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The Maltese Falcon: Special Edition

The son of actor Walter Huston, director John Huston moved with his father to Hollywood at a young age, where he knocked about as a screenwriter at MGM and Warner Bros. Much like his contemporary Orson Welles — who had built up a substantial reputation in radio — Huston wanted to establish a career as a film director, hoping to use his connections with Howard Hawks and Jack Warner for leverage. Several Hollywood legends surround how The Maltese Falcon (1941) became Huston's first picture (among them that his secretary compiled a shooting script while he was on vacation), but most accounts agree that the screenplay was completed very quickly after Howard Hawks recommended the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Jack Warner gave the project a greenlight — this despite the fact that Warner had shot Hammett's book twice before, in 1931 (The Maltese Falcon) and 1936 (Satan Met a Lady), both theatrical disappointments. But Hammett's novel proved a sensation on its 1928 publication, thanks to his experience as a private detective (as Raymond Chandler once noted, Falcon took murder out of the drawing room and dumped it in the alley where it belonged). The studio clearly believed that the novel still had potential; nonetheless, Huston was given a small budget and little hope of attracting big-name stars at Warner like James Cagney and Edgar G. Robinson. Left largely to his own devices, Huston cast a bunch of relative unknowns and contract performers for the project, including Mary Astor (not an important leading lady at the time), Peter Lorre (a European import with little Stateside credibility), and Sindey Greenstreet (a veteran stage actor in his first talkie). Dapper leading man George Raft was offered the lead role of Sam Spade, but he turned it down, using a clause in his contract that allowed him to refuse projects — and in any case he regarded Huston's Maltese Falcon to be a film of little importance. Humphrey Bogart, a character actor who had appeared in several of Warner's 1930s gangster flicks, got the job instead — and his first chance at a leading role.

The result, of course, was The Maltese Falcon, a detective movie so perfectly crafted that it rendered its two cinematic predecessors as historical footnotes and even eclipsed Hammett's novel in the public's imagination. It also launched the Hollywood careers of Huston, Bogart, Lorre, and Greenstreet (Warner cast the three actors in subsequent film projects, most notably in Casablanca the following year). Based almost word-for-word on Hammett's novel, Bogart plays Sam Spade, a rough-around-the-edges San Francisco gumshoe who is approached by Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Astor) for protection. However, after Spade's partner is gunned down on a darkened city street, the detective soon learns that Brigid is one of several shadowy figures seeking "The Maltese Falcon," an antique statuette that could be worth a fortune to the right seller. Joel Cairo (Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet) soon enter the picture as Brigid's competitors (along with Elisha Cook Jr. as Gutman's baby-faced, hot-tempered bodyguard), forcing Spade to negotiate with everybody while trying to get his hands on the Falcon — and figure out who killed his partner.

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Despite the fact that the 1941 Maltese Falcon had been produced twice before, only Huston's film has made an impact on history. A great deal of it has to do with his capable direction and crackling screenplay, but the casting was one of the most fortuitous events in Hollywood history. After one viewing, it's impossible to see suave George Raft as Spade — rather, Bogart had the right mixture of street-smarts and tough-guy nobility, forging the identity that would define his subsequent film career (often under Huston's direction), and Lorre and Greenstreet also became popular contract players at Warner with many more projects to their credit. Notably, Falcon was nominated for three Academy Awards (including Best Picture), and it was one of the first to be inducted into the National Film Archive in 1989, nearly half a century after its debut. It's amazing what can happen when a young director is left to his own devices.

Warner's three-disc Special Edition release of The Maltese Falcon improves upon the original DVD edition with a new transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from restored elements — for the first time since it first appeared in theaters, Falcon looks so pristine it's almost stunning, without a hint of collateral wear and very strong low-contrast details. Audio (DD 1.0) also has been improved over the first DVD release, eliminating some ambient noise under the dialogue. Disc One includes a commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax, along with a Falcon theatrical trailer and a "Warner Night at the Movies" menu, which offers a trailer for Sergeant York, a newsreel, the vintage short "The Gay Parisian" (19 min.), Warner animated shorts "Meet John Doughboy" and "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt," and the feature film, all accessible with a "play all" option. Disc Two includes the two previous incarnations of Dashiell Hammett's novel — the fact that they are bundled here at not available for individual purchase should indicate their value to completists only, but as curios they are of interest. The 1931 Maltese Falcon was a pre-Code release with a notable bit of sexual innuendo, while the 1936 Satan Met a Lady stars Bette Davis in a lighthearted, sometimes slapstick affair. Disc Three loads up the supplements, with the new documentary "The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird" (31 min.), the AMC special "Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart," which returns from the original DVD release (44 min.), the vintage gag reel "Breakdowns of 1941," which for all intents and purposes looks to be a theatrical short from the day, save for the fact that a lot of famous Hollywood stars are caught on camera cursing (14 min.), "Makeup Tests" with no audio (1 min.), and an "Audio Vault" with three radio adaptations of Falcon, one with Edgar G. Robinson and two others with the original cast. Two slim-cases in a paperboard sleeve.
—Robert Wederquist

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