Maltese Falcon
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Maltese Falcon

Only a meager handful of films are the product of such incredible craftsmanship, talent, and imagination that they transcend being a part of cinematic history and wind up a cornerstone of our culture. A film like this contributes to our collective consciousness through its iconic lines of dialogues and scenes that remain forever frozen in our mind’s eye. One film that reached this transcendental level is ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ This movie, much like the titular object is "the stuff dreams are made of," This movie helped to define several genres including film noir and the mystery. This movie defined the character tropes used in films of these genres raging from the femme fatale to the gruff and slightly shady private detective. In an era overrun with futuristic crime shows employing the latest in forensic technology it is refreshing to see a mystery done in the old school methodology of a private eye tracking down clues to unravel the mystery using only his shoe leather, his trusty revolver and a wide-brimmed fedora and trench coat. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is the epitome of the forties detective novel brought to life on the screen. This is the kind of film us baby boomers grew up watching. While we did miss the initial theatrical release, it remains a constant feature in film festivals and college cinema revivals. Like most people who have had a lifelong infatuation with movies, I have owned this one in various formats. I owed a copy of it on VHS tape trading that in for a DVD. Now, that treasured disc has been retired to make room for the ultimate high definition Blu-ray edition. Each time you watch this film, you will come away with something new, perhaps a plot point, maybe a camera angle or lighting effect. In any case, it is impossible to tire of seeing this movie. This is what the art form of cinema is all about; I piece of art that will endure throughout the ages.

For fans of old fashion crime mysteries the world can be divided between the followers of two authors; Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Both contributed greatly to the genre, but the portrayal of Hammett’s character Sam Spade as played here by Humphrey Bogart cemented the author forever as one of the screen’s fathers of the noir movement. Bogart breathed life into the pages of Hammett’s character constructing the prototypical gumshoe private dick. Sade is the kind of man ready with a quip or smart remark while being held at gunpoint. He can slap a woman in the face one second and passionately kiss her the next. Bogart was the only actor who could do justice to this brusque lone wolf of a man. The first shot of him in the movie has Spade meticulously rolling a cigarette. Of course in the college showings of the film, this was interpreted a bit differently. A beautiful young woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) comes into his office wanting Spade to follow a man involved with her younger sister. Spade’s partner although married, wants to cozy up to her and offers to follow the mysterious man. The stakeout doesn’t last long as out of the darkness a shot rings out killing Archer. Spade didn’t like Archer, but he is bound by a strict code of conduct to track down the killer of his partner.

Soon Spade is pulled deeper and deeper into a quagmire that eludes him. A strange little man, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) visits Spade in his office offering him $5,000 (a lot of money in 1941) for the no questions asked recovery of a black figure of a bird. Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, but the detective easily gets the best of him. Spade rarely carries a gun, but he always seems able to take one when the situation requires it. That is a large part of this larger than life persona. He is better armed with his wits than most men are with s .45.the trail is convoluted eventually leading Spade to the presence of ‘The Fat Man,’ Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). The intrigue deepens as Spade begins to develop feelings for Brigid, but romance is never in the cards for Spade; danger lurks around every corner. In one scene that brings together Spade, Cairo and Brigid the conversation is masterfully built. Spade, like the audience, can only glean a fraction of what the other two are discussing but he listens intently for any tidbit that might shed light on the matter at hand. The story unfolds in a slow, carefully controlled manner layering one mystery on top on the other. Spade is shady, ready for anything but he does have a strong sense of honor. He is a rogue to be sure, but he never lies unless he has to and always tries to make good on his word. This movie was a turning point in the careers of many of its stars. Previously Bogart played villains, but this demonstrated he could open a film packing the theaters. Greenstreet and Lorre would work together a lot including another historical film; ‘Casablanca.’ This film began the directorial career of one of the greatest filmmakers in history, John Huston. He created one stupendous film after another advancing film far beyond anything most could imagine. In the first meeting of Greenstreet and Bogart Huston shots Spade straight on but employs a Dutch angle below the 180 line visually reinforcing the audience’s opinion that Spade is dealing straight while Gutman’s motive remains cloaked.

I know that a lot of people feel it is a waste of technology to re-master a black and white picture with a mono soundtrack into Blu-ray. The fact is even an older film like this benefit greatly from high definition. With a film noir movie like this Black and White is the preferred medium. The hallmarks of the genre are deep shadows cutting across the shot with razor sharpness when the juxtaposition of light and dark is so integral to the presentation Blu-ray uncovers a depth of detail that is astounding. You can note the grain of wood paneling or the texture of the clothing making the film into a brand new experience. The audio is presented in mono DTS MA HD, but I found it great to filter the soundtrack through the ‘Mono Movie’ emulator on my receiver. This gives the reverberation of an old movie house completing the feel of watching it back in the forties. Unless you have this film on your shelf, you cannot call yourself a serious movie buff.

bullet    Commentary by Bogart Biographer Eric Lax
bullet    Featurette The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird
bullet    Breakdowns of 1941: Studio Blooper Reel
bullet    Makeup Tests
bullet    Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart
bullet    Warner Night at theMovies 1941 Short Subjects Gallery
bullet    Audio-Only Bonus: 3 Radio Show Adaptations

Posted 10/09/2010                12/12/2017

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