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The Maltese Falcon: 1931, 1936, 1941- Movies of Their Era

01 Jul

th4KX2L17OImagine if The Hobbit were remade three times in ten years. Maybe that’s a bad example. I can’t think of an appropriate one. But The Maltese Falcon, written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929, really was made three times between 1931 and 1941…the 1941 version, with Humphrey Bogart, being the most famous and celebrated. What’s surprising, despite the similarities, is how different each version is. You could say that each version is a movie of its time…which goes to show how quickly times change.

Last Saturday, my sister and I had a Maltese Falcon Movie-thon. We started late in the day and kept going, pausing only to make cookies.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. It’s a pre-code movie, which means it was made during that time, after silent films, when the Hays Code was in effect, but not well enforced (not until 1934). There has been a lot of recent interest in pre-code era films, which often have a raw energy and morally un-inhibited tone and despite the fact that the depression had begun there were still more than a few shades of the carefree, loose attitude of the 1920s. The 1931 Maltese Falcon definitely conforms to this pattern, but despite that, my sister and I found it a little dull.

It’s fairly faithful to the book, all things considered – apart from a rather silly ending with Spade visiting the Brigid character in prison- and I recognized a fair number of lines from the 1941 version, but it lacked the tautness that I am used to see in a detective or noir story. I think Movies Silently said it best: “They are so busy being naughty that they let the plot stop dead in its tracks.” It’s not that the naughtiness isn’t in the book (or even in the 1941 version), but in those versions there is an economy of plot and pacing, which as I said, is usual in detective stories (when was the last time you read a five-hundred page mystery?) and so the tempo of this version is slow and there was little tension. Perhaps it was because I already knew the story and I felt like the older version had little new to offer.

It is a mystery, of course, but also plays up Sam Spade as a playboy. Ricardo Cortez, as Spade, is constantly grinning in this smug, wolfish way at every woman he comes across and keeps a negligee at his very opulent apartment. The tone of the movie is much lighter, though not a comedy – playboy detective meets unique characters, solves incidental mystery and has fun in the process. The movie did quite well in its day, but was not shown after the code was enforced.

12_satan_met_lady-1024x803The next movie incarnation came in 1936, called Satan Met A Lady. Wacky, oddball, bemusing, in an era when screwball comedy and light escapist movies were becoming popular as the depression continued. Screwball comedy really seems to have gotten going after the Hays Code was enforced. It Happened One Night, with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable was one of the first screwball comedies and, ironically, one of the first films to be released when the code was being fully enforced.

When we watched Satan Met A Lady our reaction was a bit like “What on earth was that?” It has been described laconically as a “misfire.”Bette Davis was billed first, but if she had played the secretary instead of the femme fatale she wouldn’t have been in it less, which is either a testament to how significant a role the secretary has or to how little they utilized Bette Davis. I’d had a feeling from the beginning that that secretary was going to be the only woman left standing at the end – she had staying power and ends up with Ted Shane, the Sam Spade character.

It’s a comedic version of The Maltese Falcon, apparently made in an attempt to capture the magic of The Thin Man, which was a screwball comedy/detective story based on the book by the same name, also written by Dashiell Hammett. Another reason to turn the story into a comedy was because the original story – as told in the book and partly told in 1931 – was considered beyond what could be portrayed under the Hays Code.

Bette Davis actually hated the role, which I don’t necessarily blame her for. She didn’t have much to do. Warren William is Ted Shane and he, like Ricardo Cortez, is an inveterate ladies’ man. There is no attempt, as in the 1931 and 1941 versions, to portray any real, or at least strong, love or lust between William and Davis. They flirt outrageously, but he does that with every woman he sees. The Fat Man is a woman in this version and Joel Cairo is instead a very tall and polite Englishman who violently tears up people’s rooms and then apologizes later. And the Maltese Falcon is instead an ancient horn of Roland that is supposed to be stuffed with jewels.

The film was not a success, either critically or financially.

The Maltese Falcon8

And then came the final version, released in 1941, and directed by a first time director who had previously been a script writer, John Huston. This movie seems to me to be a little ahead of it’s times, actually – portending the kind of film noir, anti-heroes, interest in human greed and desire and the sordid condition of humanity that is seen after the war rather than before or during.

It set the standard for movies to come, set the standard for Humphrey Bogart’s later roles and rise to stardom, and even partially set the standard for film noirs. I don’t think there was anything like it before or even during 1941 and I can’t think of much like it later, until 1944 with films like Double Indemnity – a film that is often credited as the first film noir…when people aren’t giving that title to The Maltese Falcon. But unlike Double Indemnity and other film noirs, The Maltese Falcon is primarily a detective story.

I’ve seen the movie several times now and it improves each time I see it. Once I have the plot down, it is marvelous to go back and watch Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade figure things out – all the while knowing what is actually going on with the other characters that he doesn’t see. The 1941 version, unlike the 1931 version, sticks exclusively to Spade’s point of view and the viewer only knows what he knows.  However, after watching the movie through once, it is fascinating to go back and put all the pieces together with fresh eyes. It is also fascinating to watch the actors. You could pick an actor and focus solely on them for one viewing, then pick another one for the next viewing, and learn much about what they are thinking and why they are acting as they are.

Maltese-Falcon-TheSydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr. are all marvelous and unforgettable. It was the perfect way to end our evening and I’m so glad no one thought that it was ridiculous to try and get so much mileage out of a mere 217 page book.

If The Maltese Falcon were made today, I wonder what it would be like and how it would reflect our era.

What books do you think ought to be remade as movies…or even movies that you enjoy but think could be even better?

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