Blu-Ray (WB 1941) Warner Home Video

Widely regarded as the film that kick started what it today known as 'film noir', John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) is required viewing for anyone who considers themselves connoisseurs of detective films, film noir or, for that matter, movies in general. Often duplicated, though never equalled - the story was made twice before by Warner Bros.; once in 1931 under this title, then again in 1936 as Satin Met A Lady. Neither version is worthy of author Dashiell Hammett’s cagey pulp novella, first serialized in The Black Mask. Hammett based many of the characters in his book on personal experiences while working as a Pinkerton detective. After a near fatal bought of tuberculosis forced him to quit his job and remain in isolation away from his family, Hammett began his prolific writing career.

As for the films: the 31’ version is too serious without the sass. The 36’ is a horrible misfire in Bette Davis's career as co-star Warren William plays Hammett's heroic anti-hero, Sam Spade with all the sycophantic charm of an aging pedophile. By all accounts, after this latter version flopped the story should never again have been even remotely considered for adaptation.

Ah, but then came the real deal a la Huston - himself a maverick film maker with an eye and a penchant for the daring, and, whose star had steadily been on the ascendance at Warner. This time around The Maltese Falcon would not fail. Yet, at its incubation it had all the earmarks of another dud, particularly in retrospect when one considers that Humphrey Bogart was not Huston's first choice for the lead. That option belonged to then Warner tough guy, George Raft who promptly turned down the role, citing that he did not want to appear in a 'remake'.

As scripted by Huston, the 41' version proved to be anything but a tired old retread of its predecessors. The film opens with a foreboding prologue quelled from Huston's own imagination that suggested Spain's Charles V was to have been the recipient of the fabulous jewel encrusted falcon until pirates seized the galley it was travelling on. From here, the folklore dissolves into the concrete contemporary world of hard-bitten realist and San Francisco private eye, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in the seminal role that officially made him a star). Sam and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) have been retained by Miss Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to find her runaway sister and a man named Floyd Thursby…at least that’s the yarn as Brig’ tells it. Actually, this femme fatale is in a mad dash to get her hands on the falcon, concealed in black lead to disguise its true value).

But Brigid has company on her quest; a trio of reprobates who will stop at nothing to get the falcon before anyone else; fat man Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and gunmen Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.). After Miles is murdered by an unknown assassin, Sam finds himself being suspected of the crime by Lt. Dundy (Barton MacLaine) and Sgt. Tom Polhouse (Ward Bond). On the surface, Sam plays it fast and loose with authority, but secretly we suspect that his heart runs truer to the law than it does for the flirtatious Brigid - especially since Miles' wife Iva (Gladys George) has been in his back pocket for some time.

The last notable cast member is Sam's secretary, Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick), a pure-hearted tough gal who worries that Sam is in over his head. Indeed, it seems that way to the audience too as Sam is repeatedly duped by Cairo, then drugged by Gutman in their attempts to frame Sam for Miles murder while conducting their search for the falcon. But what Sam lacks in prowess at first he more than makes up with dogged persistence. Gutman strikes a bargain to work together to locate the falcon and although Sam agrees to recover the statue, at every turn his search ends badly. Finally, one lonely night a total stranger stumbles into Sam's office, mortally wounded but clutching the mysterious falcon that he presumably stole from an Asian trawler set ablaze as she rested in port.

Sam contacts Gutman with the news and to arrange a swap, but he also alerts the authorities of their planned meeting. Dundy and Polhouse arrive in time, but to no avail. The falcon is a fake and Gutman and Cairo are free to continue their hunt elsewhere. Brigid, however, is apprehended for Miles' murder, her clever facade suddenly dissolving into emotionless recrimination. As Polhouse takes the fake falcon in charge he asks Sam "What is it?" to which Sam begrudgingly replies, "the stuff that dreams are made of."

The Maltese Falcon is near perfect entertainment, its problematic narrative twists and turns made palpable by Huston's rapid fire, sexually charged dialogue and Bogart’s emblematic turn as the hard-bitten realist, conflicted in his own lust, greed and cynicism. Sam Spade is hardly a hero cut from the swatch of classic he-men and good ol’ boys like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper or James Stewart. Yet Bogart transcends Spade's despicable behaviour, making it seem the height of romantic chic and, in doing so, becomes an iconoclastic hero for the modern age.

In his first movie role, 61 year old Sidney Greenstreet proves a formidable foe; his imposing girth, crocodile smile and mirthful laugh an unsettling concoction capable of evoking unspeakable terror. Reportedly Greenstreet was such a nervous wreck on the set that he quietly confided to co-star Mary Astor that he feared he would make a fool of himself.

Meanwhile, Mary Astor's casting as the venomous Brigid proved inspired in its timing as her real life risqué shenanigans and sexual exploits had been made public a year earlier, after her private diary was stolen and made public.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable performance next to Bogart's is Peter Lorre's effeminate Joel Cairo; played with uncharacteristic comedic charm. Cairo is hardly a fop but he is ever the jester of this piece; a departure from Lorre's debut as the haunted child killer in Fritz Lang's startling classic 'M'.

For those not yet acquainted with this elegant, fast moving detective thriller, if behoves this reviewer to suggest that Warner Home Video's newly minted Blu-Ray may not exactly be the way to enjoy this timeless classic. For starters, the Blu-Ray's image is considerably darker than on the deluxe 3 disc collector's set DVD released several years ago.

Also, the gray scale seems to have had its contrast levels slightly bumped up. The results are an image with less mid-range tonality and more film grain evident. As such the overall appearance is grittier than expected. Is this incarnation more 'film like'? Perhaps, but somehow it falls short of this reviewer's expectations. Predictably, the Blu-Ray excels at extolling minute detail in every frame, particularly in close ups where hair and wrinkles in facial flesh are remarkably sharp.

The audio is mono but nicely cleaned up. Extras are all direct imports from the previously released DVD and include The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Black Bird, a documentary that, frankly, is a tad shorter than I expected and not nearly as thorough on the making of the film. There's also a superior audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax and Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart (a featurette that aired on Turner Classic Movies, hosted by Robert Osborne). Regrettably absent from this presentation are the two previous versions of the film that were part of the 3 disc DVD set. Otherwise, this is a no brainer repurchase.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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