Warner Bros. // 1941 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // February 22nd, 2000
Bogart, film noir, Sydney Greenstreet, it's all good.
There are a few perfect films that define their own genre. This is one of them. The Maltese Falcon is arguably the greatest piece of American film noir, simply because everything about it is so flawless. Filled with twists and turns which are plausible and exciting, intriguing characters from all sides, and a story which is never boring, The Maltese Falcon actually improves upon each viewing. They just don't make films like this anymore. Warner enters the competition with Columbia Classics collection for finally distributing their own catalog of vintage gems. Columbia holds the lead in the quality department, though this is a disc that still belongs in your collection.
John Huston's (Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Prizzi's Honor) directorial debut The Maltese Falcon elevated a dimestore detective thriller into a stylish psychological study of character. The script sizzles with hard-boiled dialogue. The cast is legendary; Bogart became a superstar after playing private eye Sam Spade. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet were the ideal diabolical team and Elisha Cook Jr. was perfect as the expendable gunsel. Huston's direction was meticulous -- each frame of the film is a composition. Though the film was overshadowed at the time by Orson Welles' flamboyant debut, Citizen Kane, Huston's stoic style stands strong and was perhaps the most influential in Hollywood history as the noir style began to take shape.
"In 1539 the Knights 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 the priceless token, and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day." So begins the film, which explains the most basic part of the plot; that a search for this priceless relic is the driving force behind the story. But it isn't the bird that carries the film, but the characters themselves; how they plot, double-cross, lie and cheat to get their hands on the jewel-encrusted token. Each character has their own devious methods, and Sam Spade is as multi-faceted, quick-witted, and tough as they come. He is the central character largely because he is only the least amoral and conniving of them. He remains cool under pressure, and even his temper outbursts turn out to be mere ploys to gain advantage.
There is no way to truly do justice to the story in a review, but here's a thumbnail sketch. The camera views the San Francisco office window (with backwards lettering of the names Spade and Archer) of cynical, realistic, and tough detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). The two detectives share the same office (and the same wife, as it turns out). Spade's loyal secretary Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) enters his office where he is rolling a cigarette, and tells him there is a new "customer" -- a Miss Wonderly, to see him -- and she is a "knockout."
Ruth Wonderly turns out to be an innocent-looking, stunning beauty. Wonderly tells Spade that she is from New York and that her sister is missing. The client ostensibly asks Spade for help in locating her sister. She was associated with a mysterious man named Floyd Thursby. She explains what Thursby said to her: "He said she didn't want to see me. I can't believe that. He promised to bring her to the hotel if she'd come this evening. He said he knew she wouldn't. He promised to come himself if she didn't." When Archer comes in and sees the lady, he is obviously taken with her (despite being married) and offers to tail Thursby. Things move quickly, and both Archer and Thursby are killed, and Spade is summoned. His deadpan attitude at seeing his partner's death shows the darker side of Spade, or so we think (few things are as they seem). The police sergeant comments on Miles' demise: "It's tough, him getting it like that, ain't it? Miles had his faults just like any of the rest of us, but I guess he must have had some good points too, huh?" Sam replies dispassionately: "I guess so." He stalls when it comes to giving the police information on the case they were working on, which leads to the police suspecting him of both murders.
Here we get some of that great 1940s patter: "Sorry I got up on my hind legs, but you tryin' to rope me made me nervous. Miles gettin' bumped off upset me, then you birds crackin' foxy." Doesn't make a lot of sense now, but it sure sounds good. They calm down, and share information, saying "If you did it, or if you didn't you'll get a square deal from me and most of the breaks. Don't know as I blame you much -- a man that kills your partner, but that won't stop me from nailing ya." ""Fair enough," Spade replies. They share a drink, toasted by Spade: "Success to crime!" Of course we don't suspect Spade, but the whodunit commences, with several people it turns out having motives.
As it turns out, "Ruth Wonderly" is in reality Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and in true femme fatale fashion has quite a few secrets. She is the first of several people that enter the story; all after the famed falcon. Spade has unwittingly been put into the competition of people for the bird, and has to think fast and on his feet.
There are more memorable quotes in this film than I could list, but Sydney Greenstreet, playing Mr. Gutman "The Fat Man," has some beauties. After pouring a stiff drink for Spade:
Gutman: We begin well, sir. I distrust a man who says 'when'. If
he's got to be careful not to drink too much it's because he's not to be trusted
when he does. Well, sir, here's to plain speaking and clear understanding. (They
drink.) You're a close-mouthed man.
Spade: No, I like to talk.
Gutman: Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we'll talk if you like. I'll tell you right out I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.
The plot twists and turns some more, as the players, including the gardenia scented Mr. Cairo (Peter Lorre) vie and ally and betray for the falcon. Spade stays one step ahead throughout, and the final scene where you finally see the bird is a masterpiece. The scene comes in at around 27 minutes, and in that scene, we get a continuation of the story, as well as a wrap up. The way this scene is done, with very few cuts, is one of the most intense scenes in cinema, as you're watching the end unfold mysteriously. Because it is character motivated, you don't always know where the plot is going to go, and this allows every future moment to appear spontaneously. This long scene is one of the best in all of Hollywood history.
Let me gush on. The film has a brilliant plot, devoid of holes or implausibility, but is only secondary to the characters. This is how film noir should work: the characters within it fuel the plot. None of these characters are trapped by a gimmick, or by a plot, which needs to go only one place. Even the romance between Sam and Brigid (Mary Astor) is intelligently done, opening up whole new dimensions in the story. The plot isn't just about who will get the falcon, it's about who's smart enough to get it. The film also feels more like a play, possessing a lot of the intensity of watching live action. As I said, they don't make them like this anymore.
Now for the disc itself. The transfer is pretty good, in it's original full frame black and white. It's not quite up to the quality of some other classics that have had their film elements restored, but it's as sharply detailed as I've ever seen this film. There is a modicum of grain in some exterior shots, and a fair number of nicks and scratches from the film stock. Contrast levels are sharp, shadows are not murky, but blacks do occasionally suffer into a very dark gray. Grays and whites are sharp and clear. The sound is a pretty predictable Dolby Digital mono track. While there is a low noise floor, and dialogue is always intelligible, the frequency range is very narrow, mostly midrange. The musical score suffers somewhat from this, and comes off compressed and with some distortion at times. Still, nothing to truly complain about.
While the sound is a small complaint, the extra content is a bit lacking and a bigger one. There is a fairly interesting documentary, "Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart," hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne. He takes you through Bogart's career by showing twelve trailers that encompass the spectrum of his work, from gangster and outlaw to romantic lead and accomplished actor. The "cast and crew" section has bio and filmography for only Bogart. Trailers for Satan Met a Lady and The Maltese Falcon, and a text-based explanation of film noir finish out the extras. The extra content pales in comparison to the best of Columbia's Classic discs. The transfer, as noted, was not as good as I'd hoped, though still very presentable. Surely a film that is number 36 in AFI's top 250 films of all time deserved a full restoration.
More than fifty-nine years after it was made, John Huston's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel continues to breathe mystery and innuendo at every turn. Watch it not only because it is central to the film noir genre, but also because its tight pace, razor sharp dialogue, and deep shadows will compel you to watch it repeatedly in an effort to catch nuances that always seem just beyond your reach. The film stands up to and even demands repeated viewings, and that makes it the perfect candidate for purchase. The disc isn't perfect, but it's very good.
My judgment is not against the film, but the public, who are charged with watching this film. Or watching it again, if you've seen it before; as all people who enjoy film owe it to themselves to watch this one. Kudos to Warner for making the film available, but they are asked to re-issue this in the future with a full restoration of film elements and true special edition treatment for extra content.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* History of Mystery
* Bogart Bio
* Bogart Tribute Site
* The Film Noir Reader