“The film to set the standard for private-eye pictures.” That’s how Bogey biographer Eric Lax describes John Huston’s Dashiell Hammett adap on his feature commentary here. Tall order? Perhaps, but it’s certainly on the mark. For starters, The Maltese Falcon trounced two earlier, smoother, cheerier takes on Hammett’s hardboiled source novel for shadowy cynicism, sadism (“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it”) and danger. What’s more, think low-level shooting, off-centre compositions, a back-handed hero and a tight script, and it’s not hard to see why French critic Nino Frank had Falcon in mind when he first coined the term film noir.
The plot is largely a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, hinged on a jewelled statuette wanted by hoods Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. But it’s a loaded MacGuffin: people take bullets for this fantasy. Mary Astor is dame duplicitous, while Bogart’s private dick Sam Spade wisecracks through the bird-watching, every quip a pistol-whip, hooded eyes looking out for number one.
Like High Sierra, Falcon lifted Humph from two-bit tough-guy roles to fast-cracking lead. He’s sharp and laconic here, and you can see why Huston always seemed eager to work with him. They’d worked on Sierra together, with Huston as writer, and they went on to make The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Key Largo and The African Queen – none of them movies you’d flip the bird to.
It’s no one-man outfit, mind. Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor give it both barrels, too. Greenstreet made the leap from theatre to the big screen as the avuncular, screen-packing Gutman, while Lorre bugs his eyes and simpers with singular wickedness. Astor, meanwhile, arrived on-set with plenty of off-screen scandal to her name and played to it wickedly, serving up a black widow with splashy relish.
And the DVD standard? Well, Lax’s slow-burning but informative, quote-enriched talk-track improves on a commentary-free previous disc. There’s also a docu-homage featuring industry figures (Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Miller, Michael Madsen) and historians which transcends mere gushing due to the detail it packs into 30 minutes. There’s a lot in it about how Hammett “took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it back on the street,” and about how producer Hal B Wallis asked Huston to speed the dialogue up. Sound advice, that: Falcon flies faster than Bogey disarming a heavy.
The rest is padding: cartoons, trailers, make-up tests. Held over from the previously released Falcon disc is an account of Bogart’s career through trailers, which occupies that middle-ground between ingenious and desperate. What you don’t get are the two other Falcon adaptations (1931’s The Maltese Falcon and Satan Met A Lady, 1936), which were released in the US as part of a three-disc set. They weren’t as good as Huston’s, but provide fascinating context. Still, two discs out of three ain’t bad, making this almost the stuff that... you know, right?