The Maltese Falcon is the stuff that great movies are made of, and this terrific 4K UHD upgrade with HDR brings all the mystery, violence, and skullduggery of Dashiell Hammett's complex and compelling detective yarn to brilliant life. Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and a host of others file iconic performances in John Huston's directorial debut, and the sublime video and excellent audio enhance their work. Add in all the extras from the 2010 Blu-ray and you've got the definitive edition of a defining film. Must Own.
As Humphrey Bogart soberly opines in the movie's final seconds, the Maltese Falcon is "the stuff that dreams are made of"...and for a while, the Hollywood Dream Factory seemed just as obsessed with that cursed black bird as the avaricious trio that will do anything to get it in Dashiell Hammett's novel. Surely the three Warner brothers fell under its powerful spell. Why else would they film the book three times over the course of a single decade?! An early 1931 talkie with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels came first, followed by Satan Met a Lady, a 1936 comic spoof that was so ill-advised it provoked Bette Davis to breach her Warner contract and flee to England.
Five years later, Warner dusted off the property again. While several oft-quoted maxims could explain the studio's willingness to continually recycle the tale ("If at first you don't succeed..." chief among them), "the third time's the charm" fits best. With Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in iconic supporting roles, writer-director John Huston's telling of The Maltese Falcon stands as the definitive version, as well as the quintessential private-eye film. And after it was released in 1941, no one in the movie industry - not even the Warner brothers - dared to touch the material again.
Every element of this magnificent motion picture is top-notch - direction, casting, music, photography - but the screenplay outshines them all. Huston brilliantly translates Hammett's terse yet lyrical prose into the language of celluloid, with images and dialogue that mirror the novel's every page. Sure, he takes a few liberties - softening Spade somewhat, cutting the final scene, and only hinting at another character's homosexuality (due, in part, to the era's rigid production code) - but the tone remains blessedly faithful to Hammett. Though a Rubic's cube might be easier to align than the tangled threads of this fascinating yarn, every tricky plot point, carefully constructed deception, and oblique relationship somehow finds its way into Huston's script, and the result is a textured tableau that requires several delicious viewings to fully digest.
If adapting The Maltese Falcon wasn't a challenge enough, the film also marked Huston's first foray into directing, and what an auspicious debut it would be. Mastering camera angles and continuity, deftly handling a big-name cast, and developing artistic flair often take years, but the 35-year-old wunderkind proved he had the goods right out of the gate, exhibiting the maturity and swagger of a far more experienced craftsman. With enviable ease, he merges the story's dingy settings, tough talk, and sordid actions with a satiny narrative style that seamlessly connects each scene. "Elegant" isn't a word often used in connection with this genre, but Huston - much like Martin Scorsese would do in his mafia films years later - makes the morally repugnant not just accessible, but also palatable, even beautiful.
The intrigue begins when a distraught Brigid (using an alias) enlists private detectives Spade and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to tail a shady character named Thursby, who might have abducted her sister. Archer quickly winds up dead (along with Thursby), and much to his cynical chagrin, Spade finds himself the prime suspect in their murders. He presses Brigid for answers, but she remains exasperatingly vague, and though he doesn't buy her damsel-in-distress routine, he has trouble resisting her vulnerable veneer.
Soon the oily Joel Cairo (Lorre) darkens Spade's door and hopes the detective can help him recover "an ornament that has been mislaid." That "ornament" turns out to be a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon that has beguiled and eluded fortune-hunters since the 16th century...and now ensnares Spade in an ever-widening web of deceit. Brigid - along with Cairo and Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), a rotund and ruthless collector - considers the priceless bird their Holy Grail and go to obscene and violent lengths to obtain it.
Though it's often difficult to process the convoluted plot (especially the first time through), concentrating too intently on all the twists, turns, and double-crosses makes one miss many of the subtleties that make The Maltese Falcon so rich and satisfying. The humor, atmosphere, pacing, and performances all need to be savored, as do the pitch-perfect supporting performances. In addition to the quartet of leads, Huston spices up his full-flavored brew with such fine players as Gladys George, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Ward Bond, as well as the aforementioned Cowan. There's even a clever cameo by Huston's father, esteemed actor Walter Huston. (The son would direct his father to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar seven years later in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and 37 years after that would direct his daughter Anjelica to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in Prizzi's Honor.)
Most importantly, The Maltese Falcon gave birth to the Bogart persona. Finally playing the hero instead of the heavy and given the chance to strut his inimitable and considerable stuff, Bogart burns his image into the lens and embraces the jumble of contradictions that would forever after define him - tough yet tender, cynical yet sensitive, droll yet serious, honest yet corruptible, noble yet selfish. Though he shares the screen with a formidable array of actors, two of whom (Lorre and Greenstreet) would never fully eclipse their superb performances here (or escape the subsequent typecasting), Bogart commands the screen and never relinquishes control, no matter how hard his scene-stealing colleagues try to wrangle it away.
The falcon may be elusive, but this classic film captures the essence of Bogart, Huston, and the hard-edged detective genre, and no matter what Brigid, Gutman, and Cairo may think, that's far more valuable than any jewel-encrusted black bird. Case closed.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Maltese Falcon arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A standard Blu-ray that includes all the special features and a leaflet containing the code for the Movies Anywhere digital copy are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Maltese Falcon looked terrific on DVD and Blu-ray, but this 4K UHD 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR outclasses both of those stellar presentations. It doesn't seem as if a new master was created for this release, but Warner Home Video has tweaked the existing source to optimize it for Ultra HD. The stray marks that intermittently dotted the Blu-ray have been erased, resulting in a spotless print that brims with detail and depth. But does it look like film? The short answer is yes. The grain structure remains intact and like most 4K renderings of Golden Age movies the texture occasionally is a bit more noticeable than on lower-resolution discs. Some shots look a tad processed and artificial, but the benefits of this transfer far outweigh any minor detriments.
The 4K image looks much more vibrant, possesses far greater shadow delineation, and appears more balanced with respect to its black, white, and gray levels than its Blu-ray counterpart. The blacks are dense and inky, the whites are crisp, and the wonderfully varied grays add dimension and heighten the impact. Some dark scenes on the Blu-ray look murky and some exterior daytime shots appear a tad washed out, but not here. Every detail, from a blood droplet on Cairo's white shirt to the leather weave on a wallet to the printing on a ticket, is crystal clear, and an array of breathtaking close-ups that highlight the crow's feet and slight bags around Bogart's eyes, the sweat glistening on Greenstreet's jowls, and Lorre's greasy, curly hair are razor sharp. Yes, the softness that afflicts some shots remains and any fuzziness in the frame is amplified, but that's the nature of 4K UHD.
If you're a fan of this all-time classic film, you'll definitely want to upgrade. The enhancements may not be revelatory, but they're substantial enough to merit the purchase.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track from the 2010 Blu-ray has been replaced with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that sounds basically the same. The exquisite dialogue, even when it's recited with rapid-fire alacrity, is mostly easy to comprehend (a few phrases uttered by Lorre and Greenstreet notwithstanding), sonic accents like gunfire, screams, ringing telephones and match strikes are distinct, and Adolph Deutsch's music score (which sounds an awful lot like Max Steiner) enjoys a robust fullness of tone. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without any distortion and no hiss, pops, or crackle intrude.
Because the 2010 Blu-ray disc is packaged inside this 4K UHD release, all the bountiful extras come with it. I only wish the two previous film versions of The Maltese Falcon - 1931's The Maltese Falcon with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels and 1936's Satan Met a Lady starring Warren William and Bette Davis - that were bundled in the 2006 three-disc DVD set could have been included here as well. The audio commentary is the only supplement that resides on the 4K UHD disc.
Audio Commentary - Bogart biographer Eric Lax provides a commentary that contains moments of insight and a few entertaining anecdotes, but is poorly organized and often frustrating. Rather than opening with a discussion of the original novel or a chronicle of the film's production, Lax immediately launches into a litany of dry bios of actors and crew members, then follows up with lengthy discourses on High Sierra, John Huston's early screenwriting efforts, and the Warner Bros studio - all quite interesting, but only tangentially related to The Maltese Falcon. Later on, Lax gains steam and focuses more intently on the picture at hand, but still only seems to scratch the surface. More time spent on Hammett, the novel, character analysis, and studio memos (of which there are several) would make this track more compelling. The commentary can be accessed on both the 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs.
Warner Night at the Movies (SD, 39 minutes) - This program of newsreels, live-action and animated shorts, and a trailer recreates what a typical evening at the movies might have been like back in 1941. The line-up kicks off with a re-release trailer for Gary Cooper's Sergeant York (which won him a Best Actor Oscar), followed by a vintage newsreel focusing on a Churchill-Roosevelt summit aboard a U.S. battleship and the Oscar-nominated, Technicolor short subject, The Gay Parisian, a sophisticated, terpsichorean pantomime starring the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and directed by Jean Negulesco. (Who knew the studio that produced Little Caesar and The Public Enemy could be so highbrow?) Rounding out the program are two Looney Tunes cartoons - the Oscar-nominated Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (an early Bugs Bunny cartoon in color) and Meet John Doughboy (a black-and-white animated newsreel introduced by Porky Pig and featuring a "cameo" by Jack Benny and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson).
Documentary: "The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird" (SD, 32 minutes) - This slick and absorbing 2006 homage includes comments and analysis from such authorities as Hammett's granddaughter Julie Rivett (who discusses the writer's background), directors Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Miller, historian Rudy Behlmer, and actor James Cromwell. Fellow scribe Raymond Chandler once observed that Hammett forever changed the face of mystery writing by taking murder "out of the drawing room and (dumping) it in the alley where it belongs," and by examining the story's appeal and themes, the film's noir elements, and the terrific performances of the four leading actors, this documentary proves The Maltese Falcon is not only crackerjack entertainment, but also an influential and enduring work of art.
"Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart" (SD, 45 minutes) - The late, great TCM host Robert Osborne anchors this enjoyable look at the evolution of Bogart's career as seen through the marketing lens of Warner's publicity department. The 1997 TCM program includes a dozen Bogart previews along with introductions and comments from Osborne. In addition to such classics as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a few rarities are sprinkled into the mix, including The Return of Doctor X, Bullets or Ballots, and Passage to Marseille.
Vintage Short: Breakdowns of 1941 (SD, 13 minutes) - This edition of the annual studio blooper reel captures our favorite Warner actors flubbing lines, goofing around, and cracking up on the sets of such films as Torrid Zone, No Time for Comedy, The Bride Came C.O.D., The Great Lie, and The Sea Wolf. These vintage outtakes really are amusing and don't let anyone off the hook. James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Rosalind Russell, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan, Claude Rains, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and Humphrey Bogart are only a few of the stars whose gaffes have been preserved for all eternity.
Makeup Tests (SD, 1 minute) - A couple of rare makeup tests of Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy are presented without sound.
Vintage Radio Adaptations (115 minutes) - A trio of radio adaptations are included. The first, a Lux Radio Theater broadcast from February 1943, stars Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade, Gail Patrick as Brigid, Laird Cregar as Gutman, and a young Bea Benaderet (best known for her role as Kate on the 1960s TV sitcom Petticoat Junction) in the role of Spade's secretary, Effie. Robinson and Patrick both give marvelous performances and the tight script condenses the story without compromising it (although the famous last line is strangely deleted). The second adaptation aired a mere seven months later in September 1943 as part of the Screen Guild Theater series and reunites the film's original cast. This time, the tale of the black bird is whittled down to a mere half hour, yet somehow Bogart, Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet preserve its power and essence. The third and final radio go-around (again truncated to 30 minutes) hit the airwaves in July 1946 with the original stars (minus Lorre) once more reprising their roles. Strangely, Bogart gives away the ending during his opening narration, but his portrayal, as well as those of Astor and Greenstreet, remains pitch perfect. The audio quality of all three programs is spotty, with noticeable hiss and static, but it's a treat to hear the different versions and size up the variations in style and plot that distinguish them.
Theatrical Trailers (SD, 5 minutes) - In addition to the original preview for The Maltese Falcon, Warner also includes the trailer for the (very) loose 1936 adaptation of Hammett's novel called Satan Met a Lady, which stars Warren William and Bette Davis.
A rare bird, indeed. The Maltese Falcon stands as one Hollywood's finest Golden Age films and one of the best detective movies of all time, and Warner Home Video honors this priceless cinematic gem with a knockout 4K UHD HDR transfer that's sure to dazzle fans and newbies alike. Excellent audio and all the supplements from the 2010 Blu-ray make the decision to upgrade an easy one. Must Own.