The 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon makes its debut on Blu-ray in a mostly satisfying edition. The film’s reputation precedes itself, making it difficult to add anything that hasn’t already been said. If you haven’t seen the movie, there’s arguably no better time than now as the Blu-ray presents the movie in near pristine audio/visual quality.
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, the 1941 release marked the directorial debut of John Huston. Two earlier filmed adaptations of the novel had been produced at that point: 1931’s The Maltese Falcon and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady. I’ve seen neither (more on this later), but according to the supplemental material, both versions took a lighter approach to the material. John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, crafted an iconic vision of the hard-boiled detective story. Aided immensely by Humphrey Bogart, who was not yet an established star at the time, this is the movie that really cemented the genre of film noir.
Modern movie fans may have a difficult time understanding why the work was so groundbreaking when taken out of context. The striking cinematography of Arthur Edeson helped introduce a new visual vocabulary. The shadowy lighting and unusual camera angles established a new template for future crime and suspense thrillers. Bogart’s characterization of Sam Spade was the quintessential private detective. Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy provided the ultimate femme fatale. When a film sets so many standards, becoming infinitely copied over the years, the original impact can never really be duplicated. Luckily the supplemental features provide a mini history lesson for those willing to dig deeper.
The plot can easily be considered a bit convoluted and requires a rather high level of attention to follow. Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer accept a case from a lady named Miss Wonderly. In short order, Archer is shot dead after following the man who Wonderly hired the detectives to investigate. When that man, Floyd Thursby, turns up murdered as well, Spade is a suspect. The plot unfolds in an unpredictable manner from that initial set up. When Joel Cairo, played by the inimitable Peter Lorre, enters the picture, things really liven up. Cairo is in search of a rare and highly valuable statue of a bird, which gives the film its title. One of the primary reasons the film has endured for seventy years is sophisticated and genuinely suspenseful nature of the storytelling.
The Maltese Falcon is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition. It retains the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The picture is sharp, allowing for vivid reproduction of detail. The folds in clothing, patterns on upholstery, lines on the actors’ faces, all of this is wonderfully reproduced. The rich black and white cinematography is well rendered. Anyone who has suffered through a bargain basement standard definition transfer of an old movie will appreciate the care that was obviously invested. There is fine grain present throughout, which was present from the start as opposed to an artifact occurring during the transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio is 1.0 mono, accurately reproducing the original mix and limitations of the era. The dialogue is natural sounding, completely free of distortion. Music and effects are blended in at appropriate levels, never obscuring the actor’s lines. This is a very dialogue-driven movie, so any flaws in the presentation of the actor’s voice would be tragically noticeable. Thankfully there are no such problems with this Blu-ray.
As I’ve hinted at earlier, there is much to be learned from digesting the various supplemental materials included here. This material has been ported over, in standard definition, from the earlier three-disc standard DVD release. What’s disappointing is that the three-disc DVD included both the 1931 production of The Maltese Falcon as well as Satan Met a Lady in their entirety. It’s really too bad Warner didn’t include a second disc with these feature films, as I would really have liked to compare them. Both earlier films are discussed in One Magnificent Bird, which is an informative half-hour documentary. Film historian Eric Lax’s commentary track is well prepared and also very insightful.
Among the other features retained from the previous DVD release include a number of shorts designed to replicate the experience of seeing a theatrical release in 1941. This means viewing film trailers, short cartoons, and a newsreel all preceding the feature. Each individual item is available to view as a stand-alone feature as well. More interesting is a lengthy examination of trailers for Humphrey Bogart movies. I initially assumed Becoming Attractions was simply a trailer gallery. In fact it is a forty minute program with a host and comments about how Bogart was marketed. Three original radio adaptations are also included, two of which feature the film’s original stars. Edward G. Robinson fills in for Bogart on one of them.
The only thing that could have made the Blu-ray edition of The Maltese Falcon would’ve been the inclusion of the 1931 and ’36 adaptations. Otherwise, this is a well produced release that should please fans of this classic film.