Thursday, July 21, 2011

Birds of a Feather Plot Together

This is a big year for fans of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. At least for fans of the motion pictures adapted from that best-selling, milestone 1930 detective yarn. Two of those films celebrate notable anniversaries in 2011.

Over a decade-long period in the early 20th century, three black-and-white motion pictures were released, all based on Hammett’s only novel about San Francisco private eye Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon (1931), Satan Met a Lady (1936), and the best-known of this lot, the John Huston-directed Humphrey Bogart film, The Maltese Falcon (1941). On the Spade page of his excellent Thrilling Detective Web Site, Kevin Burton Smith supplies this background:
The first attempt, starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, was a solid, if unspectacular film. Cortez played Spade as a smirking womanizer, too smug to possibly be taken seriously. But the women in it were well cast, and easy on the eyes. The film was flawed by an anti-climactic jailhouse ending that merely reinforced the notion of Spade as something of a shit. ... But there was a lot I liked about this version. I liked the guy who played [Miles] Archer--his being much older than [his wife] Iva made sense. And I did like the fact Spade at least appeared to have a sex drive (which made him even more credible as a shit to Iva than Bogart was). I thought the women on the whole were more believable (and a whole lot sexier) and the exposition a lot clearer (even if some of the book was MIA). But what struck me the most was how much Huston’s version followed this one. The identical camera angles, the set-ups, the framing of shots--even the way the lines were read are often exactly the same. And the 1941 cast looks like it was chosen for its resemblance to the 1931 originals. It’s like they filmed the rehearsal and ten years later Huston tidied up the rough edges. ...

The second version
, Satan Met a Lady ..., seemed “incapable of deciding whether to be a screwball comedy or a murder mystery.” Many changes were made to the original plot, the characters, even the title. None were for the better.

Sam Spade is now Ted Shane, the Fat Man is now the Fat Lady, Bette Davis is lackluster as Miss Wonderly [renamed Valerie Purvis], and the Black Bird is now a ram’s horn. Generally considered poorly acted, forced and dull. Intended, perhaps, as a spoof, but of what? Warren William as Spade had possibly the biggest head in Hollywood, but so what? At the end of the film, having finally grabbed the bejeweled horn, he gives it a tentative toot. “Honey, it blows,” he informs Miss Wonderly. I know how he feels.

The third time was the charm.
The Maltese Falcon, released in 1941 by Warner Bros., written and directed by John Huston, and starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade was an amazing, powerful piece of work. Okay, Bogey didn’t match the description of Spade in the book. He was too small and too dark, but can anyone ever picture anyone else ever playing Spade? In fact, Bogart was so good as Spade, that his later appearance as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe never seemed right to me. Add a memorable cast of colorful characters (with Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook) and a taut moody screenplay that was essentially the novel itself, and you’ve got the making of the archetypal private-eye film. Decades later, filmmakers are still trying to crawl out from its shadow.

The film proved to be such a success that Sam Spade started showing up all over. Three short stories written by Hammett and published back in the early thirties (all pretty weak, compared to
The Maltese Falcon), were collected and published in book form.

There was even a plan to do a sequel with Bogart and the rest, but it never came to fruition.
The first Maltese Falcon film debuted in theaters on June 13, 1931--80 years ago last month. Bogart’s version was released on October 3, 1941, which means its 70th anniversary is coming up in just three months. To celebrate these occasions, we are embedding below their respective dramatizations of one of the most familiar scenes from Hammett’s novel, the one in which Spade negotiates with the mysterious criminal, Gutman, for a “fall guy,” somebody to take the blame for a couple of murders. Roy Del Ruth, who directed the 1931 flick, and John Huston handled this episode quite differently, though as you’ll see below, much of the tone and success of the scene depends on the actors involved.

From 1931’s The Maltese Falcon:

From 1941’s The Maltese Falcon:

Without question, Bogart took command of this scene in a way that Cortez, as Spade, never did. And actor Greenstreet, portraying Gutman, is more credible and far less of a ham than was Dudley Digges in the same role. If you have a chance, watch these two films back to back (and throw in Satan Met a Lady, if you’re a Bette Davis enthusiast). But note that there are good reasons why the 1941 version is considered a classic, and its decade-older predecessor isn’t seen much nowadays.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agree wholeheartedly, which is why I'm glad I picked up the Maltese Falcon 3-Disc Special Edition from 2006, with all three versions on it...