Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky says not to worry about this review's goofiness. A sensible one would have had us all in the cooler.
Our reviews of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010), The Maltese Falcon (published February 22nd, 2000), The Maltese Falcon (Blu-Ray) (published October 11th, 2010), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries (published September 21st, 2009) are also available.
"I've never seen a stronger face, or a stranger one."—Manning (John Loder), speaking about Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart), Passage to Marseille
This is the stuff dreams are made of: five top-notch thrillers from the most famous actor in Hollywood history. He could play tough, tender, cruel, and kind. He could win the war single-handedly, or he could die tragically fighting for the cause. Polls regularly announce Humphrey Bogart as the biggest and best star in the firmament of Tinseltown. Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection, Volume 2 makes a good case for taking that claim seriously.
Facts of the Case
Warner Brothers includes the new, glorious three-disc edition of The Maltese Falcon as the centerpiece of this collection. Included in that package are two additional versions of Dashiell Hammett's detective story, neither starring Bogart. Exclusive to the boxed set: four wartime efforts by Bogart, ranging from lighthearted to inspiring to grim. Let us look at each disc in turn.
The Maltese Falcon (1941): Of course you know this one. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a private detective with a heart of ice hidden behind a sardonic sense of humor. He doesn't much like his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)—he may even be sleeping with the man's wife. But Archer is dead, shot at close range while tailing a man named Thursby at the request of a woman named Wonderly (Mary Astor). And it is bad for business if your partner is dead and you can't solve the crime.
The Maltese Falcon is a film about desire. Spade needs closure for the murder of Archer, and for the detective, closure means justice. It isn't about vengeance; it is business. And getting justice means getting to the mysterious "black bird" everybody else seems to want. If Spade can bluff his way past the oily Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the gregarious Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), and Gutman's whimpering muscle (Elisha Cook, Jr.)—and the police who want to pin Archer's murder on Spade—he can get to the black bird and solve the case.
Spade has another desire too: the woman who called herself Wonderly, who might be named LeBlanc, who now calls herself Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She is the slipperiest character of all, and perhaps it is the very fact that Spade cannot pin her down that makes her so desirable. If she gets to the black bird, she will have wealth and power, and so Spade wants to get it so they can be together. His desire is doubled: justice and romance—and all pointing to this Maltese Falcon, a legendary treasure.
Rule Number One of Desire: The objects of our desires have no value but what we give them. They are, as Shakespeare and Spade tell us, the stuff dreams are made of. The Maltese Falcon is a fake, a lead weight. It was the pursuit that was crucial. The quest gave them all purpose (and Gutman is more than prepared to resume the chase).
Rule Number Two of Desire: Desires often compete for our attention, and to satisfy one is often to thwart another. Until Spade gathers the villains together at the film's climax, his desires—justice and romance—converge on the same point. But when Brigid herself is revealed as Archer's killer, Spade makes a difficult decision. He cannot have both love and justice. And for a hard-boiled detective, business is business. He won't play the sap. Not for you.
What The Maltese Falcon accomplishes is nothing particularly new, although Hollywood filmmaking was only just starting to embrace the world of film noir when John Huston decided to make this third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel. Like Citizen Kane the same year, The Maltese Falcon borrows its visual style—shadowy lighting, reflections, low angle shots—from German expressionism. It borrows its bad attitude from hard-boiled crime fiction, Hammett and Raymond Chandler's world of emotionally-scarred men who traffick in crime solving, only barely above the level of criminals themselves. But like Welles with Kane, Huston, in his directorial debut, pulled all these threads together in a way other Hollywood filmmakers had not done before.
The Maltese Falcon is far from a dated example of Hollywood noir, a film that might have looked daring in 1941 but now looks quaint. On the contrary, as Warner Brothers' stunning digital restoration makes clear, this is a film that is still tighter and more lucid than most studio films today. The image is shockingly crisp. I could swear I saw beads of sweat on Bogart's hands as Spade rummages through Joel Cairo's papers in search of clues. The wisps of smoke from the endless cigarettes curl like talons around the characters. The mono audio catches every background noise, although the dynamic range of the music is obviously somewhat pinched. Warners has done a fine job here.
The center of the film is Bogart's performance. His range is remarkable, moving from feral anger (watch him smash the drinking glass as he confronts Gutman) to desperate calculation (watch him sort out his feelings over turning Brigid in). But his greatest strength is his ability to say one thing and show Spade thinking something else entirely: the notorious "bluff." Bogart's Spade, just as Hammett's Spade in the novel, can coo kind words while planning betrayal, threaten action while trying to talk his way out. When he kisses Brigid for the first time, is this a man giving in to a romantic urge or is he collecting a payment in lieu of her trust? At the very least, this is a man working every angle at once. And the supporting players all rise to Bogart's level. Astor plays Brigid as a woman grasping for control as her own desires back her deeper into a corner. Greenstreet, an accomplished stage actor, is all about confident stillness. Lorre (in his personal favorite performance) is slippery and slightly perverse. Their chemistry is heightened by a tight screenplay and fast pace, both of which force the players to ping-pong their dialogue almost competitively.
It helps that the dialogue sounds natural, not staged. Look at the scene where Spade talks to Polhaus (Ward Bond) about Archer's murder. Shortly after, Polhaus and Dundy visit Spade to try and wheedle out of him anything about the case Archer was working. The conversation is clipped, efficient, but clearly comes from three men with a grudging respect for one another. For a short scene, it tells us a lot about how the police and Spade view one another, and how much they each regret holding information—and their real emotions—back.
I could go on and on: The Maltese Falcon does not waste a shot. I'm not the only one that thinks so, obviously. Biographer Eric Lax offers an articulate and straightforward commentary track, full of interesting trivia and production details. He pads a little too much (is a history of the Warner brothers themselves really necessary here?) and doesn't offer much analysis of the film itself, but newcomers to the film will learn quite a bit.
Play the film in "Warner Night at the Movies" mode for a variety of extras that make this seem like a trip back to 1941. First up, a trailer for Howard Hawks' Sergeant York, followed by newsreel footage of a pre-war meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt. Then, in case you were not feeling manly enough after the feature, you can thrill to a vibrantly colorful Ballet Russe performance of "The Gay Parisian." And yes, it is. Two cartoons round out the program: Bugs Bunny in the color "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt" (ah, those were the days, when Longfellow was a good poet and Indian caricatures were funny) and Porky Pig in the black and white "Meet John Doughboy" (Bob Clampett parodies newsreels). The Porky cartoon is in a strange stereo mix, where all the voices are pushed all the way to the left speaker, while the musical score is mostly pushed to the right side.
The Maltese Falcon appears in a three-disc edition that mines the Warner Brothers vaults for goodies.
Disc Two: Ricardo Cortez plays a more suave, less hard-boiled Sam Spade in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. This pre-Production Code adaptation of Hammett's novel plays up the sex a bit more. Indeed, Spade flirts aggressively in this version (and is clearly having an affair with Archer's wife—in the John Huston version, their sexual tension is more vaguely defined), and he grins too damn much. (And Wilmer is more obviously Gutman's "little boyfriend" in this one.) Comparing the respective tones of this and the 1941 version, you get the sense of how the sexual titillation of the pre-Code days was channeled into the edgy violence of Huston's adaptation. Director Roy Del Ruth, who was known later for his musicals, shoots the whole business in pretty standard, straight-on style, taking his cue from William Powell's Philo Vance mysteries. But generally, the film is faithful to the book in its plot, even if its tone is off and its brief length (80 minutes) requires a lot of compression.
Satan Met a Lady (1936) brings in Bette Davis as the lady in question, Warren William as "Ted Shane," and Arthur Treacher (best known as P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and for his fish and chips chain) in the Gutman role, here changed to Travers. Actually, quite a lot has been changed. The basic plot structure is the same, but the whole thing is played as borderline farce. Shane is more sex-crazed con man then detective, chasing after a ram's horn (alert Dr. Freud!) filled with jewels. And Bette Davis? She sticks pretty much to the script without showing much of the energy she would bring to later starring roles. It is all played for the funny, which it occasionally is. But it ain't Bogart.
The condition of both films is middling, with scratches and dirt throughout. Warners likely did not do much restoration work on these. In any case, you are probably not going to watch these two previous adaptations more than once, just to get the sense of how different they are from (and inferior to) the John Huston film.
Disc Three: The major supplements are all grouped here. First up, a half-hour documentary that covers the history of the black bird from Dashiell Hammett's Pinkerton days to his hard-boiled Black Mask detectives (who, according to Raymond Chandler, "took murder out of the drawing room and put it back in the alley where it belonged"), through the two failed adaptations of 1931 and 1936. The story behind Huston's production is already pretty famous: how the script was pretty much typed directly from the book, how George Raft turned down the film, how the chemistry among the male leads (Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet) led them to be cast repeatedly together in later films. This is a solid look at the film, even if it reveals few surprises.
A 44-minute featurette (hosted by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies) screens trailers for Bogart's films from The Petrified Forest (1936), where he was sold to the public as the successor to James Cagney, to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Note how the trailer for The Maltese Falcon plays up Sam Spade as a "ruthless lover" more than a detective. The sequence gives an intriguing look at the evolution of Bogart's Hollywood career, although the featurette could use some chapter breaks (so we can skip over to the better trailers if we want). "Breakdowns of 1941" is Warners' annual blooper reel. Enjoy Bogart, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, and other Hollywood stars stumbling and cursing in ways the public never got to see. If you laugh, you'll like the blooper reels coming on later discs in this boxed set.
Disc Three rounds things out with a minute of make-up tests for Mary Astor and three radio adaptations (one with Edward G. Robinson as Spade from 1943 and two with Bogart from 1943 and 1946). I have heard never heard the 1943 Lux Theater production before (I've heard Bogart's radio versions), but Robinson's Spade is quite restrained and laconic compared to Bogie. The Bogart versions (which also star the other principal cast members) squeeze the story into a half hour, so they cannot afford to waste any time. The 1943 version retains the film version's edge, but the 1946 performances are played brightly—you can tell the actors are grinning all the way through.
All Through the Night (1942): To an America still reeling only weeks after Pearl Harbor, this spy farce must have seemed, well, a little weird. Sure, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt are here, but so are Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, which gives you a sense of what this is all about. Bogart plays wiseguy Gloves Donahue, a mouthy mug on the hunt for the guy who killed his favorite baker (and cut off his supply of cheesecake!)—which leads him right to a ring of Nazi saboteurs. It is lightweight stuff, with fast-paced, Damon Runyon-style banter.
Director Vincent Sherman managed to record a commentary track for the film (just before his recent death) with Bogart biographer Eric Lax. Sherman, amiable and articulate, reveals that he let the comic actors like Silvers and Gleason write their own jokes and felt his own role as director was "to keep the picture moving," while Lax fills in with plenty of trivia and anecdotes.
The featurette this time around focuses on "the craft of the character actor." From Peter Lorre to Walter Brennan to Hattie McDaniel, character actors in the classic days of Hollywood were cast to fill specific types. They could always get steady work, even if they rarely got high billing. Need a funny drunk? A fat, sinister kingpin? You can always get that guy who played the same part in ten other movies. The audience will know him right away, without you having to waste time with exposition. A few current character actors like Edie McClurg and Clint Howard turn up to give insight into how to fill in the background of a scene while the stars take the glory.
The "Warner Night at the Movies" section starts with a trailer for the boxing biopic Gentleman Jim starring Errol Flynn. The newsreel is filled, as you can guess, with war news. We get to see the first of the long-running Joe McDoakes comedy one-reelers, in which George O'Hanlon tries to quit smoking (but is not yet apparently "behind the eight-ball"). Finally, tour Time's Square's nighttime advertising in Friz Freleng's plotless gag cartoon, "Lights Fantastic."
Across the Pacific (1942): After Bogart's turn in a Bette Davis drama (This Is Your Life), the Falcon team was pulled together once again for this wartime actioner. (John Huston left for the war without finishing the picture; Vincent Sherman came in to wrap things up.) Bogart plays Rick Leland, a disreputable Army officer drummed out only weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Intent on selling his services in Asia, he buys passage on a Japanese ship on its way down the east coast toward the Panama Canal. Aboard ship, he meets a beautiful Canadian woman (Mary Astor) and a blustering professor (Sydney Greenstreet) who loves the "wonderful little" Japanese. There is some charming and flirtatious banter, but as the ship makes its way south, Leland (really working undercover to bust a spy ring) makes his move to stop a Japanese conspiracy to attack the Panama Canal. The streak of dark humor that permeated Falcon is once again in effect here, and it makes for a brisk, entertaining adventure. The film also gives a pretty balanced view of Japanese culture for a wartime propaganda film, without the usual caricature. But nobody actually ever gets to the Pacific in this movie. Go figure.
The disc includes a featurette on Hollywood's response to World War II. Although this subject (and the sheer number of film critics rounded up to comment) could easy warrant a feature-length documentary, "Hollywood Helps the Cause" covers the war years well in 20 minutes, pointing out key films from 1939's Confessions of a Nazi Spy to the Office of War Information (the military bureau that worked with studios to produce movies "to help us win the war"). These were the days when propaganda was not a dirty word, and even anti-heroes (like Rick in Casablanca) could find their patriotic streak. "Breakdowns of 1942" features funny bloopers, screen tests, some goofy sound effects, and naughty language from Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, and even Ronald Reagan.
The print itself is frequently scratched or dirty in its early reels (the supplements are in better shape than the feature). The "Warner Night at the Movies" section includes a trailer for the Michael Curtiz/James Cagney air adventure Captains of the Clouds (filmed in Canada!) and newsreel (ironically reporting on expansion work on the Panama Canal). Those brave "Men of the Sky" win their wings and listen to a surprisingly pinched speech about facing the "savagery" of the enemy, after which we watch some sentimental mush ("Never mind the tears—he's going to avenge the other women who cried at Pearl Harbor!") about keeping the world safe for churches and soda pop. This flag-waving, Technicolor short is in really great shape though, even when one of the pilots opens his cockpit "mid-flight" (with no wind and a static background) to wave at us. The Termite Terrace boys do their part for the war effort with the cartoon "The Draft Horse."
Action in the North Atlantic (1943): After Across the Pacific, Bogart made a largely obscure and forgotten Michael Curtiz picture—I think it was called Casablanca. Then he teamed with the director of Knute Rockne All American to play merchant marine Joe Rossi, first officer on a ship captained by Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois). They run afoul of a u-boat which sinks their tanker, leaving them adrift on a raft for eleven days. Of course, American fighting men never give up, so Bogart and Massey ship out again, run another gauntlet of submarines, and successfully bring their cargo to our wartime Russian allies. As if you thought the outcome might be any different in a movie released in 1943.
Overall, the film is a solid example of a gung-ho wartime action film, particularly in its explosive first act. The special effects are particularly good for the period. But Action in the North Atlantic is also grimly earnest, lacking the cynical humor of the other Bogart efforts in this DVD set. Bogart's biggest strength as an actor was his ability to balance determination with a sense of playful rebellion. But he is really playing second here to Massey's fatherly captain, and the film is a little padded with "message" scenes (merchant marines lecture each other on patriotic sacrifice, Bogie punches out a drunk chattering openly about troop movements) that seem rather forced when there isn't a war on.
Watch this as part of the "Warner Night at the Movies," and you can enjoy a trailer for Northern Pursuit (with Errol Flynn as a heroic Mountie), badly scratched newsreel footage of the Navy hunting u-boats, a cartoon about a clever fisherman's worm who can trick fish without getting eaten, and ballroom dance sensations Veloz and Yolanda giving us a brief tour of half a century worth of popular dances. Why though does Veloz's tango outfit make him look like Zorro the Gay Blade?
The featurette this time around celebrates the workaday studio directors like Action in the North Atlantic's Lloyd Bacon and All Through The Night's Vincent Sherman, who never became famous names but who could work quickly in a wide range of genres. Mervyn Leroy (Mr. Roberts), William Keighley (The Man Who Came to Dinner)—these guys and other studio directors often made great movies, the credit for which went to the producers, studios, and stars. And if you have an hour to spare, you can listen to Raymond Massey reprise his film role (with George Raft taking Bogart's part) in a Lux Radio Theater adaptation.
Passage to Marseille (1944): Just as Across the Pacific attempted to recapture the magic of The Maltese Falcon by reteaming Bogart with that film's director and co-stars, this Michael Curtiz picture aims to please Casablanca fans, as Bogart, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre meet again for this dark adventure about the French Resistance. This time, Bogart plays a French journalist opposed to the Vichy government's capitulation to the Nazis, so he is sent to Devil's Island on a trumped-up charge. He escapes (along with a bunch of other angry but patriotic crooks) and joins the Free French air squadron for some surprisingly brutal fighting. Claude Rains plays the intense squadron commander who relates the story of Matrac (Bogart) in flashback—or more accurately, flashbacks inside flashbacks. Ok, so it isn't the most coherent story, but photographed in perpetual shadow by the great James Wong Howe, Passage to Marseille is a rousing story of embittered and betrayed men who find their purpose in war.
To lighten the mood, watch the film in "Warner Night at the Movies" mode. You can enjoy a trailer for Errol Flynn's Uncertain Glory, newsreel footage of female Marines training for combat (with patronizing narration), an Oscar-winning two-reeler about a piano prodigy telling stories to his army buddies, a jazz performance featuring Lester Young and other top-notch musicians (by my estimation, the best thing on this entire disc), and a Chuck Jones cartoon about life on the home front.
This disc's featurette tells the story of Vichy France and the Resistance, using a lot of clips from Passage to Marseille (and some real life footage). You can also watch Bogie and many other Warner contract players blow their lines in "Breakdowns of 1944," yet another blooper reel put together by the "Warner Club" for its annual celebration dinner.
I sat down to this boxed set expecting to relish The Maltese Falcon and struggle to stay awake through the other discs. But Bogart's wartime films show his subtlety and charisma elevating material that could easily have been cookie-cutter propaganda. He was never the most handsome man, and he never seemed like the sort of guy you might hang out for an afternoon. He even had a lisp. But Bogart had a remarkable power to sell character and story, a presence that filled the American screen. As Gutman says in The Maltese Falcon, you never know what he is going to do next, but it is bound to be astonishing.
A winning package, Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection, Volume 2 gives more than just a look at one of America's most iconic actors. Even putting The Maltese Falcon aside (and certainly this is worth the price of admission by itself), the collection shows some of the most entertaining efforts from the Hollywood's propaganda machine, films that do their part to keep up morale, thrill and amuse the audience, and make you want to purchase a few war bonds to aid in the fight against fascism.
We're turning in the gunsel as the fall guy. They should wrap up the whole business quickly. Then we can all get away to Istanbul. Case closed.
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