The story is well known. San Francisco Private eyes Sam Spade and Miles Archer are employed by an attractive but decidedly questionable Brigid O'Shaughnessy to track down a man named Thursby--but within hours of taking the case both Miles Archer and Thursby are shot dead, and Spade finds himself embroiled in a search for a legendary lost treasure: the figure of a falcon, encrusted with jewels.
The cast is remarkable. Humphrey Bogart made a name for himself first on the stage and then in films with a series of memorable gangster roles, and was fresh from his great success in HIGH SIERRA; Sam Spade, which offered a new twist on his already established persona, was an inspired bit of casting. Mary Astor had been a great star in silent film, but the late twenties and early thirties found her dogged by scandal; perhaps deliberately playing on those memories, she brought a remarkable mixture of toughness, tarnish, and absolute believability to the role of the very, very dangerous Brigid. And the chemistry between Bogart and Astor is a remarkable thing, a simmering sexuality that more glossy casting could have never achieved.
The supporting cast is equally fine. Although a great star in Europe and the star of a number of 1930s films, Peter Lorre was still something of an unknown quanity in American film; Sidney Greenstreet was a minor stage actor with no screen experience; Elisha Cook was a well-liked but neglected character actor. But THE MALTESE FALCON would fix all three firmly in the public mind, and to some extent all three would continue to play variations of their FALCON roles for the rest of their lives.
FALCON is particularly noted as one of several films that craftily circumvented the notorious "Production Code" by effectively implying but never directly stating the various sexual relations between the characters. Spade has clearly had an affair with Archer's wife, Iva; Archer is clearly a man on the sexual make, and leaps at the chance to tail Brigid. Lorre's lines effectively expose Brigid as man-hungry, and the script and situations do everything but flatly state that Lorre's character is homosexual. Perhaps most startling is the implied sexual relationship between Sidney Greenstreet and the hoodlum Elisha Cook, and the concluding implication that Lorre may well replace Cook in Greenstreet's affections. Just as the plotlines swirl and twist, so do the layers of innuendo and the tangles of sexual uncertainty--all of it adding to the film's feel of uneasy decadence and grittiness.
The DVD bonuses are enjoyable but slight--two film trailers and a documentary that uses trailers to show how Warner Bros. marketed Bogart during the 1930s and 1940s. But even if it came without any bonuses the DVD would still be greatly welcomed: although it has not been restored in a computer-corrected sense, this is the finest print I have ever seen of the film, far superior to anything available on VHS. A great film, a true essential, and strongly, strongly recommended.
"The Maltese Falcon" (1941), directed by John Huston, based on Dashiell Hammett's 1930 like-named novel and itself also ranking in the top quarter of the AFI's list of the 100 best 20th century movies, laid the groundwork for Bogart's lasting image, by transforming his on-screen persona from the tough, often two-dimensional gangsters he had portrayed before; beginning with the 1936 adaptation of Robert Sherwood's "Petrified Forest" where, like in its 1934 stage production, Bogart had starred opposite Leslie Howard, with Bette Davis as the female lead. Now imbuing his tough guy shell with a softer core, in "The Maltese Falcon" Bogart became not only Hammett's Sam Spade but, moreover, the film noir anti-hero per se; a role that stayed with him throughout the rest of his career, and in which he still remains virtually unparalleled.
The movie's long-famous story centers around the mysterious statute of a falcon made from solid gold, diamonds and other precious stones; the 16th century Maltese Knights' immeasurably precious gift of thanks to Emperor Charles V for the protection he had granted them. Stolen by pirates, blackened on the outside in order to conceal its true value and passed on through the centuries by a number of unsuspecting possessors, it finally attracts the attention of two rivaling pairs of equally cunning, ruthless and high-flying scoundrels, who chase each other and the statue halfway around the world and finally end up in Sam Spade's San Francisco office - not without getting both Spade's partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and one of their own killed in the process; thus also causing additional grief for Spade, whom the police soon suspect of being behind the murders himself - or at least behind that of Archer - in order to make off with Archer's widow Iva (Gladys George). And of course, it doesn't exactly help that he has had his office sign changed from "Spade & Archer" to "Samuel Spade" within mere hours of his partner's death.
Looking at the movie and its stars' almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, this was originally just one of the roughly 50 films released by Warner Brothers over the course of one year. But mass production didn't equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score and the stars' presentation in the movie itself and in its trailer, was as responsible for its lasting success as were Humphrey Bogart and his outstanding costars; first and foremost Mary Astor as the double-crossing and now partner-less Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (in their first of several appearances opposite Bogart) as Joel Cairo and Kaspar Guttman, O'Shaughnessy/Astor's competitors for possession of the precious statue, and Elisha Cook, Jr., as Guttman's rough but inept bodyguard Wilmer Cook. Genre-defining and the first truly giant highlight of Bogart's career, "The Maltese Falcon" is an unmissable piece of Hollywood history, captivating you from the first moment you spend in Sam Spade's office all the way to its cynical conclusion, and a thrill to watch over and over again.
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