Here's America's iconic movie star of the 1940s, Humphrey Bogart, in his first truly great movie, The Maltese Falcon.
This little masterpiece was directed by one of Bogart's closest associates, John Huston, whose father, Walter Huston, would act opposite Bogie just a few years later in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Even then, Hollywood was a tightly-knit world.
|"The stuff dreams are made of..."|
This is a movie about love and lust, murder and intrigue and greed. It's about the stuff that dreams are made of, as Bogart says in one of his greatest-ever cinema speeches.
In The Maltese Falcon, Bogie slips comfortably into the first of his great detective characters - private-eye Sam Spade, who was the creation of a real-life gumshoe, Dashiell Hammett (incidentally, Hammett also created William Powell's 'Thin Man' character.
As a detective, Sam Spade is the real thing; cynical, tough and laconic. But despite his world-weary cynicism, when his partner Miles Archer gets murdered, Sam has to follow through. Miles was, after all, his partner - and that's all that matters, even if Sam was bonking his wife.
Miles has been murdered as an almost-incidental part of a 17-year international quest by assorted treasure-hunters after a fabled solid-gold and jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon - the Maltese Falcon - worth more than a million dollars. And back in 1941, that was a lot of dollars.
The seekers include Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), who has raised trembling seductive helplessness to an artform - and Sam's easily seduced. Then there's the effete, perfumed Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). And to round things out in the biggest possible way, there's Gutman, the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), the biggest villain on the block, in a rollickingly villainous, totally amoral role which defined Greenstreet forever.
Watch too for Elisha Cook Jr as Gutman's boyfriend and gunman. It's a brief appearance, but beautifully portrayed. It presages Cook's poignant performance in Bogart's other great detective flick, The Big Sleep.
Tight direction, scripting (John Huston wrote his own screenplay from Hammett's novel) and acting combine to make this a pacy, potent movie. And it was the first of the Bogart movies to combine, through snappy dialogue and deft acting, a high level of comedy alongside the drama - with the comedy being found in both snappy repartee and character observation.
Greenstreet's character Gutman provides quite a bit of the latter. But the actor who really lifts this movie (apart of course from Bogart himself) is Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, in one of his most satisfying roles.
Lorre, who in real-life was a close personal friend of Bogart's, had the ability to transform his character; to totally immerse himself in his role. He is as effective here as he was years earlier as a paedophilic child-killer in Fritz Lang's M - and as he would be as the terrified, bullied doctor in the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
The scripting is tight and the developments pile onto each other so fast that the viewer has a real task to stay on top of the story of The Maltese Falcon. To really cope with the plot twists, spins and permutions, you need to see this movie a few times... but with production and acting this good, that's no problem at all.
This seems to be transferred from exactly the same film elements as used for the old Region 1 release.
It's certainly a viewable transfer, but by no means as good as this classic movie deserves. Black and white tones are pleasing, and contrasts are strong, and for most of the time, everything's totally satisfactory. But there are moments (e.g. around the 8.30 minute mark) where the negative or print seems badly damaged. Incidental scratches, whirls, light points and other artefacts occur from time to time, and there are some jumpy moments when it seems a few frames have been lost.
But nothing is really bad enough to obscure the fact that this is a great movie, presented in a pretty decent transfer which will do until Warners decides to give it the full-out restoration treatment it really deserves.