During the last moments of the film, San Francisco Police Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) a literal question about what the Maltese Falcon is. Sam confuses him by offering a metaphor, paraphrasing William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" with the now-classic line "the stuff that dreams are made of." That quote also refers to the film itself, because 'The Maltese Falcon' is the stuff film lover's dream of.
I don't know how the origin of the phrase "third time's the charm' originated, but it certainly fits here, providing one of the many exceptions to the rule to those who decry all Hollywood remakes. Warner Brothers adapted Dashiell Hammett's brilliant novel twice ('The Maltese Falcon' (1931) and 'Satan Met a Lady') before John Huston made his impressive directorial debut with it. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award and Huston also received one for Best Adapted Screenplay (though legend has it his secretary typed up Hammett's book into a screenplay).
Considered Hollywood's first film noir, 'The Maltese Falcon' opens with a brief bit of scrolling text about the history of this treasured object created in the 16th century before introducing Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer who take on what appears to a simple case that involves tracking down a young woman who has left her family in New York to take up with a married man named Thursby. Archer agrees to tail Thursby that night, but ends up dead, shot by an unknown assailant.
Spade is called to the crime scene, but doesn’t seem overly upset, and we soon learn the reason why. The police show up at Spade's apartment later in the night after Thursby is gunned down and consider Spade a suspect. The next morning, Spade goes meet with Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), the woman who hired them to tail Thursby. She's scared and explains the reason she wanted Thursby followed.
Back at the office, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) visits Spade. He wants Spade's help in recovering the Maltese Falcon for which he will pay $5,000 and presumes that Spade has it or knows of its whereabouts. Finding this rather odd, he mentions Cairo to O'Shaughnessy when he sees her and she reveals knowing him. Spade sets up a meeting between the two that only results in revealing yet another person is after the Falcon, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in his screen debut which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor).
As the film continues, the plot takes intelligent twists and turns as Spade tries to get to the bottom of what's going on. No one makes it easy for him. Not the cops, not the crooks, and not even Archer's widow. The real driving engine is the captivating characters brought to life by the very talented cast, and if you're a person who likes listening to people who like to talk, Hammett's dialogue will keep you enthralled.
'The Maltese Falcon' is a landmark film that cast a long shadow on the medium, and its greatness doesn't diminish with time or repeat viewings.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Brothers brings 'The Maltese Falcon' to high-definition on a BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed inside a blue ecocase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. The Blu-ray is also reported to be region-free.
The video is given a 1080p/VC-1 transfer presented at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and fans of black and white cinematography are in for a treat as the image looks exquisite. The source is very clean with just some minor print damage in the scene where the cops come to Spade's apartment when O'Shaughnessy and Cairo are there. Some frames appear to be missing close to the end, causing Bogart's body to shift. There's lighter grain than I expected, although it increases in patches as light from the fireplace in Brigid's hotel room appear on the opposite wall.
The gray scale exhibits great contrast. Blacks are inky and distinct when they're on different planes. There's very fine detail throughout, such as the pinstripes on Spade's suit, wood finishes on furniture, and the carvings of the Falcon. The shadow delineation is great as would be anticipated for a film noir that uses so much shadow. A good amount of depth is on display in the wide shots. Occasional softness appears on some objects within the frame.
The mono soundtrack reveals its age with a slight hiss, but otherwise delivers a satisfying experience. The dialogue is clear and well balanced with the effects and the music. The gunshot that kills Miles sounds believable. Adolph Deutsch's score demonstrates the dynamics of the soundtrack as it plays softly underneath scenes and louder to help transitions. The music also engages the subwoofer by providing the most bass.
'The Maltese Falcon' is an all-time classic as valuable as the statuette itself. Warner Brothers does a great job presenting the film on Blu-ray with the limitations of the source. The film alone would make this a Highly Recommend Blu-ray, but the very fine presentation and extra features are icing on the cake. Get your hands on a copy but don't accept a fake.