‘Success to crime’

The Maltese Falcon

Why return again to The Maltese Falcon? Noir nostalgia alone might justify it, or a broader longing for movies just tough and lucid enough to launch whole genres, just entertaining enough to remain always as good as you remembered.

But even by the standards of 60-plus years ago, this one is almost unfairly charismatic. One decent if immodest reason for Warner Brothers’ new three-disc release is to explain that. What’s bonus material for if not context? So, here’s the new documentary with yet more testimony about how good The Maltese Falcon is (even Henry Rollins says so); the audio-only radio adaptations; and, most signally, the other iterations of the film, which include the inferior but breezier, saucier, pre-Hays Code version from 1931 and the bubbly trifle of a Bette Davis vehicle, Satan Met a Lady, from 1936. (Yet another version got under way in 1939 but never made it to the screen.) If only it were so nowadays that the trial runs of sequential remakes could yield such masterpieces as John Huston’s 1941 feature debut.

Yes, a masterpiece. Partly because Huston, then 34, had something to prove. And you may notice on the umpteenth viewing that he had an improbably talky, sedentary piece of work to prove it with—allegedly adapted from the detective novel that was its source simply by being retyped in screenplay form. Makes sense; after all, what talking, what sitting around! That novel was Dashiell Hammett’s, remember? And that cast was perfect.

What made it good timing then, as the weary world braced for war, and timeless now, as the wars and the weariness show no signs of letting up, is an indomitable hero who could see through everybody, including himself, and felt indignantly duty-bound to say so. You can justify it in a single word: Bogart.