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Maltese Falcon’ remains prototypical ‘film noir’

Brian Doxtader | Friday, February 23, 2007

“The Maltese Falcon” is the prototypical “film noir,” a gritty and hard-boiled detective story with a stone-faced star and double-crossing femme fatales. The film made stars out of Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston, both of whom would go on to make a number of classic films. Warner has just released “The Maltese Falcon” in a three-disc special edition set loaded with special features, many of which help illuminate the film’s context and impact.

The 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon” is actually the second film based on the eponymous novel by Dashiell Hammett, though Huston’s film is considered far superior to the previous version. The plot revolves around San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), who is asked for protection by the mysterious Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor). When Spade’s partner turns up dead, he finds himself embroiled in an international scandal involving Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), all of whom are searching for a jewel-encrusted statue, the “Maltese Falcon” of the title.

It’s easy to see why “The Maltese Falcon” made a star out of Bogart. He epitomizes “hard-boiled” protagonist, with a certain toughness and intelligence to go along with his razor-sharp wit. The film is deeply engaging because while everyone is trying to outsmart everyone else, Bogart always seems to be one step ahead. Spade’s detached, almost aloof attitude and always-professional demeanor put even Quentin Tarantino’s screen heroes to shame.

Of course, the film holds up due to Hammett’s original novel being as good as it was. “The Maltese Falcon” adheres pretty faithfully to the book, and there’s a shocking amount of cynicism, especially for Hollywood in 1941. It’s amazing to think that “The Maltese Falcon” was released in the same year as “Citizen Kane” and only a year before “Casablanca.” This trio of films illustrates just how sophisticated Hollywood was capable of being during this time, and how adult and far removed from treacly sentimentalism it had become in the post-Depression era.

The new three-disc special edition of “The Maltese Falcon” is a huge improvement over the original one-disc release. The picture, which has been digitally transferred from “restored elements,” looks very clean, especially for a film that is over 60 years old. The audio is, appropriately enough, the original mono track, which also sounds quite good with clear, up-front dialogue.

Special features include a commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax, which is informative but heavily leans toward information about Bogart rather than the film. It’s unfortunate that Warner was unable to get critic Roger Ebert to do a commentary, as his tracks for “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” are both phenomenal. More information about Hammett would also have been welcome, though Lax’s knowledge of Bogart is impressive.

There is also a substantial amount of archival material, including several interesting shorts, trailers and information about 1941, which gives the film another layer of context. There’s also a documentary, “The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird,” which forms the bulk of one of the special features discs. The only disappointing aspect of the set (and really, it’s a minor nitpick) is that there is a lack of information regarding Huston.

“The Maltese Falcon” has finally gotten the treatment it deserves on DVD. As the archetypal film noir, it still holds up over half a century later, thanks to the sure-handed direction of Huston and the iconic performance of Bogart. The three-disc special edition comes highly recommended.