The Maltese Falcon (1941) 4K UHD Review: Bogart’s Big Break

Is The Maltese Falcon a film noir? To many viewers, it’s not a question. It’s black and white. There’s crime. There’s ambiguous morality. Film noir, stamped. Sealed. Delivered.

But there’s more to the genre than being black and white crime films. And one of the things that is endemic to film noir is a regular person failing a moral test. But Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, is not a normal person. He’s in the game. He’s a private detective who takes on a client he knows is lying to him but pays enough that he doesn’t care. His partner Archer doesn’t either, but he also wants the client, a woman, for himself. That’s not a problem, until Archer is murdered in the middle of the night.

And so is the man the client was hiding from, Thursby. Two murders, and the cops would like to pin them on Spade. This irritates him, not least wise because he’s innocent. Sure, he was having an affair with his partner’s wife, but the married couple hated each other. And Sam can’t get rid of the wife, or his partner’s name on the office, fast enough.

The element about The Maltese Falcon that seems to peg it for “film noir”, though I don’t think it fits the definition, is its cynicism. Sam Spade isn’t broken up about his partner’s death. He doesn’t care that the client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, is constantly lying to him. He’s in the middle of a giant game. And he loves to play.

The object of Brigid, and every other character’s desire, is the titular Maltese Falcon. The term “McGuffin” is regularly used in modern film discourse. Overused, both by critics and screenwriters alike to paper over bad plotting and mediocre motivation. But it was originally used for plot devices just like the Maltese Falcon. The Falcon itself is some ancient artifact from the Crusades, priceless, worth killing for. It’s meant to be an essentially meaningless object to allow story to take place.

And The Maltese Falcon is full of interesting characters. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is the dandy who fronts for an unknown benefactor. That benefactor, the Fat Man, turns out to be Sydney Greenstreet, who has a young gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.) desperate to prove he’s tough. The male casting of this movie is impeccable.

The female… not so much. Mary Astor as Brigid was simply miscast. For the story to work, Brigid had to be sex on wheels or almost young enough to be trouble. Mary Astor was neither of these, and so the instant devotion she incurs, both from Archer and later from Spade, is dramatically doubtful. Her performance is a little simpering and could have used much more fire.

But that aside, The Maltese Falcon is remarkable for just how damn enjoyable it is as a movie. It moves quickly. It has a climax and ending that retains much of the original novel’s toughness. The 4K release is remarkable. The film looks almost pristine. The 4K format may be most promoted on recently released films, but I have routinely found that it shines the most on old black and white presentations. The added clarity and resolution bring the stark contrast of black and white photography to real life. The Maltese Falcon is no exception. This over 80-year-old film glows with vitality in this format.

And the film is more fun for it. This, and High Sierra the same year, catapulted Humphrey Bogart to fame. And in this film, he seems to be having the time of his life. If I had to argue why The Maltese Falcon was not a film noir, it’s because that’s a genre of tragedy. Bogart’s Sam Spade enjoys every minute of his lying, backstabbing, and subterfuge. So does the audience.

Made in 1941, even though it was adapting a novel 11 years older, there was plenty of subject matter that had to be censored. However, enough coded information is present to make the themes of the story clear. Joel Cairo is coded as gay. It’s clear that Spade’s relationship, both with Archer’s widow and with Brigid, are physical. The Hayes Code’s admonition that all bad guys must be punished for their crimes is fulfilled, as well. And that leads to the final scene when Spade confronts Archer’s killer. The scene finds the perfect balance of cynicism and moral outrage. It’s a great scene, and The Maltese Falcon is a great movie. And what isn’t always the case for 80-year-old “great” movies, it’s still fun to watch.

The Maltese Falcon has been released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray by Warner Brothers. Extras on the 4K include a commentary track by Eric Lax, also present on the Blu-ray. The rest of the video extras are on the Blu-ray, which appears to be identical (in transfer and extras) to the earlier Blu-ray release. The extras include “The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird” (32 min), a featurette; “Breakdowns of 1941” (13 min), a collection of contemporary gag reels; Makeup Tests (2 min) with Mary Astor; “Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart” (45 min), a documentary about the way Warner Brothers marketed Bogart; “Warner Night at the Movies” (38 min), an attempt to recreate a night at the movies in 1941, with trailers, a newsreel, and cartoons. There are also three radio show adaptations of the story, two with the film’s stars, and one starring Edward G. Robinson.

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Kent Conrad

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