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DVD Review: The Maltese Falcon/Body Heat

By Glenn Abel

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photo "The stuff dreams are made of." Not quite, but WB's new "The Maltese Falcon" gives the 1941 Bogie classic uptown treatment on DVD.

Along for the ride in the three-DVD set are a pair of older films based on Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled tale: "The Maltese Falcon" (1931) and "Satan Met a Lady" (1936).

The elder "Falcon," with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, is a treat: funny as hell and sexy in that pre-Code way. The lame "Lady" should interest only Bette Davis fans and masochists. Both flopped for Warners, which stayed on the case and wisely OK'd a third version with a first-time director.

John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), the DVDs' main event, looks and sounds outstanding, although there are some obvious audio synch problems in the final scenes. The video will play a bit on the flat side for those who prefer jacked-contrasts with their film noir, but the images unspool handsomely across an uptown gray scale. Wear doesn't figure in. When Humphrey Bogart growls, "I won't play the sap for you," his voice is thick yet distinct -- it's easy to forget you're listening to an old movie.

The decent but unexceptional half-hour docu "One Magnificent Bird" features writer Hammett's granddaughter, who's obviously spent a great deal of time talking about black birds and private eyes. She tells how Hammett worked as a Pinkerton operative, then traded on his experiences to write seminal pulp fiction such as "The Black Falcon," which ran as a serial in the rough-hewn Black Mask magazine.

Director Houston, a successful screenwriter, scooped up the project after Howard Hawks recommended it as his debut directing project. "Just shoot the book," Hawks said, apparently a radical concept at the time. Much of the dialog in the film comes straight-no-chaser from Hammett.

Humphrey Bogart specialized in playing villains for Warners before landing the role of Sam Spade. Not an obvious match: Hammet painted his hero as a blond devilish-looking character with yellow-gray eyes. The studio wanted George Raft, as they did on "Casablanca."

Mary Astor, fresh from scandal in her personal life, came in as the femme fatale. Peter Lorre, who later called "Falcon" his favorite movie, came in as the sort-of gay treasure hunter. Sydney Greenstreet completed the fab four.

"They all seemed to exist," Peter Bogdonovich says of the players. "So it wasn't a question of acting; it was a question of being."

Bogart biographer Eric Lax does the feature-length commentary, apparently mistaking the DVD's listeners for a bunch of undergrads taking notes. Lax seems content to rattle off personal data and credits about the actors while ignoring the great scenes he's talking over. At one point he kills time with a brief history of Warner Bros.

Also included on the discs are a cavalcade of Bogart trailers, six shorts from 1941 and a studio blooper reel.

The three-disc edition retails for $29.98. The "Falcon" discs also come as part of "Humprey Bogart: The Signature Collection Vol. 2," which goes for $59.98 and includes "Passage to Marseille" with Greenstreet.

Buy "The Maltese Falcon" at 23% off.

photo "You're not too smart, are you?" the femme fatale says to the fall guy. "I like that in a man."

Can't boil down film noir any better than that. The line comes from Lawrence Kasdan, circa 1980, who had bet big on the mostly forgotten genre for his first directing project. Kasdan was holding aces after writing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Empire Strikes Back" but figured a face-first flop would keep him out of the director's chair forever.

The B-movie genre's rat-a-tat dialogue sounded like sure boxoffice. "The language of noir is very extravagant," Kasdan says in "The Plan," a terrific new documentary on the making of "Body Heat." Plus, "I felt like I would have a lot of fun."

The plan soon included a sexy and talented stage actress, Kathleen Turner, who had never made a film. "She had the perfect (voice) for film noir," Kasdan recalls. Like a Lauren Bacall knockoff. Plus, "she had the legs to pull it off."

After nine years, WB finally has rereleased Kasdan's "Body Heat" in a single-disc "deluxe" edition (retail $19.98). It includes three connected documentaries on the making of the film, a curious European TV interview with young Turner and her leading man William Hurt and some deleted scenes. The widescreen video and 5.1 audio are unremarkable but OK.

Kasdan, Turner and Hurt all roll out for the new docus. They seem to have soft spots for the project, which they shot in Florida because of the writers strike. "It was the three of us against the studio system," Turner says. George Lucas kept the production going with a promise to cover budget overages.

"Body Heat" startled the good people of the fern bar era with its sweat-drenched nude scenes for Turner and Hurt. Turner recalls how a schedule screw-up led to their shooting the money sex scene on Day 1. She was terrified, but Hurt tamed the weird dynamic, the actress says, gratefully. The film pleased a lot of women weary of the time's tacky-macho movie sex. "I wanted a woman's voice in there," editor Carol Littleton says. "Not a male fantasy."

Today, with classic film noirs sitting pretty on DVD, the film plays plenty slick -- like a Steely Dan CD tossed on top of a pile of old Stones records. But as co-star Ted Danson puts it, " ‘Body Heat' wasn't a ripoff. It was a film noir."

Buy "Body Heat" at 30% off.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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