#31 The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Collector's Edition)

Amazon.com essential video
Still the tightest, sharpest, and most cynical of Hollywood's official deathless classics, bracingly tough even by post-Tarantino standards. Humphrey Bogart is Dashiell Hammett's definitive private eye, Sam Spade, struggling to keep his hard-boiled cool as the double-crosses pile up around his ankles. The plot, which dances all around the stolen Middle Eastern statuette of the title, is too baroque to try to follow, and it doesn't make a bit of difference. The dialogue, much of it lifted straight from Hammett, is delivered with whip-crack speed and sneering ferocity, as Bogie faces off against Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, fends off the duplicitous advances of Mary Astor, and roughs up a cringing "gunsel" played by Elisha Cook Jr. It's an action movie of sorts, at least by implication: the characters always seem keyed up, right on the verge of erupting into violence. This is a turning-point picture in several respects: John Huston (The African Queen) made his directorial debut here in 1941, and Bogart, who had mostly played bad guys, was a last-minute substitution for George Raft, who must have been kicking himself for years afterward. This is the role that made Bogart a star and established his trend-setting (and still influential) antihero persona. --David Chute

On the DVD
This handsome transfer of John Huston's 1941 masterpiece gets the usual mix of bonus features, with a couple of major additions: the two previous film versions of Dashiell Hammett's landmark detective novel. Neither gets it right, although both are fun examples of everyday Warner Bros. fare. The 1931 Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez as gumshoe Sam Spade, has plenty of cheek but precious little magic--although it's fascinating to hear some of the same verbatim Hammett dialogue later enshrined in Huston's classic. The 1936 Satan Met a Lady pitches the story as a screwball comedy, with Warren William and Bette Davis playing it as though they wandered in from a Thin Man picture.

Other goodies include a historically minded commentary track from Bogart biographer Eric Lax. Three different radio versions of the Falcon are here, two starring Bogart and one with Edward G. Robinson, and a useful half-hour documentary, The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird. Turner Classics host Robert Osborne presents a fun 44 minutes' worth of Bogie coming-attractions trailers. An uncensored collection of bloopers, Breakdowns of 1941, has some hysterical gaffes. Shorts include two Oscar nominees: the cartoon "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt," with Bugs Bunny intruding on the famous poem; and "The Gay Parisian," a colorful and historically valuable performance by the fabled Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. (Although what Sam Spade would've thought of such a thing can only be imagined.) A humorous cartoon war-effort short, "Meet John Doughboy," gives good flavor of the mood of the era. --Robert Horton

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