Blu-ray/DVD: On a lonely disc – ‘In a Lonely Place’ on Criterion

Criterion

Criterion

In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel in which is was ostensibly based beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.

Dixon is a classic literary type—the hard-drinking, hot-tempered, scrappy artist who turns down assignments beneath his dignity, insults the industry players who hire him, and gets into bar fights at the slightest provocation—with a darker soul than we usually see in such characters. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” he tells Laurel, a line he wants to put into his screenplay but is surely inspired by his happiness with Laurel. It’s lovely and yet it predicts the inevitable doom of their romance. There’s a bitterness under his cynical banter and an anger that fuels flashes of jealousy or betrayal into vicious, violent responses. Laurel sees it play out with strangers and it starts to scare her, especially as the investigation into the murder (which is otherwise swept to the sidelines of the story) keeps circling back to Dix.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

I don’t usually compare movie adaptations to the original novels—apart from bestsellers and literary classics, Hollywood tended to treat the books and stories it purchased as raw material to be reworked for the needs of the moment—and I don’t intend to here, but I love the way the film itself comments upon the process. Dix rewrites the novel in his latest assignment, inspired by the romance that blooms with Laurel, just as Andrew Solt’s screenplay rewrote the novel and his script was subsequently rewritten by director Nicholas Ray to reflect his unraveling marriage to  Grahame, who he cast after Bogie’s first choices were unavailable. It would have been a great role for Lauren Bacall and Grahame delivers Bacall’s confidence and command and model’s poise, but she also has a dreamy vulnerability that is uniquely her own. It’s one of her best performances and Ray shows off a glamour and grace she didn’t get in other roles as well as a smart, powerful performance. Bogie himself had a reputation for drinking and bar scraps and he’s clearly all in on the rewrite; he developed and produced the film through his own Santana Productions. Bogart has played hard-edged characters and violent anti-heroes before but none are as damaged and dark and out of control as Dixon. The romance comes off the two-fisted tough-guy literary hero in this portrait.

This is film noir without guns and gangsters, with no robberies or blackmail schemes, where the only crime on screen is a couple of alcohol-fueled assaults (one of which veers close to manslaughter, admittedly, but doesn’t cross the line), and yet it is among the most devastating you’ll ever see. The murder mystery no more than a backdrop to the ambiguous study of love torn apart from within.

Previously on DVD from Sony, it makes its Criterion debut on a 2K digital transfer from a new 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original camera negative. It’s flawless. This is not a film that was in need of restoration, thanks to fine stewardship of the Sony archive under the able leadership of Grover Crisp, and it shows: crisp and clean with rich black and white

Features commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, a new interview with Gloria Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, a 20-minute piece with filmmaker Curtis Hanson produced for the 2002 DVD release, a condensed version of the 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (this runs about 40 minutes), and the radio adaptation of the original novel produced for “Suspense” in 1948, plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith. You can read Smith’s essay here.

In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

All four films were shot on 16mm and were not well preserved so there is evident damage and wear. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also feature a 26-minute documentary, raw footage from San Pietro, and Shades of Gray (1948), a remake of Let There Be Light with actors recreating scenes from the documentary and the dark corners of Huston’s film replaced with a sunnier portrait of the returning soldier.

These are important pieces of World War II history and the most radical documentaries produced during the war.

VikingsThe timing is good for the Blu-ray debut of the 1958 The Vikings (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), the splashy Hollywood adventure that launched a wave of Viking movies through the 1960s, with the History Channel series Vikings a cable hit and the BBC America The Last Kingdom reaching back to the history of the Norsemen.

Set in the middle ages, when the Vikings pillaged the English coast, The Vikings is barbarian fantasy, with Kirk Douglas playing the lusty Viking Prince Einar, the “only son in wedlock” of King Ragnar (a cackling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine) and Tony Curtis as his defiant slave Eric, who is in reality the long-lost heir to the British throne. Douglas is too old for the boy prince role and Curtis is unconvincing as an action hero but makes the prettiest slave boy in the movies, and their combined star power overcomes their miscasting. With jagged scars down his face and a milky white blind eye that almost glows in his skull, Douglas has a rowdy time as he kidnaps a Welsh Princess (Janet Leigh) betrothed to the King of England and battles the defiant Eric who rescues her from the Viking clutches and sneaks her back to England with the help of a primitive compass.

It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with the Vikings reduced to pagan cartoon barbarians who make sport of terrorizing women and take pride in the torture and murder—the fact that Janet Leigh’s character lives in constant threat of sexual assault makes for uneasy viewing when the film plays it as some kind of “Taming of a Shrew” situation—but it is spectacular hokum. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff turns his Norway locations into a lush Valhalla on Earth and journeyman director Richard Fleischer, faced with an absurd story, goes for the gusto in brawling Viking parties, furious sieges, and clanging broadsword battles. The sexual politics are barbaric to say the least, and borderline jawdropping as the film walks a fine line between playing the sexual threat for lusty humor and making it a genuine danger, but it is colorful, energetic, and hearty, with star power to burn. It was enormous hit and it spawned a huge wave of Viking movies, some perhaps smarter but none as much fun, and has become a cult movie in its own right.

PassageMarseillesThe 1944 wartime drama Passage to Marseilles (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) reunites Humphrey Bogart with his Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and co-stars Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a production that packs a lot of genres into a single film. Opening on an air force squadron of Free French fighters hidden in the countryside, it segues into a sea drama, a prison escape thriller, a war film, and during a brief deck brawl something approaching a pirate film, all nestled into the storyline through flashbacks and plot twists. Bogart’s story takes us to pre-war Marseilles, where his crusading newspaper publisher takes on the rise of Fascism and is framed for murder by his enemies, and to Devil’s Island where he meets his fellow patriots.

This is shameless wartime propaganda, a rousing call to arms to free Europe from the Nazis and the turncoat collaborators (all of whom are presented as martinets with Fascist sympathies from the beginning), but is also enormously entertaining and action-packed. And for fans of Hollywood storytelling tricks, this films features the rare treat of a flashback within a flashback nestled within yet another flashback. Curtiz and cinematographer James Wong Howe create the world of the film, from Devil’s Island to a cargo freighter on the high seas, entirely in the studio. Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, creating a sense of shadowy menace in the flashbacks, and it looks superb in the film’s Blu-ray debut.

Includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including the Oscar-nominated short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young and other jazz greats of the forties, a collection featuring a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and trailers from 1944, and a Warner Bros. studio blooper reel.

More Blu-ray classics at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Best of Bogart’ Blu-ray Collection

The Best of Bogart Collection (Warner, Blu-ray)

Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I ever embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. A few years ago, Warner Home Video boxed up 24 Bogie films for the impressive DVD set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection. Now they collect four of the definitive Bogart films previously released on Blu-ray for a smaller HD box set: the definitive Hollywood romance Casablanca (1942) and three films directed by John Huston, The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), which is a Sam Spiegel production and a Paramount release that Warner licensed for this set.

The Maltese Falcon, the directorial debut of stalwart screenwriter Huston and the film that made a star of Warner contract player Bogart, was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel classic but the first to capture the hardboiled toughness of the novel and the vivid vipers nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure like junkies chasing the ultimate fix. One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen, and absolutely ruthless as hard-hearted treasure hunter Brigid O’Shaughnessy who lies as easily as most people breathe, Sydney Greenstreet is the garrulous Kasper Gutman, keeper of the Falcon’s lore, Peter Lorre is the weaselly Joel Cairo, and Elisha Cook Jr. became a cult figure as the rat-faced gunsel and small-time thug Wilmer Cook. But it’s all built on Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade as the great hardboiled private detective, a mercenary with a code of ethics just slightly less vicious than characters he keeps company with. Like the man says, this film is the stuff dreams are made of, and it is the Bogart that Hollywood embraced and that America still loves: insolent, individualistic, a romantic under his hard-boiled hide. He played this character, in varying degrees, throughout the rest of his career, epitomized in his defining role as the wounded cynic in Casablanca. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Hollywood and Bogart.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Special Edition: ‘Casablanca’ at 70

“You must remember this /a kiss is still a kiss / a sigh is just a sigh.”
“Play it, Sam.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“I think this is the beginning of beautiful friendship.”

Is there a more memorable, more quotable, more quintessential Hollywood movie?

The winner of three Oscars in 1943, including Best Picture, Casablanca placed second in the AFI’s poll to find the Best American Film of all time over 50 years later and is still one of the most beloved and popular Hollywood classics of all time. It is timeless and it celebrates its 70th Anniversary with a new deluxe edition.

Humphrey Bogart proves that looks aren’t everything as the cinema’s most romantic existential hero and Ingrid Bergman is a vision of soft-focus loveliness as the emotionally wounded heroine. And they’re just the tip of this iceberg of Hollywood’s most supreme achievement in character casting: Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre are among the iconic faces in the exotic crowd. Michael Curtiz, the top director at Warner Bros. and one of the most versatile of his era, brings it all together with such perfection that it casts a spell across the decades. If you’ve seen it, you don’t need any more encouragement from me. If you haven’t seen it… why not?

It’s been on DVD and Blu-ray in special editions before. For the 70th Anniversary, Warner has remastered the film in a 4K scan (theatrical big screen quality) for a three-disc deluxe Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition filled with superb supplements and a few less-essential collectables.

Continue reading at Videodrone

MOD Movies: Tough Guys

Hickey and Boggs (MGM Limited Edition Collection) from 1972 reunites former “I Spy” partners Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as down-out-heels private detectives in Los Angeles. Directed by Culp from a script by Walter Hill, it’s very much a scrappy early draft of the buddy action films that Hill would later direct, but in the key of seventies grit and cynicism. One is separated, the other divorced and unable to get over it, but both of them hang on to the last gasp of Raymond Chandler-esque dignity and professionalism even as they get taken by their clients and harassed by the cops at every turn. Culp is a director in the Don Siegel mode, just as focused on process and professionalism and refreshingly straightforward in both dialogue and action. He understands these characters, he likes them, and while he may not agree with them, he definitely respects their doggedness (though not the self-pity). Success may not satisfying, given all they lose along the way, but they earn it out of sheer perseverance and loyalty. The last men standing get the spoils. It is nice to finally see this film on DVD and in its correct aspect ratio.

Humphrey Bogart stars in a couple of recent Warner Archive releases, neither of them among his best. But hey, it’s Bogie and that alone has my interest. You Can’t Get Away With Murder (Warner Archive), from 1939, is a late gangster film with Bogart in a rare pre-1941 leading role (when he became a star after the double-shot of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon). At the time, he was mostly playing criminals and second bananas, secondary roles to the heroes and featured villains, and while he gets top billing here, he’s no hero but a cold-blooded thug who lets an innocent man take the rap for a murder and then keeps the pressure on his patsy when he’s sent up for robbery with a reluctant conspirator. It’s plays like low-rent reworking of Angels with Dirty Faces, a  Warner Bros. gangster film as morality tale, where the crooks are wise-talking cowards and hypocrites and the future of one kid in thrall to the swaggering neighborhood thug (Bogart, of course) and the straight-arrow guy they frames is at stake. Watch for Henry Travers (Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life) as the prison librarian with a paternal streak.

Conflict (Warner Archive), a 1945 murder mystery with a psychological twist, melodrama flourishes and a shadowy film noir style, once again features Bogart on the other side of the law, this time as a man who murders his wife after their fight wedding anniversary in what appears to be the perfect crime… until she suddenly returns to haunt him. Alexis Smith plays his sister-in-law (and the motivation for his murder — he wants to upgrade to a younger model) and Sydney Greenstreet (a familiar Bogart nemesis indeed) is a psychiatrist who gets involved when Bogie’s wife mysteriously “disappears.” It’s a generic title for a routine suspense thriller, but Bogie is far more fascinating when he tips to the dark side in his post-“Maltese Falcon” films than when he routinely played the villain in the thirties. He’s more unstable and unpredictable, suggesting a psychosis that makes him far scarier than the thugs of his gangster years. And while director Curtis Bernhardt doesn’t bother trying to give the story (concocted by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann) a plausible foundation, he does conduct the mood quite nicely. Interestingly enough, Bogart turned to knocking off his wives and yearning for Alexis Smith again a couple of years later in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947), also from the Warner Archive (reviewed on Videodrone in 2011 here).

Edge of Eternity (Columbia Pictures Classics), a murder mystery set in an isolated desert mining town in Arizona where the mines closed year ago, stars Cornel Wilde as a straight-shooting sheriff trying to untangle the mystery around the murder of an unidentified stranger and the cover-up of his identity. Director Don Siegel gives the otherwise routine thriller a nice tension and a great sense of place. Shot on location near the Grand Canyon, the widescreen photography gives the open landscape a vastness and an isolation, and the “bucket” of the industrial loader that cranks across the canyon and the use of small private planes and a police helicopter over the craggy hills only adds to the feeling of remoteness. But in my own perverse way, I found it worth the time just to see the end credits offer their thanks to the many organizations that helped out, notably The United States Guano Corporation.

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for March 6

Humphrey Bogart sits at ‘The Left Hand of God’

Humphrey Bogart dons the collar in The Left Hand of God (Twilight Time), a 1955 drama set in 1947 China. He enters the film riding a mule to a remote Catholic missionary caught between the local warlord and the brewing revolution and proceeds to win the hearts and minds of the villagers with his savvy understanding of their culture and his ability to switch from English sermon to Chinese conversation. There’s more than meets the eye to Father O’Shea, as is clear in his queries about the local trade caravans and the handgun he keeps handy, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Father O’Shea had another, quite worldly life before putting on the collar and trekking into rural China, as did nurse Anne ‘Scotty’ Scott (Gene Tierney), who apparently arrived in the middle of nowhere with a wardrobe worthy of a New York socialite.

Edward Dmytryk directs this mix of Asian exotica, Catholic piety and Hollywood style with anonymous professionalism, his specialty since he returned from his blacklist exile, named names and took his place in the studio machine. The cast carries the supermarket bestseller story — E.G. Marshall as the anxious and outspoken American doctor, Agnes Moorehead as his frank wife and steely partner in missionary life, Lee J. Cobb as the Chinese warlord with the manner of a New York mob boss, and especially Bogart as the weather-beaten realist in vestments. We’re in the same territory as as the original “Magnificent Obsession” and “The Keys of the Kingdom” a decade later, in the wake of a world war and the cold war, but Dmytryk is just going through the motions of moral conflict and hard decisions, unwilling to commit to Bogart’s trials and unable to understand Tierney’s torment as she falls for a man of God while waiting for her missing-and-presumed​-dead husband. It’s a handsome widescreen film with solid performances (extra credit goes to Moorehead’s mix of moral commitment and practical realism) and compelling performers, but it never rises above the reductive melodrama of the plot.

Like all of the Twilight Time releases, it features an isolated audio track with Victor Young’s score and a leaflet with notes by Julie Kirgo.

Continue for more classic and alternative releases this week, including a new edition of the 1951 ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the documentary ‘Great Directors,’ at Videodrone.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

The titles keep pouring out from the most prolific—and, to date, the most consistently high-quality—MOD (that’s manufacture-on-deman​d) line of DVD-R releases. The Warner Archive line is now celebrating its second anniversary with a deal: hundreds of discs, generally priced at $19.95 (plus shipping) are being priced down to “5 for $50.” Click here for a list of titles.

In celebration of the second anniversary, here’s a survey of the titles I’ve been looking at over the past few weeks.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

From the Warner Archive

Debuting on DVD in a “Remastered Edition” is the sole onscreen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. He’s a passionate painter whose passions carry over to what we discover are short-lived romances. She’s swept up by his artistic passion and emotional intensity when they meet on his painting trip to Scotland, until she discovers he’s married. A temporary condition, it turns out, for his (unseen) wife is an invalid. At least that’s what he tells her before making her the second Mrs. Carroll.

This is Bogart as the tormented artist with a psychotic edge and the film reminds us with angels of death on the canvases and a soundtrack punctuated with ominous echoes, peels of bells that build to a pounding pitch and sudden storms that toss timely thunderclaps into the drama. Bogart carried that paranoid expression, without the passionate intensity of his runaway romances, to his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Caine Mutiny.” Stanwyck is his match, full of life and completely supportive of his muse, unable to suspect her husband until faced (indirectly) with the darkness of his psyche. Alexis Smith, never one of my favorite actresses, is perfectly cast as the imperious society beauty who decides to seduce the artist from his wife out of arrogance and, presumably, boredom. This rural village, far from the society life of London, is a bit dull, after all. And Anita Sharp-Bolster adds acerbic grace notes as a peevish maid who can’t utter a sentence without dropping some barbed comment.

While not one of the best films of either of the stars—the script (based on a stage play) treads familiar ground and Peter Godfrey’s direction is long on dramatic gestures and short on suspense and tension—it is a handsomely mounted and nicely acted piece, especially when the two Hollywood greats share the screen. And Bogart manages to humanize his psychosis and his character in his gentle way with his preternaturally sophisticated daughter (Ann Carter) and his commitment to the twisted logic of his muse. This “remastered” edition shows a little wear in opening and closing credits but looks strong and sharp through the body of the film.

Available at the Warner Archive website here.

Reviews of Finishing School and Two Weeks in Another Town and more at MSN Videodrone here

Bogie at Warner

Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner)
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray (Warner)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Blu-ray (Warner)

Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. There’s not a lot new to say about the Bogie, and certainly nothing I can add to Dave Kehr’s excellent piece in the New York Times on the icon, the actor and the movie star in relation to the great new box set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner). I received the set late, just after returning from Vancouver and nursing the end days of a pesky head cold, so I’ve not had as much time and energy as I would have liked to dive into the set.

Sam Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca"

However, I can still offer a tour of the selections in the set through notes and reviews I wrote on earlier viewings of the films and coverage of their previous release on DVD. Yes, each of the 24 films in the set have been previously available on DVD, both individually and in various box set incarnations, and the supplements from those excellent Warner volumes are ported over. But the remarkable efficiency of this box set (12 two-sided flipper discs in six thinpak cases, plus a couple of extras, more on those later) and the amazing price tag ($100 retail, less with inevitable markdowns) brings the price per film to under $4 apiece.

Continue reading “Bogie at Warner”

Finally… The African Queen on DVD and Blu-ray

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

Continue reading “Finally… The African Queen on DVD and Blu-ray”

‘The Maltese Falcon’ – The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.

The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.

Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.

This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.

One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.

They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.