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Tag Archives: Hard-boiled Detective Fiction

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

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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The Big Sleep – Movie and Book

220px-Bigsleep2[1]It is practically axiomatic that The Big Sleep does not make sense. When director Howard Hawks asked author Raymond Chandler who had killed the chauffeur, Chandler wired back that he had no idea. Somehow, that lack of clarity has only enhanced the mystique of the story…especially the movie.

The reasons for the confusion in the film are three-fold: the book never made that much sense anyway, the studio wanted a romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which came at the cost of clarity, and the Hays Code was in effect, which meant that there were many things that could be written about which could not be shown on screen.

I read the book, therefore, in the hope that it would elucidate certain aspects of the film, which it mostly did.

The Big Sleep (1939), by Raymond Chandler

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What Roger Eberts writes of the movie could also be written of the book, that it is “about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired to look into the blackmailing of General Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, but everyone – including his other daughter, Vivien – assume that he was hired to look into the disappearance of Vivien’s husband, Rusty Regan.

There are two parts to the book. The first half deals with the death of Carmen’s blackmailer, as well as other sundry murders and sordid affairs. The second half deals with Marlowe’s search for Regan, which involves a lot of the same characters who were involved in the death of the blackmailer, like the casino owner whose wife supposedly ran off with Rusty Regan and seems to have something on Vivien.

There were obviously quite a few aspects of the book that were not allowed in the movie. It’s not so much that the movie changed things (though it did change things), but that it let certain details drop out of the picture. The result was a general lack of understandable motivation for certain characters. Why did this one young man randomly show up and shoot this other man? Oh, the blackmailer was his lover, but he shoots the wrong man because the real murderer was the chauffeur who died (nobody knows how). And what does it mean to be running “a racket?” Oh, that’s a pornographic shop. That makes sense.

Another, significant, difference is that there is no romance in the book. A romance would be too hopeful for a hardboiled detective novel, where women are wild and licentious and men are cynical and cold.

th1V1FJYF7The Big Sleep (1946) Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – Directed by Howard Hawks – Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman

I’m not sure if Chandler was pleased with the movie adaptation of his book, but he did feel that the actress playing Carmen (Martha Vickers) completely outshone Lauren Bacall as Vivien in the early release of the film. He felt that when the script was rewritten to increase Bacall’s part and decrease Vicker’s, it further confused the plot.

Bogart and Bacall were currently an item. They had met and fallen in love in the very successful 1944 film To Have and Have Not. During the filming of The Big Sleep, Bogart was going through a divorce so he could marry Lauren Bacall. There had been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the chemistry between the two in the film and the studio wanted to capitalize on that.

They made one version of the movie and released it in 1945 to the troops overseas. However, Bacall’s agent was concerned that she was being overshadowed and since she had just starred in a dud film with Charles Boyer, her agent was concerned about her career and persuaded the studio to shoot some more scenes and cut out a few others. The result was a delightful combination detective/noir/romance – not a usual combination. Most noirs end in tears…or at the very least death, misery or despair for all.

The book ends on a sour note. Spoiler! Rusty Regan was killed by Carmen because he rebuffed her advances and Vivien was trying to hide the fact. End Spoiler! Marlowe notes how he has now become part of the general nastiness of the characters, but that at least he can spare the general any part in it. It’s not an upbeat ending. But the movie is far less nasty (nastiness still occurs, but is not so tainting).

img14[1]In fact, Marlowe, in the movie, is a genuine hero, unlike his Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941). Sam Spade has no particular morals or convictions (apart from not letting people get away with shooting his partner – even if he didn’t like the man, but it’s the principle that counts), but Bogart’s Philip Marlowe does, if not have morals, at least have a code, as he’s striving to do right, catch the criminals, spare his client and help the woman he loves out of the jam she’s in.

Note: for a witty and spot-on article about The Big Sleep film, The Man on The Flying Trapeze writes in the chivalric vein of the many ways that he loves the film. He calls the film a “screwball noir” and Marlowe “Sir Galahad in a 1938 Plymouth coupe who saves the honor of the Sternwood family while falling in love with one of the princesses.” This article is what inspired me to watch the movie, and also to read the book.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2014 in Books, Movies

 

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My Goodreads Review of “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler

The Big SleepThe Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read The Big Sleep, written in 1939, because I thought it might help me understand the movie better and it actually did…with the exception of that practically iconic and ever mystifying question of who killed the chauffeur.

It’s a highly atmospheric book, which I understand was a prime goal for Raymond Chandler. He was less interested in the plot and more interested in the atmosphere and description. He was very comfortable with crimes being committed that were not related to other crimes or crimes that are not fully explained, which is technically the case in real life. As a result, things just seem to happen, without any obvious rhyme or reason.

He certainly succeeds with his atmosphere. He has a very sensual style of writing. He describes smells and people’s expressions in a way that is uniquely evocative. It practically rains throughout the entire book, but it is not a purifying kind of rain, but more of a mucky rain, like all the muck that Detective Philip Marlowe is dealing with. In this book, Los Angeles is not a city of glamour, but of unmistakable seaminess.

This is the first of quite a few novels and short stories involving the private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was interesting to me because, although he’s not exactly a missionary and is quite the cynic, he does seem to have his own code of ethics. There are just some lines he will not cross and he is loyal to his client. He is the only character in the book who seems to have some sort of self-control and inhibitions. Everyone else is jaded, corrupt, criminal or almost animal-like in their emotions.

It was especially interesting to go back and watch the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The movie was turned into a romance (there is no romance in the book) and many elements of the book could not be shown in the movie because of the Hays Code. As a result, the clarity of the film suffered. One character is described in the film as running “a racket” which seems like an obscure way of referring to, what is in the book, the selling of pornography.

The Big Sleep is probably one of the most well known examples of hard boiled detective novels – crime novels with a cynical view of people that deals with the seamier sider of life. Other examples would be by Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon.

On a side note, I used to wonder about the title, but the last bit of the book makes it clear that the big sleep refers to death.

View all my reviews

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2014 in Books

 

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