The Maltese Falcon appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I expected a pretty good transfer for this new edition of Falcon and was very pleased with what I saw.
From start to finish, sharpness seemed excellent. Nary a hint of softness ever interfered with the proceedings. The movie always looked nicely crisp and well-defined. Jagged edges and shimmering failed to appear, and edge enhancement seemed to be absent.
Blacks occasionally looked a tad bit inky, but they usually came across as quite deep and rich. Shadow detail was top-notch throughout the movie. The low-light shots displayed good clarity and visibility. As for print flaws, they were essentially absent. Very few instances of distracting marks, blemishes or specks marred the flick. I noticed a couple of jumpy frames, but this was almost always a rock-solid presentation. Put simply, this was an absolutely splendid transfer.
As for the monaural soundtrack of The Maltese Falcon, it appeared pretty good given the age of the material. Speech generally came across as reasonably concise and distinct. I noticed a little edginess at times, but I experienced no issues related to intelligibility. Music appeared decently bright and clear, and effects also came across as clean and accurate. I discerned no significant problems related to distortion in those domains, and the mix also lacked noticeable background noise. Ultimately, you won’t use The Maltese Falcon to show off your sound system, but the audio seemed somewhat above average for a flick of this vintage.
How did the quality of this new special edition compare to those of the original DVD? Audio seemed about the same for both releases, but the 2006 version offered radically improved picture quality. Everything seemed clearer here, especially since the 2006 rendition eliminated the many source flaws that marred the prior disc. The 2006 transfer looked much better.
Although the old DVD lacked many extras, a bunch of new components show up for this special edition. On DVD One, we open with an audio commentary from Bogart biographer Eric Lax. He offers a running, screen-specific chat. Lax chats about the lives and careers of many participants, the history and development of Warner Bros., the story’s origins and move to the screen, other adaptations of Falcon, and various production notes.
Though the track starts slowly, it eventually becomes quite good. At his best, Lax gives us an interesting look at the anticipated issues. Most commentaries from film historians examine the lives of those involved and aspects of the film’s creation, so Lax’s piece takes the usual path. The results seem rather dry at first, as Lax initially does little more than throw out general biographies. However, as he gets more into aspects of the production, the piece grows more interesting. In the end, we get a nice look at the flick.
A creative and fun addition to the set, Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1941. This feature starts with a preview for Sargeant York. We also get a period newsreel, two animated shorts (Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt and Meet John Doughboy) and a live-action musical short entitled The Gay Parisian. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of Falcon, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I like this concept and think it’s quite clever.
Only other extra appears on Disc One. We find the trailer for Falcon. This is interesting mainly due to a unique introduction from Sydney Greenstreet.
On DVD Two, the main attraction comes from two films related to the 1941 Falcon. First we find the 1931 edition of The Maltese Falcon. This version runs about 78 minutes and stars Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Wonderly. (She doesn’t reveal a fake name here.) On the surface, both versions seem a lot alike. We don’t get a lot of story variations between the two, so those elements definitely resemble each other.
We find the main differences when we look at the movies’ style and performances. John Huston gave the 1941 take radically greater style and clarity than this meat and potatoes version, and the actors in the later edition are substantially more talented as well. Given the near perfection of the 1941 Falcon, it becomes hard to swallow anyone else in these parts, and the 1931 performers do nothing to make us forget their later counterparts.
The biggest negative comes from Cortez’s silly take on Spade. Rather than the hard-bitten cynic, this flick’s Spade is more of a happy-go-lucky lunk. He’s more of a traditional romantic lead and a stronger ladies’ man; he plays with the babes more actively than Bogart. The pre-Code Falcon makes the sexual side of the Sam/Wonderly relationship more obvious.
One substantial difference between the two: the depiction of Miles Archer. The 1931 Archer is much older than the 1941 flick’s version, and that creates a very different dynamic connected to Spade’s relationships with both his partner and Archer’s cheating wife. Iva Archer plays a more significant role here because she comes across as the bitter lover spurned by Sam. Even so, the 1931 edition lacks the later Falcon’s deep sense of cynicism; it plays things much closer to the surface and never evokes much response from the viewer.
The 1931 Falcon does offer an ending not found in the 1941 version. Apparently this was the conclusion from Hammett’s original work but it was never shot for the 1941 Falcon. That’s fine, as it’s superfluous; the finish of the later movie works well.
Overall, the 1931 Falcon offers a less rich, more perfunctory take on the material. Most of the relationships are less involved. For instance, we don’t get the same set-up for the antagonism between Spade and Wilmer, and others don’t develop well either.
It’s interesting to see the 1931 Falcon because it shows how much different execution makes. Both films provide the same story and a great number of similarities, but the 1941 edition is so much better acted, shot and staged that it’s not even funny. Still, I’m very happy that the DVD includes the original 1931 version, as it’s cool to get the chance to compare and contrast the two.
For the other flick, we get 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, a 74-minute comedic take on Falcon. The movie presents Warren William as Ted Shane – renamed from Sam Spade - and Bette Davis as Valerie Purvis, the femme fatale. We also find fish and chips mogul Arthur Treacher as a version of the Cairo character, and Gutman is an old woman here. Lady follows the basic framework of Falcon but doesn’t adhere quite as closely as the two other movies. It renames all the characters and creates general alterations to the different sequences. It also displays the pursuit of an ancient trumpet stuffed with jewels instead of a valuable falcon.
“Shane” is a lot closer to the 1931 Spade than the Bogart version. He’s a suave ladies man who charms everyone as best he can. William’s frothy performance influences the tone of the entire flick, as it takes a lighter than air feel across the board. It shoots for comedy rather than the cruel darkness of the 1941 Falcon.
If Lady actually mustered some laughs, that’d be fine. Instead, the fare fizzles and never comes across as anything more than a forgettable romp. It’s moderately interesting to see Bette Davis, though she looks vaguely embarrassed to be in the film; she never manages to exert much of her usual personality here. As with the 1931 Falcon, I’m glad we find Lady here as a historic curiosity, though I’m not sure I’ll ever want to watch it again.
Although the DVD’s case claims that we’ll get ads for both of these flicks, that’s not the case. We find the trailer for Satan but don’t discover the promo for the 1931 Falcon.
Moving over to DVD Three, we open with a new documentary called The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird. This 31-minute and 55-second program mixes movie shots, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from Lax, filmmakers Christopher McQuarrie, Larry Cohen, Frank Miller and Peter Bogdanovich, actors Michael Madsen and James Cromwell, Dashiell Hammett’s granddaughter Julie Rivett, biographers Stephen Youngkin and Joe Gores, authors Michael B. Druxman, Eddie Muller and Richard Layman, film historians Rudy Behlmer and Lincoln D. Hurst, musician/performer Henry Rollins, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor Carol Littleton.
“Bird” covers the story’s author and origins, the book’s success and first two moves to the big screen, and how it got a third chance as a movie. We hear about how John Huston got a shot as a director, casting of Falcon and performances, and shooting details. Finally, the program deals with the production schedule and pressures, critical reactions and its influential elements, cinematography and characters, and the movie’s legacy.
My main complaint about “Bird” comes from the oodles of praise that shows up in it. The program comes across more as a general appreciation than as a view of the production. Nonetheless, we get a reasonable amount of good information here. Some of this repeats from Lax’s commentary, but the addition of various archival pieces helps, and the show adds up to a decent little history of the movie.
Also found on the prior Falcon DVD, Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart offers one of the oddest documentaries I’ve seen. Hosted by Robert Osborne, this 44-minute and 40-second program indeed showcases the ads used to promote Bogart’s flicks. Created for the Turner Classic Movies channel in 1997, the show features promos for 12 Bogart efforts. Of course, Falcon appears in there, and we also find trailers for famous efforts like Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Osborne offers some useful historical notes for this unusual but entertaining program.
Breakdowns of 1941 presents a 12-minute and 52-second blooper reel. It features goof-ups and wackiness behind the scenes on the year’s Warner flicks. We find names like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan and James Stewart on display. The clips are just the same as modern bloopers, but the presence of so many legends makes this reel a little more interesting.
75 seconds of silent Makeup Tests come next. We see Mary Astor as she gesticulates for the camera. These aren’t terribly interesting, to be honest.
Under the banner of “Audio Vault”, we find three components. First comes a 2/8/1943 Lux Radio Broadcast. This 57-minute and 36-second adaptation of Falcon features Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade and Gail Patrick as Brigid. This one hews pretty closely to the movie, though it takes a few liberties. For instance, it opens with Archer’s death and relates Spade’s first encounter with Brigid as a flashback.
The adaptation works pretty well. Robinson’s not as good as Bogart, but he holds his own, and most of the others and fine too. Laird Cregar lacks Greenstreet’s wonderful jocularity, though, and some of the scenes lose a little punch without visuals. Still, this is a fairly entertaining radio show.
Next we find a 9/20/1943 Screen Guild Theater Broadcast. It lasts 28 minutes, 45 seconds as it does another take on Falcon. Unlike the prior edition, this one uses the main cast from the movie. We get Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet and Lorre in their original roles. That’s a nice factor, though the extremely abbreviated take on the story hurts. The limited running time means that we zoom through the tale and lose an awful lot of material – this becomes a really bare-bones version. It’s fun to hear since it includes so much of the movie’s cast, and at least it minimizes ads so much of the 28 minutes gets devoted to the show.
For the final audio element, we get a 7/3/1946 Academy Award Theater Broadcast. In this 27-minute and 33-second piece, Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet all return for yet another iteration of Falcon, but Lorre fails to reappear. This one adds narration from Bogart to take care of all the missing material. This works okay, though it feels like the clumsy device that it is. At least that method helps keep in more information than we find in the 9/20/43 edition. Otherwise this is an interesting curiosity but not a particularly memorable version of the story.
Despite my teenage dislike of the film, as an adult I found The Maltese Falcon to provide a tight and intriguing story. The movie told its tale in a vibrant and concise manner and seemed to deserve its reputation as a classic. The DVD presented excellent picture and extras as well as audio that was more than satisfying.
Without question, Falcon is a must-own classic, and I heartily endorse this new special edition. That goes for new buyers and those who already own the prior release. The 2006 release adds plenty of terrific extras and offers greatly improved picture quality. This is a stellar set that I recommend without hesitation.
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