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THE MALTESE FALCON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick
Director:  John Huston
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  February 15, 2000

Film ****

Two commodities were especially hot in Hollywood in the late 1930’s—mystery movies, and Humphrey Bogart.  It was quite a natural move to bring the two forces together.  After all, Bogart had proven himself a bankable star for Warner, despite only playing bad guys, heavies and gangsters up until that point in his career.  It was obvious to the studio that if they wanted to take his popularity to the next level, they were going to have to let him start playing the hero roles.  But something about Bogie’s natural edginess and demeanor ruled out him playing the kind of charming, witty, urbane detective made popular by William Powell in The Thin Man series, or the recent Charlie Chan films.  A Bogart mystery would have to be darker in scope.  It would need to be peopled with seedy, underhanded lowlifes who crept through the shadows and smoke.  It would have to be more violent.  Above all, it would need as a central character a kind of anti-hero…one who was essentially good, but not above doing questionable acts if called for, including using fists or pulling triggers.  When all of this was pulled together for The Maltese Falcon in 1941, cinema history was made.

The first film noir.

Film noir was a term coined by the French when they began to see the wave of American pictures they had missed during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  It didn't necessarily describe a style of filmmaking, but rather a mood.  The pictures were dark and shadowy, and peopled almost entirely with anti-heroes.  The atmosphere was usually one of a grim reality, where happy endings were tucked away behind doors that kept closing in the characters' faces. "There is no reprieve in film noir," Martin Scorsese has said.  "You just keep paying for your sins."

The Maltese Falcon established a whole new set of ground rules for the mystery movie, and its initial formula has been mimicked time and time again.  The hard boiled tough guy detective.  The sobbing damsel, who may or may not be a cold blooded killer.  A virtual circus of greedy, slimy bad guys.  The fisticuffs and gunplay.  Toying with the idea of romance between the leads, but not always following through.  All of these concepts became a part of movie vocabulary with The Maltese Falcon.  It’s no wonder that to this day it remains a fan favorite, and even made the AFI Top 100 list.

The energies that Bogart had previously channeled into his bad guy characters made for an electrifying protagonist in Sam Spade.  He’s good, but not always in conventional ways.  He’s a bit of a mystery to the audience through much of the film, but in an intriguing way.  Early on, when his partner shows up dead, we expect the Bogie of old to go on a mad, murderous vengeful rampage.  Here, he hardly flinches, instead calmly having his partner’s name taken off the door, and responding to a cop’s statement that his partner must have had his good points with a rather callous, “Yeah, I guess so.”

In the opening, the words on the screen tell us the story of the falcon…a gold statue encrusted with jewels that was lost at sea.  Then the bird is forgotten about for a good while, as Spade takes on what seems to be a simple family case from a troubled woman (Astor).  It is only later, as layer upon layer of the truth is revealed that we understand how this simple case relates to the statue, and meet all of those who would stop at nothing to retrieve it.

The seediness of the characters alone makes the film fascinating, as well as the taut storyline, but much more was at work in this film to make it the landmark it is.  The black and white photography is stellar, with terrific use of shadow play, occasional limited lighting, and smoke to create a dark, dreamlike world for these lost souls to wander through. 

I can’t emphasize enough what an impact this movie had on cinema, and how influential it continues to be.  Even modern films like L. A. Confidential owe a great deal to the movie that initially was nothing more than the creation of a new vehicle for a studio’s rising star.  It was indeed, as Bogart remarked near the end, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” 

Video ***1/2

For a nearly 60 year old film, this disc boasts a remarkably high quality transfer.  Save for a few spots, scratches and scars here and there (quite inevitable), this picture is glorious.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, and the light/dark contrasts are remarkable and faithful. 

Audio ***

The 1 channel mono soundtrack is surprisingly good and dynamic, with excellent clarity on the dialogue throughout peppered with a few loud gunshots and musical cues.  There's surprisingly little noise or other distractions, for a film this old.  All in all, a serviceable and worthwhile listen.

Features **1/2

The disc contains two trailers and a 45 minute special from Turner Classic movies on the trailers of Bogart, documenting how Warner Bros. first shaped, then promoted one of their biggest stars.

Summary:

The Maltese Falcon is a classic and a landmark.  It gave the world of cinema a new genre—film noir—and gave one of our greatest movie stars the chance to create a type of role that would become part of movie vernacular.  Above all, it’s a well acted, well paced mystery with great characters and a great story.  It’s every bit as entertaining as it is important.