Combustible Celluloid
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With: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook Jr., James Burke, Murray Alper, John Hamilton
Written by: John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Directed by: John Huston
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 101
Date: 03/10/1941

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

John Huston's amazing directorial debut is one of those films you return to time after time, just to make sure you actually saw what you think you saw. Could it really be that very nearly the entire movie takes place indoors? (It's set in San Francisco, but not shot here.) Could it be that the final half-hour takes place entirely within one room?

The film has passed in and out of fashion over the years, through claims that it's un-cinematic and stagy, to other claims that it's a masterpiece. It's telling also that the material -- a 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammet -- proved too difficult for two previous directors, Roy Del Ruth and William Dieterle, who adapted the story in 1931 and 1936, respectively (the latter film was called Satan Met a Lady). Both those failures are included on Warner Home Video's extraordinary three-disc DVD re-release, along with many other extras.

But, like two other amateur directors who appeared the same year (Orson Welles and Preston Sturges), Huston knew what he was doing. Of course, he was also blessed with a heavenly cast. Humphrey Bogart had been a contract player at Warners, floundering with all different types of roles (he even played a vampire). But with his Sam Spade in this film and with High Sierra (1941), he finally found his niche as a tough guy, cynical but magnetic. Peter Lorre was already a star, thanks to his masterful turn in Fritz Lang's M (1931). But The Maltese Falcon teamed him up with Sydney Greenstreet, a stage professional making his movie debut at the age of 62. Lorre and Greenstreet were so popular together that Warners paired them up again for nine more movies (including Casablanca). Mary Astor plays the lying, cheating heroine of the piece; a veteran of silent pictures, she had a turbulent life off screen and her role as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon provided a moment of relative stability for her. Bulky Irishman Ward Bond (a mainstay in John Ford's films) and weasel-like Elisha Cook Jr. round out the rest of the familiar faces in a story about a black bird.

It starts out with a missing sister, merges into a murder, a fire and then finally a stolen statuette. Huston, already a veteran screenwriter, adapted the novel very precisely, hanging onto Hammett's crackling dialogue. But it was his direction that energizes the piece. He includes pauses and emphasis at just the right moments, stages the actors within the rooms for exactly the right status.

In one great moment, Sam threatens Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), and then storms out of the room. Huston follows him to the hallway; Sam has a smile on his face. It was all for show. But not for show -- he reaches out to press the elevator button and takes note of his shaking hand. The ending reveals perhaps Huston's biggest flourish; it comes past the famous "stuff that dreams are made of" line and past Sam's speech to Brigid ("I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.") It comes when the elevator grate shuts, resembling prison bars on Brigid's face. But Sam doesn't get away either, he walks down a flight of steps, and off camera, damned to spend the rest of his days in a living hell.

Warner Home Video's 2002 DVD set comes with a re-mastered edition of the movie, looking more glorious than ever, complete with a commentary track and a Warner Night at the Movies intro (a newsreel, cartoons, shorts, etc.). Other extras include a radio play, a new documentary, a Bogart trailer gallery and more. The Maltese Falcon is available separately ($29.98), or as part of a new box set, Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection, Vol. 2 ($59.98), which includes four more movies: Across the Pacific (1942), All Through the Night (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943) and Passage to Marseille (1944). Many of the Maltese Falcon stars turn up again in these four, but unfortunately, all of them qualify as war propaganda films, and -- outside of war buffs -- hold little interest today. (Although one, Action in the North Atlantic boasts a screenplay by the great A.I. Bezzerides, who also wrote Kiss Me Deadly and On Dangerous Ground.)

In 2010, Warner Home Video released a massive new Bogart DVD box set (24 films), plus Blu-Ray editions of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There are no new extras on either, but the quality is astounding.

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