Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (1931) directed by Roy del Ruth (starring Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Una Merkel, Dwight Frye)

The Maltese Falcon (1931). Screenplay and dialogue by Brown Holmes (Street of Women) and Maude Fulton from the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

The three-disc special edition of the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon contains some very interesting bonus features: the two previous adaptations of Dashiell Hammett's novel, the first also called The Maltese Falcon (though it was renamed Dangerous Female for TV in the '50s to avoid confusion), and the second titled Satan Met a Lady.

Since the 1941 version (directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre) is the one considered "definitive," it's not surprising that relatively few viewers realize that was actually Hollywood's third adaptation of Hammett's classic detective novel.

Satan Met a Lady (directed by William Dieterle and starring Bette Davis and Warren William), is by all accounts a disaster (a very loose adaptation by screenwriter Brown Holmes, who co-wrote this version), but the first Maltese Falcon, filmed in 1931 by director Roy del Ruth, is a terrific alternative for viewers who love the story and would just like to watch a different take on it. (Both films are faithful to the source, with few changes.)

The main difference in tone comes from the portrayal of Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Cortez's Spade is much more of a ladies man than Bogart's. In fact, the opening scene of the movie shows a woman leaving Spade's office, adjusting her stockings (later, he is shown picking up sofa cushions from the floor). His roving eye (and hand) also includes his secretary, Effie. Una Merkel plays Effie as if she's not only a willing participant in these shenanigans, but is also quite aware of Spade's other dalliances — including partner Miles Archer's wife Iva (Thelma Todd) — and thinks it's funny.

That lightness extends to Cortez, as well. He goes throughout The Maltese Falcon with a huge smirk on his face, as if everything going on around him is endlessly entertaining. And I can imagine why. When Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) comes into his office, he probably already knows she'll end up naked in his bath, in his bed, and in his kitchen. Cortez displays just the right mix of sleaze and charm.

But the only other actor who gives anything close to as interesting a performance is Dudley Digges as Kasper Gutman. Digges gives the role real grease, making him a truly unlikeable antagonist (Greenstreet always charmed even in his most villainous roles, much like Claude Rains, his costar in Casablanca). And I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Dwight Frye (Renfield in the Lugosi Dracula) shows up briefly as Wilmer Cook. He doesn't say much, but just try to look away when he flashes those psychotic eyes.

This Maltese Falcon was made three years before the enforcement of the Production Code that would whitewash movies for the next thirty years. Thus, there are instances like those mentioned above that did not make it into the "cleaner" 1941 version. One major effect this had is when Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy proclaims to Bogart's Spade, "I thought you loved me," it doesn't make a whole lot of sense based on what preceded. Here, when Wonderly (who never reveals herself to be O'Shaughnessy, a plot point I always thought was unnecessarily confusing anyway) says the same words, they hold real meaning.

Though quite entertaining in its own right, the 1931 Maltese Falcon is undoubtedly destined to remain forgotten in the shadow of its later remake. I recommend it, however, due to its lighter and sexier tone, handsomer leading man, and almost completely different approach to the same source material. Fans of pre-Code cinema will especially enjoy it, even if they generally prefer a little more noir in their detective stories.


KentAllard said...

The '31 version has always been a good example of a good movie adaptation of a book getting buried by a great version. I enjoyed it, too. It's also funny that Ricardo Cortez was a huge star in the early 30s, and now no one but film buffs knows who he is.

Craig Clarke said...

I agree. Another funny thing I found in my research for this review is that "Cortez" has no Latin blood in him. He was born Jakob Krantz in Austria but came to Hollywood during the Valentino era and tried to capitalize on the Latin-lover craze.

KentAllard said...

It's interesting how in the early 30s, Hollywood was trying to get actors to change their names to something exotic (even "Boris Karloff"!) to make them more attractive as leading men, and by the end of the 30s, those names were the kiss of death, at least for leading men.

Craig Clarke said...

Boris Karloff? I figured a name like that must be real! It's funny, the IMDb says he was called "Billy" by people, so he wasn't one of those who changed it officially. (I love that stuff, like hearing people call Lauren Bacall "Betty" and Herbert Marshall "Bart" -- it's weird to think of them as just regular people.)

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