October 4, 2010


The joy at seeing two of Humphrey Bogart’s greatest films arrive on Blu-ray for the first time is tempered by some of Hollywood’s age-old tricks. Studios love selling us as many different versions of the same movie as they can, and the newly minted Blu-rays of  The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre are no exception. Both films stand as indisputable classics, but the discs themselves smack of quick-fix delivery: serving as placeholders for better things to come. Hit the jump for my full review.

None of the difficulty with the discs should reflect poorly on the movies themselves. Falcon remains the quintessential detective story, rocketing Bogart to the heights of stardom for his indelible portrayal of hard-boiled PI Sam Spade. Director John Huston ushered in the era of noir with a seamy retelling of Dashiell Hammett’s pulp novel, about a fabled statue that everyone wants but no one seems able to find. The film’s tropes set the standard for a thousand gumshoe tales that followed, buoyed by an outstanding cast of character actors and period dialogue which never sounded better. Bogart acts as the straw that stirs the drink, delivering a sleepy-eyed turn as the tough, but ultimately honorable detective that cemented his status as a cultural icon.


Seven years later, he and Huston reunited for Sierra Madre another tale of fleeting wealth  set in the dusty backwater of Mexico. Bogart used the intervening time to build upon his legacy: appearing in the likes of Casablanca, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not and Dark Passage. With screen immortality now assured, it seems odd that he would agree to appear in Sierra Madre as Fred C. Dobbs: the kind of down-on-his-luck weasel that defined the actor’s early career, and that he labored long and hard to escape.  But with help from Huston’s outstanding screenwriting and impeccable direction,   Bogart lends the figure a weight and sympathy that his earlier villains lacked.  He’s a man at the end of his rope, pushed to extreme acts that cloud his sense of right and wrong. As he and his companions struggle through seemingly insurmountable challenges to find their fortune, we in the audience wonder whether we wouldn’t act just as badly in the same circumstances. Beyond the stellar lead, the film also features an Oscar-winning performance by Huston’s father Walter, as well as its share of immortal moments. (Just don’t ask it to show you any stinking badges.)

While the films remain above reproach, the Blu-ray discs constitute a much thornier issue. Warners basically transferred them directly from earlier “deluxe” DVDs; the studio didn’t bother with an improved transfer and the extras remain exactly the same as those in the earlier sets. Granted, said extras hold their share of charms.  Warners packaged each disc with a “Night at the Movies” program, containing vintage trailers, newsreels, short features and a pair of cartoons apiece (one of which–in Maltese–includes some eyebrow-raising racial caricatures). Maltese also includes a brief featurette, makeup tests, a studio blooper reel and a collection of Bogart trailers. Sierra Madre contains two longer documentaries: one on the film itself sand one on Huston. Both discs feature audio commentary by Bogart expert Eric Lax and a bevy of audio-only radio dramas associated with the films.


They’re certainly nice… but with no additional features, they provide no reason for owners of the DVD to put down any extra money. The movies themselves suffer from a similar lack of visual quality: equivalent to an upgraded DVD image, but still comparatively grainy in relation to more polished Blu-rays. Ironically, those shortcomings make the question of whether to purchase the discs comparatively easy. If you own the three-disc special edition of the Falcon DVD (released in 2006) or the two-disc special edition of the Sierra Madre DVD (released in 2003), you can safely pass these new Blu-rays by. If you have older editions of either film, or don’t own the films at all, the Blu-rays constitute must-owns… at least until Warners delivers more substantive versions somewhere down the line.

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