The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Special Edition) Review

It would be fair to say that The Maltese Falcon is one of the most blissfully entertaining films ever made. It's also something of a milestone in Hollywood history, being the movie which turned Humphrey Bogart from a reliable heavy into a genuine star and began the wonderfully idiosyncratic directing career of John Huston. The most surprising and rewarding aspect is that such an elegantly simple piece of filmmaking could be rich enough to withstand countless viewings without becoming stale.

The plot is what would become classic film noir stuff. Sam Spade (Bogart), private eye and sucker for a pretty girl's hard luck story, is hired by a mysterious blonde Miss Wonderly (Astor) to track down her sister, but an attempt to find her leads to the death of Spade's partner Miles Archer and the discovery that Miss Wonderly is far from the helpless young woman she appears to be. Spade's inquiries lead him into a banal but dangerous quest for an exotic treasure from the past which is valuable enough for some particularly ruthless characters to kill for...

Basically, the film is structured around Spade's encounters with an array of colourfully bizarre characters, relying on Bogart's presence and performance to hold the plot together. He does this superbly - this is a real star-making performance.

Bogart makes Spade, for all his softness of heart, a hard-bitten and tough man whose principles, in the best noir tradition, tend to lead him to a solitary melancholy in the name of justice. His delivery of the lines is masterful, giving mildly good jokes the sort of attention that writers dream of and making even bad dialogue sound fairly classy. His weakness is his basic goodness which tends to lead him to entirely the wrong conclusions about who to trust but which also marks him firmly out from the villains. Spade is a tough guy but he is fiercely defensive of his human decency when surrounded by the sort of people whose greed overrides all other considerations. Thus, we are well into the territory of Film Noir and I’d go so far as to say that The Maltese Falcon is one of the seminal movies of the genre. Sam Spade may not be a fall guy and, in this film, he’s a winner - but he’s essentially a loser because he has moral character in a world where morality is irrelevant. You can, of course, add to this the brilliant cinematography by Arthur Edeson which uses the high contrast lighting and low angles which would become the signatures of the genre during the next few years.

As a proto-Noir, the film is interesting for it's insight into the baser motivations about humanity; greed, betrayal, selfishness. Huston's Noah Cross, the obscenely self-justifying monster of Roman Polanski’s classic post-Noir Chinatown, would have been right at home in this film. Indeed, Huston's acute examination of human greed and weakness would become one of his favourite subjects in films as diverse as The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King and Wise Blood. Venality and greed are the touchstones of this universe and so Spade's sense of betrayal and isolation towards the end of the film are inevitabilities. Yet, Film Noir also, it seems to me, has a great degree of realism in its portrayal of the limitations which make people this way and the best films in the genre have characters whose motivations are entirely believable.

This is notable in the portrayal of the Femme Fatale – in the best Noirs, the Femme Fatale is as complex a character as any other and not merely a sex-trap. Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy is one of the finest. Motivated by greed and lust, she battens down the hatches on her true feelings until she faces a twin betrayal – both by the man she loves and, more shatteringly, by the sincerity of a love which she never expected to feel.

Another aspect of the film which touches surprisingly deep is the relationship between Spade and his secretary Effie (Patrick). Effie is a great character, a Hawksian woman in spirit if not in source and Lee Patrick is devastatingly sexy, running off with every scene in which she appears. The interplay between her and Bogart is a delight, anticipating the legendary chemistry between him and a certain Ms.Bacall a few films down the line.

Their interplay contrasts beautifully with the tense and uneasy scenes between Bogart and Astor.

Along with Elisha Cook Jr, patenting his fall guy act as the hopeless Wilmer, we have Joel Cairo (Lorre) and Casper Gutman AKA "The Fat Man" (Greenstreet). Cairo is about as explicitly homosexual as a 1941 film could indicate and Lorre relishes the chance to camp it up and make lots of injured moans when slapped about. But he's not ridiculous - there's a sinister edge to his polite double talk that is genuinely unnerving at times. Lorre played this character a number of times in his later career, but never as precisely as this. The walk, the hand movements, the eyebrows raising... everything is perfectly balanced - imagine how horribly this part could have been hammed up and you'll see why Lorre deserves his reputation as a great character actor. As for Sidney Greenstreet, words really do fail. He's hardly a great actor (this was his film debut but he gave the same performance in every film that followed) but his presence is extraordinary, his line readings are unforgettable - and what lines !!! "I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk", "By gad sir, you are a character and no mistake" and many more. Every single piece of Greenstreet's dialogue is clipped, stamped and filed into the classic archive by his extraordinary delivery. The only Lorre and Greenstreet double act to top this is to be found in the lesser known Mask of Dimitrios which you should make it your business to see but which is not, regrettably, out on DVD yet.

Much has been written from a queer cinema perspective on the subject of sexual orientation in the film, something which was made very plain in the book. I’m not sure what there is to add except to make a few personal observations on the subject.

Firstly, as to Joel Cairo, Lorre’s persona was always somewhat camp in one way or another – and I use the word camp both in its sexual sense and as a broader description of a certain kind of theatricality. Secondly, Huston was always fascinated by various kinds of domination, be it through capital, sex, politics or whatever, and the idea of the small, cringing Wilmer being dominated (in every which way) by the titanically-scaled Gutman would certainly have appealed to him. Thirdly, when you put the young, wiry Elisha Cook Jr against Sydney Greenstreet – whose kind of plumy theatricality is camp of purest actor-manager vintage – then subtexts will naturally begin to suggest themselves. The betrayal of Wilmer by his sugar daddy is, consequently, all the more cruel and blackly funny.

There's not much violent action in The Maltese Falcon and there is an awful lot of talking, all of which may put some modern-day viewers off. But, thanks to Huston, the talk is so good that I think this should be regarded as a recommendation. The whodunnit aspect - who killed Miles Archer - isn't all that difficult to figure out, but that's merely an excuse for the delicious confrontations between Bogart and the rest of the cast. The Maltese Falcon itself is as wonderful a McGuffin as anything Hitchcock ever dreamed up and allows for an irresistibly theatrical history lesson from Sydney Greenstreet that, Hollywood legend has it, was originally intended to be dramatised until Warners slapped Huston down. I can't imagine anyone not loving this film, it's about as perfect an example of its type as there has ever been made and Bogart, in his last chance to break out of bad guys, is every inch a star. This is, indeed, the “stuff that dreams are made of.”

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The first version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel was made for Warner Brothers in 1931 by Roy Del Ruth, a workmanlike studio hand who produced some very efficient work during the first half of the decade.

It’s fascinating to compare this first adaptation with John Huston’s film because they take the material and treat it in different ways. While both films are basically tough crime dramas, Roy Del Ruth’s version is somewhat lighter. It doesn’t have the bracing cynicism of Huston’s vision, nor his subtle character shadings. Del Ruth and the screenwriters see things in simple, broad-brush terms. For example, the Sam Spade of this film is a ladies man, something of a dandy who doesn’t look as if he could win a confrontation with a lampshade –the polka-dot pyjamas don’t exactly help his image in this regard. Given this conception of the character, Ricardo Cortez does quite well. He’s better suited to romantic comedy or musicals, despite Warners’ committed efforts to make him a tough guy, but he gives Sam Spade a dash of style and wit. This certainly isn’t the fully formed fatalistic Noir protagonist of Huston’s film but Cortez compares well to other ‘tecs of the period. Bebe Daniels, as the femme fatale, lacks the fiery ambiguity of Mary Astor and isn’t allowed her tragic stature, but she’s as gorgeous as she ever was and, this being 1931, she’s allowed to be remarkably sexy.

The other characters are depicted with a degree of success. They are wonderful characters to begin with and, while no-one here diminishes memories of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre or Elisha Cook Jr, the actors do a good job. Otto Matieson is delightfully suave as Joel Cairo – and plainly not homosexual this time, nor completely in thrall to his partner – and Dudley Digges has a ball as “The Fat Man”, given some dialogue which has some theatrical flourishes of a kind which Huston expanded upon ten years later. Dwight Frye, however, comes closest to stealing the crown from this successor, making Wilmer Cook genuinely touching and pathetic. I think this is Frye’s best performance – it’s certainly less hammy than his turns in the Universal horror movies. Other characters, such as the police sergeant, don’t make much of an impression here – but then Del Ruth doesn’t have the commanding presence of Ward Bond to help him.

Considering that Del Ruth’s Maltese Falcon comes so early in the history of talking pictures, it’s fairly fluid. Hardly in the class of Wellman or Hawks – whose crime dramas The Public Enemy and Scarface remain masterclasses in overcoming the limitations of early sound recording – but still quite impressive. As with a number of films from this period, there is no incidental music, which may be one of the reasons that it seems rather stagey and takes a while to grab the viewer’s sympathy. The Maltese Falcon - Take One – is hardly likely to replace Huston’s definitive version in anyone’s affections but it’s very watchable and, as an exercise in comparative filmmaking, rather compelling.

Satan Met A Lady

Now this is a really bizarre oddity. The basic plot of The Maltese Falcon is twisted and turned into a screwball comedy with wildly over-the-top performances and jokes which are sometimes quite funny, especially when mining a seam of gallows humour.

There are many variations on the original narrative, so many that this is, at best, a very loose adaptation. Warren Williams plays the detective – here called Ted Shayne - purely for laughs as a pipe-smoking buffoon who just happens to be a bit brighter than all the other buffoons in the picture. He fits in to the style of the film but some may find that his smug delivery begins to grate very quickly. But his performance in Satan Met A Lady has an air of sadness about it because it represents the beginning of the end of a sparkling careeer. Williams had been a major player in early talkies, reaching his peak in films like Imitation of Life, Lady For A Day and, particularly, Gold Diggers of 1933. But by the mid-1930s, his kind of mannered high style was going out of fashion and he ended his career in the Columbia Lone Wolf series of cheapies. There were good films to come - Man in the Iron Mask, Madame X - but his glory days were behind him.

It’s a silly film but it certainly moves at one hell of a lick, and William Dieterle gives it a pleasing veneer of style. Dieterle was not yet quite in his stride as a distinctive director, having made an awful lot of B-Movies for Warners in the first half of the decade. But his first collaboration with Paul Muni - The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1935 – and his co-direction of the extraordinary folly A Midsummer Night’s Dream set him on the right path. Satan Met a Lady is one of the last of what might be termed his ‘hack’ jobs and you only have to compare it with The Life of Emile Zola from the following year to see that Dieterle’s heart isn’t really in it. But he does a professional job and he clearly enjoys some of the supporting performers, allowing the imposing Alison Skipworth to ham it up as Madame Barabbas. Credit should also be given to the brilliant cinematographer Arthur Edeson – later to shoot Huston’s film - who provides a moody atmosphere that gives some much needed grit to the proceedings.

It has been argued that the film was ahead of its time and it’s true that the work which it most resembles is John Huston’s Beat The Devil, a similarly deranged pastiche of genre conventions. But there isn’t as much wit and sparkle here as in the later film, nor do the actors have quite the comic élan of Bogart, Robert Morley and Peter Lorre. In particular, Bette Davis’s overplaying isn’t as funny as she thinks it is and she seems more frantic than comic. Without doubt, it’s not in the same league as the 1941 film, nor is it as interesting as the 1931 version. But as a brisk comedy, it has some good laughs and fans of the ‘straight’ versions will be amused to see the ways in which the original plot has been scrambled – it’s always baffled me why the falcon was changed to a pig’s horn stuffed with jewels.


The Maltese Falcon has been released on DVD before but it certainly didn’t look as gorgeous as it does here. This is a lovely transfer with superb contrast, masses of fine detail and beautifully well defined shadows. The only flaw is a certain degree of artifacting. The English Mono track is also splendid with no hiss or crackling and very clear dialogue and music.

The first version of The Maltese Falcon and Satan Met A Lady both receive their DVD debuts in this three-disc set. Neither has had the same kind of restoration work granted to the main feature and the results are very mixed. The 1931 film is in pretty poor condition with a lot of damage and some artifacting but it’s watchable enough. The later film is better but still very grainy and noticeably soft. Audio is also pretty poor on the first film, although that’s partly down to the primitive sound recording of the era.

There are some very pleasing extras adding lustre to this set. On the first disc, along with Huston’s film, we get an excellent commentary track from Bogart’s biographer Eric Lax. This is packed with information about the star and the film and Lax rarely stops except to take a breath or two. Also on this disc is a ‘Warner Night At The Movies’ feature for 1941. I love these features and this contains a good mixture of stuff. There’s a trailer for Sergeant York (now available from Warners on DVD); a newsreel containing a piece about Churchill and Roosevelt; a gorgeous Technicolor presentation of The Gay Parisian starring the Ballet Russe, which runs just over twenty minutes and looks absolutely stunning; a Bugs Bunny cartoon called Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt in which the plucky little Indian is played by Elmer Fudd; and a black and white Porky Pig cartoon entitled Meet John Doughboy. All of these features look just fine and occasionally, as in the case of the ballet short, more than that. Also on the disc is a trailer for The Maltese Falcon

The second disc contains both of the earlier films along with a trailer for Satan Met A Lady.

The third disc contains the remainder of the extra features. First up is a brand new making-of featurette called One Magnificent Bird. This is an efficient, if slightly superficial, thirty minute canter through the production of the film with brief asides about Dashiell Hammett and the two earlier versions. There are a lot of interviewees, amongst whom Eric Lax, Hammett’s granddaughter and Noir expert Eddie Muller stand out. Contributions from the likes of James Cromwell, Frank Miller and Henry Rollins are also surprisingly valuable – Miller is especially good on Sydney Greenstreet. Next in line is the excellent documentary Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart which was featured on the earlier DVD of the film. This is hosted by Robert Osborne (looking not unlike a more avuncular Casper Gutman) and takes us through the changes in Bogart’s career by looking at the trailers for some of his key films. Meanwhile, Breakdowns of 1941 is an amusing blooper reel produced by the studio at the time which features mistakes from the likes of James Cagney, Claude Rains and James Stewart. There’s also some Mary Astor make-up test footage.

Finally, there are three radio versions of the film. The 1943 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast stars Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade and is introduced by a hilariously pompous Cecil B. DeMille. Eddie G. is wonderful value as usual but his supporting cast is very weak ad the 54 minutes go slowly. The 1943 Screen Guild Theater and the 1946 Academy Award Theater broadcasts both run about half an hour and feature Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet – the 1943 broadcast also features Peter Lorre. These are both rapid dashes through the original film and both are good fun, although if you love the film then you’ll be pained at the great dialogue which is missing. The adverts which occasionally pepper the action are highly amusing.

10 out of 10
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Last updated: 15/07/2018 08:47:26

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