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Warner’s “The Maltese Falcon” in 4K Ultra HD – ‘The stuff that dreams are made of’

Updated: May 8, 2023


(1) The package is quickly opened and everyone touches the statue of the Maltese falcon. (2) Humphery Bogart in his first leading role as Sam Spade, interrogates Brigid O’Shaughnessy played by Mary Astor. “The police will be here any minute! Now talk! This isn’t the time for that schoolgirl act,” says Spade.

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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, & Digital copy; 1941; unrated; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (iTunes) (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: “The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird

TO CELEBRATE its 100th anniversary, Warner Brothers has cherrypicked some of its crown jewels for a 4K Ultra HD release in 2023. Late February had Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance in “Training Day” (2001) getting top-tier treatment. For April, three older classics arrive beginning with The Maltese Falcon” (1941) in the performance that made Humphrey Bogart a star. Then “Rebel without a Cause” (1955) with James Dean as a troubled teenager, and “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) showcasing one of Paul Newman’s best performances as the defiant Luke Jackson, sentenced to a Southern chain gang.

(1) Based on the novel “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett. The film opened on October 18, 1941. (2&3) Brigid O’Shaughnessy, aka Miss Wonderly, arrives at the Spade and Archer detective agency. She needs Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to find her runaway sister, possibly with a man named Floyd Thursby. (4) At 2 a.m. Spade gets a phone call from the police that his partner is dead. (5&6) Spade overlooks the spot where Archer’s body is photographed by the police.


Surprisingly the oldest of the three, whose story involves the hunt for a jewel-encrusted black statue and the killing of Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) partner – features the most dynamic 4K restoration. Much like last year’s top-notch Warner 4K release of “Casablanca” (1943) – selected for our Top 10 4K discs of 2022 – “The Maltese Falcon” is a stunner.

Its overall black and white picture has striking clarity from close-ups showing Bogart’s trademark facial twitch to nicely composed wide shots with a room full of characters, all sourced from what looks like the original 35mm camera negative (1.37:1 aspect ratio) and a fine grain positive. Shadows are darker and controlled for that moody film noir look by cinematographer Arthur Edeson (“Casablanca,” “Frankenstein”). Plus, the mid-tones are expanded, and the highlights are brighter without losing detail in an excellent HDR10 grading, and Dolby Vision for digital. “The Maltese Falcon” is a hallmark of light and shadows with its use of “black, overexposure highlights, and rainy streets and smoky atmosphere,” says Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (“1917,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Skyfall”).

Most importantly, the natural film grain is completely intact and fully developed providing a full cinematic experience. Peak brightness level hits 843 nits and averages a super low 28 nits, as the video bitrate varies from 55 megabits per second to 90 Mbps.

The enclosed Blu-ray is sourced from 2010 VC-1 encoding which the post-production facilities and studios abandoned years ago. Also, it's graded in standard dynamic range and lacks the finest detail and film grain; the video runs 30 to 50 Megabits less per second than the 4K disc.

(1&2) A few hours later San Francisco detectives Lt. Dundy (Barton MacLane) and Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), suspect Spade of murdering Thursby out of revenge for Archer’s death. (3) The following morning his partner’s wife Iva, asks, “Sam, did you kill him?” (4&5) The mysterious Joe Cario (Peter Lorre) offers Spade $5,000 if he can find the black bird statue. (6&7) Kasper Gutman, known as “The Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet) is also interested in the black bird and gives Spade a history of the bird, which is a golden, jewel-encrusted statue. It had been stolen by pirates centuries ago and recently reappeared in Greece and was stolen again, but the trail is leading to The City by the Bay.


The original two-channel Mono soundtrack has been restored removing pops, hiss, and unwanted noises, for a powerful front-and-center experience with the dialogue and music score from Adolph Destsch.


Most of the extras are on the enclosed Blu-ray, which is a restamping of the original thirteen-year-old disc. The best of the bunch is the 32-minute “One Magnificent Bird” featurette (2006), where the late director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon”) calls “The Maltese Falcon,” “The first great detective picture.”

First-time director John Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen”) adapted ex-Pinkerton operative Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, from which Warner Brothers had made two previous versions. Richard Cortez played the first Sam Spade as a playboy, with pre-code sexually explicit content. Then Bette Davis played the femme fatale in a comical 1936 remake “Satan Met a Lady,” and Spade becomes gumshoe Ted Shayne (Warren William). It was a complete flop.

When Huston finally got the opportunity to direct, Warner only offered a small budget, forcing “The Maltese Falcon” to be filmed on the studio’s soundstages and back lot. They also preselected 16 actors as the possible Sam Spade. From the get-go Huston wanted Bogart, the two were already close friends after Bogart played in Huston’s adapted screenplay of William R. Burnett’s novel “High Sierra.” The studio wanted George Raft (“Scarface,” “Some Like It Hot”), a much bigger star, but he ultimately rejected the role. At the time, Bogart was still considered a second-string actor, mostly playing villains. The role of Sam Spade would be his first leading role. “It changed his career and changed the way we look at detective movies,” says Bogart biographer Eric Lax, who also provides a running commentary on the 4K, digital, and Blu-ray.

The cast includes 61-year-old British stage actor Sydney Greenstreet in his first onscreen role as Kasper Gutman, known as “The Fat Man.” His performance is “Wonderful economy…watching and talking,” says actor James Cromwell. Hungarian Jewish actor Peter Lorre (“M,” “Casablanca”) who fled Hitler’s Germany, plays Joe Cairo, partner and companion of Gutman, who offers Spade $5,000 to find the statue of the black falcon.

(1-3) Spade sets up a meeting between O’Shaughnessy and Cario, which becomes violent, and detectives Lt. Dundy and Tom Polhaus show up at Spade’s apartment. (4) Spade confronts Gutman’s gunman Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) to stop following him. (5&6) A dying man drops a mysterious package from a Hong Kong ship into Spade’s office. He and his secretary Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) celebrate what they assume is the package of the black statue.

Mary Astor, who got her start as a teenage silent star in the 1920s, plays the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, aka Miss Wonderly, who’s trying to find her runaway sister. “She’s beautiful, she’s cunning, she’s sweet and yet she’s fatal,” says film historian Lincoln D. Hurst. Her performance is nearly a parody of her own personal life. Astor’s ex-husband published her personal diary in 1936, which was full of Hollywood sexual encounters.

Raymond Chandler, known for his bestselling Philip Marlowe detective stories, only had high praise for Bogart, “All he has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it,” Bogdanovich says. “The characters and the actors just meld to such a degree that you don’t feel anybody is acting. That’s one of the things that makes the picture great.”

Filming began on June 9, 1941, but executive producer Hal Wallis was concerned about Bogart’s leisurely speech rhythm. So, a memo was sent to Huston for Bogart to pick up the pace. It would become a blessing in disguise, with the dialed-up rapid-fire dialogue, and Huston’s precise filming. On many days the filming would wrap up by mid-afternoon, so Huston and his leading stars Bogart, Astor, Lorre, and Ward Bond would head over to the Lakeside Country Club for drinks and food until late at night.

The finale is remarkable, as Huston orchestras the 35 pages of dialogue of “Where it all comes together and we find out what happens,” says Lax. The studio ended up giving the director an extra day of rehearsals since he had been on time and on budget, to work out the camera movements, lighting, and exchanges between the characters all in a tiny room.

“It works because it’s full of greed, lust, love, anxiety, and truth and lies.” – Julie Rivett, granddaughter of author Dashiell Hammett

Additional extras include “Warner Night at the Movies,” with the “Sergeant York” trailer starring Oscar winner Gary Cooper starting off the festivities, then two short films, and finish with a “Merrie Melodies” cartoon. Forty-five minutes of Bogart trailers are provided by Turner Movie Classics hosted by Robert Osborne. And three radio versions: two from 1943 with Edward G. Robinson as Spade in the Lux Radio broadcast and Bogart, Astor, and Greenstreet in the Screen Guild Theater airing. The trio reunites for the 1946 version.

“The Maltese Falcon” was a financial and critical success, as the New York Times called it, “The most original film since “Citizen Kane,” which only premiered six weeks earlier. That’s two masterpieces in two months. Plus, it received three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Greenstreet.

This one is a must-buy for your growing 4K collection.

Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


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