Saturday, May 15, 2010

“The Maltese Falcon” (No, not that one)

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Bogart as Sam Spade, or Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman, or Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. But the folks at Warner Brothers could, producing two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett’s great crime story before John Huston got his hands on the book and made a classic movie in 1941.
The first version was made ten years earlier, directed by Roy Del Ruth (“Broadway Melody of 1936,” “Topper Returns”) and starring Ricardo Cortez as Spade, Bebe Daniels as Brigid (called Ruth Wonderly here) Dudley Digges as Gutman, and Otto Matieson as Cairo.
Talking movies were relatively new in ’31, and Cortez, a silent film star, doesn’t quite have a handle on Spade, playing the private eye in early scenes like a frat boy who can’t keep his hands or leering eyes off any good-looking woman who passes by. But he settles down, thanks to the strength of Hammett’s yarn, which the movie hews to closely. There’s a static quality to the film, probably due to limitations imposed by bulky sound recording equipment.
But what’s great is that this is a pre-code production, and quite sexy for its day. Daniels is seen taking a bath, and the scene from the novel where Spade orders Brigid to strip (so he can make sure she hasn’t hidden a $1,000 bill on her person) remains. You don’t see Daniels naked, but you know that Spade has. Digges is solid as Gutman, and his affection for Wilmer, the gunsel, is apparent. Wilmer, by the way, is well-played by Dwight Frye, who only a year earlier had made his mark as Renfield, the fly-eating madman in the Lugosi version of “Dracula.”
The Brothers Warner were nothing if not frugal, and in 1934 they ordered up a remake called “Satan Met a Lady” (Hammett describes Spade as resembling a “blond satan”). This time, undoubtedly encouraged by the success of MGM’s “Thin Man” series (based on another terrific Hammett novel), the approach is lighter. The falcon has been replaced by a medieval ram’s horn packed with gems. Warren William plays Ted Shane. Gutman has had a sex change. And even a blond Bette Davis as Brigid can’t save this wayward endeavor.
But check out the ’31 version for a pleasant surprise. It’s not a classic, but it’s decent.
And speaking of Spade, Joe Gores recently wrote a prequel to “The Maltese Falcon” called “Spade&Archer.” I could go on about this, but I suggest you check out this link:
to see what a reviewer I know well and respect had to say about Gores’s excellent novel.


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