As a director, John Huston began his career with a trio of small studio pictures, the most prominent and fully realized of which would be his debut, The Maltese Falcon. It was a project of his own personal choosing—a gift given by Jack Warner after Huston had co-written a number of hits for Warner Bros., including Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York. The source material, Dashiell Hammett’s lauded 1930 crime novel of the same name, had been used twice before and had proven a box office letdown in both cases. The same, as it turned out, did not hold true for Huston’s tight and engaging first feature.
This is not to say that The Maltese Falcon necessarily lives up to its high acclaim as one of the best noirs ever made, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as one of Huston’s true triumphs. What it does extremely well is set the pitch for Huston’s career as a filmmaker: His major themes, techniques, and relationship with actors and dialogue are presented here in embryonic form. But it remains, at heart, a studio noir, and thusly comes off as somewhat rigid and miniscule in scope where Huston’s subsequent films would almost all be described, in one way or another, as epic.
What this presaging debut does perhaps best is give a suitable starting-off point to view Huston’s relationship with literary adaptations, which took up the glut of the director’s career. In keeping with Hammett’s classic story, the film is built sturdily on a canny, nuanced performance by Humphrey Bogart as that most notorious of private eyes, Sam Spade. Not but a few beats into the opening scene, Spade and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), are hired to tail a man, Floyd Thursby, by a woman who gives her name as Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). That night, both Mr. Thursby and Mr. Archer meet their end, sending Spade on a thorn-strewn path to recover the eponymous, priceless statuette that Mr. Thursby apparently was in the process of selling.
There are indeed crooks, policemen and degenerates that make their way into the story, none more seductive than Astor’s Wonderly, who is later revealed as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. It is two of Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s associates that become Spade’s congenial adversaries and cumbersome nuisances: Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in his first performance), also known as “The Fat Man” and something of a tyrannical collector, and the flamboyant, nattering Joel Cairo, wonderfully played by Peter Lorre. These figures, along with supporting characters excellently played by Gladys George, Ward Bond, and Barton MacLane, remain very close to those created by Hammett and the dialogue copies a generous amount of the novel’s wit, though much of the sex in the novel (most negligibly, that implied between Spade and Archer’s widow) was taken out to subdue the pseudo-moralistic hounds of the Hays Office.
But then the inherent looseness of sex didn’t figure into many of Huston’s films prominently and it was only palpably explored in two: 1964’s The Night of the Iguana and 1972’s Fat City, arguably his last true masterpiece. Huston’s focus was always on the disillusionment of the archetypal man in the pursuit of masculine fantasies, most of which (not shockingly) involved enormous sums of money or notoriety. The big-city noir could never have been truly fruitful terrain for Huston: It was too dependent on the dream of men, too insistent on confined spaces, shadows, and expressionist lighting. The Maltese Falcon is certainly a noteworthy noir, but more than that it was an entrance exam for Huston into the cult of Hollywood filmmaking which, as a screenwriter, he had the pleasure of being distanced from. It was a calling card and a due paid before he went onto more personal and ambitious works.
In the film, Huston’s ambitions and astounding talent were gleaned in far more humble doses than they would be in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston’s first narrative film (a great one, at that) made after working for the military on a trio of controversial agitprop documentaries, two of which were censored. Scrupulous in his preparation (he sketched all the storyboards for The Maltese Falcon and had a reputation for volatile rehearsals), his dialogue alternatively is at battle and in collusion with the cinematography of Arthur Edeson, a proven practitioner under both Douglas Fairbanks and James Whale. In a key scene, after Gutman has slipped Spade a mickey, Edeson’s camera coaxes the viewer in with an array of shots, ending with one staring up toward Gutman’s tremendous stomach, while Gutman coaxes Spade along with a tale about the titular statue’s origins.
The dialogue also teases a gleeful self-awareness: Gutman continuously refers to Spade as “a character” and Spade himself continuously refers to the stories being told and the story he is a part of as nonsensical and needlessly convoluted. It makes for a fascinating facet, but it’s more endemic of the genre than Huston who was, through and through, a bold narrative artist and not much for avant-garde pursuits. His aim was, like the novelists he admired and worked with, to tell a great story visually; to harness the commanding power of unique and demanding novels and redeploy them as great cinema. Some became history for reasons bigger than the film itself and some became obscurities but not always justifiably and though it is nothing short of an intelligently made and commendable first feature, The Maltese Falcon sits firmly in the former category.
This 1080p transfer, in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, is just about as solid as one could want from a 1940s studio noir. The image sustains a high level of clarity with good detailing and contrast. The black levels could use a little more balance, but they're never negligibly poor—and still, there's far greater detail in the dark scenes now than in the DVD and VHS versions of the film. The HD 1.0 Master Audio lossless soundtrack is similarly strong, keeping the dialogue out front and crisply layered with the score and minimal atmosphere noise.
Warner Home Video has put together a fun, if not exceptionally insightful package of extras with The Maltese Falcon, beginning with a lively and amusing commentary by Eric Lax, a noted Humphrey Bogart biographer. There's also a great featurette, "Becoming Attractions," wherein Robert Osborne goes through Warner Bros. marketing campaigns for a handful of Bogart pictures; another, lesser featurette goes through the making of the film. But the best extra, for die-hard moviegoers anyway, is a programmed assemblage of trailers, cartoons, a musical short, and a newsreel to facilitate the feeling of going to a feature in the 1940s. A blooper reel, makeup tests, and three radio adaptations of the picture are also included.
John Huston's just-slightly overpraised noir debut gets its fair shake from Warner Bros. via an overall exceptional Blu-ray.