Friday, 1 February 2008

Discount Bin Movie Club #8: The Maltese Falcon

Today we take a trip back to 1941 and the classic film The Maltese Falcon, written and directed by John Huston, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, and starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Mr. Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, and Elisha Cook Jr. as "cheap gunsel" Wilmer Cook. It's the movie that most historians mark as the beginning of the 'classical' period of film noir.

This was the third attempt by the Warner Bros. studio at turning the best-selling thriller into a movie. The first try in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as Spade is mostly forgotten, as was the second try in 1936 retitled as Satan Met a Lady and judging from the trailer, which is one of the few extras on this $5 discount version of the DVD I bought last year, it plays more like some sort of screwball caper-comedy, than a hard-boiled thriller.

But we're
not here to talk about that movie. We're here to talk about the 1941 version.

Warner Bros. assigned the film to neophyte director John Huston, and it became his first feature film, and what a debut.

The film does not look or sound like it was written and directed by a first timer, the compositions are carefully constructed, and tell the story in a compact and almost purely cinematic way. And the performances are right on the money for fans of the book. (Me being one.)

Now it's interesting that Humphrey Bogart is the first face that comes to mind when you hear the name Sam Spade, considering he looks nothing like the character in the book.

The novel's description of Spade can be condensed as a cross between a blond Jack Nicholson and an NFL linebacker, yet Bogart fully captures the character. If not in appearance, but by the little mannerisms and small gestures that showed that the actor not only read the book, but understood it, and made it all look natural.

The film also makes sure to point out that Spade is not your typical matinée hero, and dwells in a moral grey area that skirts, but doesn't quit
e cross the line of the Hayes Code. (Something that only shows how talented Huston really was)

The plot is a complex web of double crosses, triple crosses, and murder over a priceless "black bird" that you have to pay attention to in order to follow. The dialogue is a crackling piece, that handles exposition expertly while swimming joyously in hardboiled slang and sarcasm.

The performances are all pretty top notch to, with the aforementioned skill of Bogart, and the sly archness of his semi-regular cohorts Peter L
orre and Sydney Greenstreet. Mary Astor's portrayal of Brigid may leave some modern viewers cold, because it seems a bit over the top, and melodramatic, but when you understand that Astor's playing the role of a woman playing multiple roles, you can be a bit more understanding.

The DVD itself offers a fairly good print of the film, with a minimum of wear on an almost 70 year old film. It's a little lean on extras, mostly trailers of this film, Satan Met a Lady, and a mini-documentary comprised of other Bogie trailers, as well as some text-pieces about the film and the mystery genre.

I'm hoping for the strike to end fairly, so I can end my boycott of DVD buying, because this discount version has piqued my interest in getting the new deluxe edition that comes not only with the trailers, but the other two versions of the film.

The Maltese Falcon is a worthy edition to any film-buff's collection, in fact, it should be required viewing, because, as Bogie says in the end: "It's the stuff that dreams are made of."

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