Beginning as a character in a serial, Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective Sam Spade has appeared in the original 1930 tale The Maltese Falcon, two films of the same name, several short stories, and several short films. Of the characterizations, the most widely known is likely from actor Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca) in the John Huston-directed 1941 film, with Bogart playing opposite Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Lee Patrick, and Sydney Greenstreet (in his debut performance). Nearly 82 years later, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is releasing this classic picture for the first time on 4K UHD with high dynamic range (HDR) and all the previously available bonus features with a same day/date physical and digital release on April 4th, 2023.
It was a day like any other when a woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) walked into the offices of Spade and Archer looking to hire a private detective to help free her sister from the clutches of a man, Floyd Thursby. Sam Spade (Bogart) accepts the case with his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), taking the job of trailing Thursby in order to be led to the missing sister. Except things don’t go as planned when both Archer and Thursby end up dead, Wonderly isn’t who she says she is, and Spade is suspect number one from the police. Knowing the only way to clear his name is to dive deeper into the imbroglio, Spade will need to use all his wits to see the case through and come out alive.
Seeing a film well past its release always comes with the risk of being tainted by its absorption into popular culture. Darth Vadar and Star Wars is so prolific that it’s nearly impossible to keep the secret of his lineage from my children and only one of them has seen Episode IV and V. In my case, well before I had seen The Maltese Falcon or even knew who Bogart and Lorre were, thanks to Looney Tunes and Animaniacs, I already had some sense them via the caricatures presented. Additionally, thanks to the influence of Falcon on the noir subgenre involving the hard-boiled private dick, an image formed in my mind of what to expect upon my first watch of The Maltese Falcon for this restoration review. Consider myself shocked to discover that not only is Spade not a cruel, nihilistic, or downtrodden character, he’s possessed of humor, intelligence, and physical skills that keep him almost one-step ahead of everyone else from the jump. The way in which Bogart plays Spade as unpredictable enables some solid thrills as Spade goes back and forth with the business-like and loquacious Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet) until the conversation boils over to the point Spade gets violent only for the audience to discover once he’s clear of Gutman via Spade laughing that the reaction was an act meant to keep Gutman at ill-ease. Bogart also gives Spade a bit of vulnerability and sadness as he develops a relationship with Wonderly (who is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy) and realizes that it can never be. In so many later noir-like tales, the dick is chasing his tail trying to solve the mystery first introduced by the femme fatale, yet, here, Spade never feels like he’s trailing behind; he knows something’s afoot and manages to work almost every situation to his advantage. The film has more conversation than expected from the film’s reputation, yet only a little feels expository with the rest being a battle of wits with too many players jockeying for the prize.
Be advised that there’s no information available either within the press release announcement or with the retail copy provided for review by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment that offers any sense of what materials were used to create the restoration, who oversaw the restoration, or who approved it.
As this is my first time watching Falcon, I made sure to go back to the included Blu-ray to review specific scenes so as to better judge the restoration. This certainly won’t include any comparisons to other home releases or broadcasts, but will provide some semblance of what to expect when putting on the 4K UHD presentation. First thing noticed is that the Blu-ray contains a blown-out look with the whites far too bright and the darks easier to see, whereas the 4K UHD with HDR has far more balance, the whites turned down so that the daytime sequences look more natural with the nighttime sequences following suit. A good example of this is when Spade is walking on the street and passes the watchful eye of Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer Cook on the street. On the Blu-ray, the sequence is uncomfortably bright, filled with grain, and a touch of aura or fade around the performers. On the 4K UHD edition, the white balance is pushed down to be less aggressive, the grain is significantly reduced (though present throughout the film), and the visible image within the frame is given a tighter focus and clarity. The “downside” of HDR is that in nighttime sequences there’s a more natural look, meaning that scenes where there’s little light tend to be harder to see, which is the case with the scene where Spade goes looking for the supposedly-in-danger O’Shaughnessy and, as Spade walks around, the cab he leaves behind is less dark-as-a-moonless-night and just metallic black, while the night envelopes Spade himself. We can see what’s happening with surprising clarity, yet it’s clear that the scene was shot with the intention of limiting the audience’s view. In the Blu-ray version, because of the amplified brightness, the scene may as well look like day. Given the choice of how to watch the film again or to show it to my children, I’d opt for the 4K UHD edition for the improved color balance, reduced grain, and enhanced focus. Falcon remains a product of its era, it just looks cleaned up, the way a restoration should maintain the essence of a piece of art without changing it entirely.
For those who have owned the film before, be advised that everything included is previously available on past releases. The 4K UHD disc includes the option to pick a scene, audio selections, and a commentary track with Bogart biographer Eric Lax. The remaining, and bulk, of the bonus features reside on the Blu-ray disc. These are newsreels, trailers, shorts and cartoons, makeup tests, and a quick jump option to the film proper. Oddly, that last bit is a nice addition to the set-up and one that I’m shocked hasn’t been included before. The intent is for a home viewer to have a “Warner Night at the Movies” experience by watching a trailer, a newsreel, three shorts, and then the movie proper at the click of one “Play All” button so that someone can watch like when it was released. That you can just also pick which one you want, including jumping straight to the movie from the Bonus Features tab is a nice touch.
There are sad days when a film with a lofty reputation plays before you and you don’t get why it’s so revered and then there’re days when you do. Even as the relationships or dialogue is extraordinarily dated and, therefore, not exemplary of how to talk with each other, the execution of the script, the performances, and the direction all hold up, pulling the audience from a simple recovery job into a web of lies, deceit, murder, and greed. One starts to wonder how Spade can manage to keep everyone else on their toes and himself on solid ground, yet, it happens over and over and never once feels anything less than believable, pulling us in even further. If you’re the sort who prefers to a little more grain or a classic look to their Golden Age Hollywood films, this restoration may not be for you. But if you want a version that’s a touch more contemporary without losing anything of value, this is a solid restoration to bank on.
The Maltese Falcon Special Features:
4K UHD Disc
- Commentary by Eric Lax
- Commentary by Eric Lax
- “Warner Night at the Movies”
- “Sergeant York” Trailer
- “New Highlights of the Roosevelt Churchill Parley” (newsreel)
- “The Gay Parisian” (1941 WB short)
- “Meet John Doughboy” (1941 WB cartoon)
- The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Brid
- Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart
- Breakdowns of 1941 (WB short)
- Make-up Tests
- 2/8/43 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast
- 9/20/43 Screen Guild Theater Broadcast
- 7/3/46 Academy Award Theater Broadcast
- 1936 “Satan Met a Lady”
- 1941 “The Maltese Falcon”
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack and digital April 4th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Warner Brothers Pictures The Maltese Falcon webpage.