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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,
This review is from: The Maltese Falcon  [DVD] (DVD)
Seldom has any novel been so successfully interpreted on screen: in approaching Dashiell Hammett's seminal private-eye novel, director John Huston not only stayed meticulously true to the plot, he also lifted great chunks on the novel's dialogue directly into the script--and then styled the pace, cinematography, and performances to reflect Hammett's stripped-for-action tone. And the result, to borrow a phrase from the film, is "the stuff that dreams are made of." THE MALTESE FALCON is a iconographic landmark in twentieth century cinema.
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.