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The Maltese Falcon (1929) – Dashiell Hammett, book review and comparison with the 1941 movie

Maltese_Falcon_film_prop_created_by_Fred_Sexton_for_John_HustonThis book was made to be a movie. It’s so close it’s like watching the movie in slow motion in my head. There are occasional flashes of something new, a new scene, a new twist or interpretation, but for the most part it reads like a screenplay. Sam Spade does this, he says that, his eyes burn yellow (they do that a lot), he grinds his teeth, some description about a room, what Brigid O’Shaughnessy is wearing, how Joel Cairo walks, the tone of Gutman’s voice – stage direction.

The book opens with Miss Wonderly (really Brigid O’Shaughnessy) coming into the office of Spade and Archer, two detectives in business together. She spins them a story about needing to find her sister and hires them to tail a man named Floyd Thursby. Miles Archer tails him, is murdered, and the story is off. Like the movie, it begins right off the bat with no other preamble other than a paragraph describing what Spade looks like. He sets out to uncover what is going on and meets the memorable Joel Cairo, Caspar Gutman and Gutman’s gunman, young Wilmer.

The book is noted for its colorful cast of characters even more than its story, and deservedly so. It’s the same with the movie. And they did such a fantastic job casting – or else I’ve seen the movie way too many times – that when I read I literally hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice saying the lines that I’m reading. I can see Mary Astor move her hands as described, or pause exactly where the pause is written in the book, I can hear Sydney Greenstreet laugh, see Peter Lorre walk and hold his hat with both hands, in front of his stomach. It’s very distracting, at times.

The opening description of Sam Spade, I absolutely could not see. He is described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan,” but all I could see was Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t until the second half of the book began to have more scenes and dialogue that I didn’t recognize that my imagination was able to kick in and Hammett’s description of Spade began to compete with the insistent image of Bogart.

Sam Spade in the book is actually a bit different from Spade in the movie. He is far less appealing than Bogart makes him. In the movie, Bogart is the moral center, which is not to be confused with being a moral person, but he does have a certain code he lives by, unlike any of the other people in the story. In the book, his moral code is far murkier.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

And he’s a bit like a spoiled child – always “beefing” about the police’s treatment of him, grinding his teeth when frustrated, needling Wilmer, treating his secretary like a bit of a plaything, is ridiculously arrogant and self-assured and, amazingly enough, he gets away with it. Bogart presents a slightly more mature Spade. He keeps his cool better, has no tantrums and doesn’t seem quite so childishly pleased with himself.

If it comes to that, Mary Astor is also a more mature Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In the book, she is quite young – early twenties – and comes off even more helplessly than in the movie, even though she is anything but helpless. There’s lots of hand wringing and buckets of tears and large, frightened eyes. I would argue, however, that Astor’s Brigid is a slightly more complicated Brigid. She shifts character more than Brigid in the book and comes off as more intelligent. Brigid in the book is a liar, but Brigid in the movie is a mega-liar.

It’s not a particularly subtle book. People just come out and say stuff: “he’s queer” (about Joel Cairo) or “can I buy you with my body?” (Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Sam Spade). It’s stuff the movie had to skirt around to pass censorship. It makes the movie far more coy, though still explicit, about what is going on.

Like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett seems to be very interested in the process of detection. Details, even if they are not important, are described. For example, Spade is sent off on a red-herring. The house he is sent to is not important, merely being a place chosen at random, but we still get a description of his interview with the owner and of his search of the place. The important details are contained within other, non-important details. But there are no descriptions of people’s thoughts, their emotions; it’s the ultimate example of show, don’t tell. Spade speaks, his jaw clenches and we are left to infer what he is feeling.

Reading The Maltese Falcon reminded me of when I tried to read a book by Rex Stout called Over My Dead Body, about the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The book was so exactly like the TV series episode, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, that there was literally nothing new to glean from reading the book. It’s an odd occurrence, because most movies don’t even begin to do justice to the books they are based on. The Maltese Falcon isn’t quite that bad, there really are some new things to learn and it is definitely worth a read – it’s just not as many new aspects as I thought.

Dashiell Hammett also wrote The Thin Man, which was turned into the 1934 movie with William Powell and Myrna Loy. However, unlike The Maltese Falcon, the book is quite different and I couldn’t even begin to see William Powell or Myrna Loy as I was reading. It is rare for me to ever see the actors from a movie while I am reading the book, no matter how good the movie.. Even movies that I adore, that I consider to be fairly faithful to the book they are based on (1995 Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) cannot begin to capture the essence of the book I see in my mind. I still don’t see Colin Firth when I read about Mr. Darcy or hear Jennifer Ehle speak the lines…even though many are quite similar. The book is simply to much for a movie. Not so with The Maltese Falcon. It’s hard to imagine a movie doing it better. If it was any better, then the book would be obsolete…which is not something I would ever wish for a book.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Fiction

 

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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, 1945 and 1946 – How I Was Bamboozled and the Nature of Expectations

220px-Bigsleep2[1]Several months ago I wrote about both the book and the movie versions of The Big Sleep. I noted that there was a 1945 version that was shown to the troops overseas and that certain scenes were deleted and some added later to up the romantic ante between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and then released in 1946. The 1945 version was seen by very few people, but was added as a bonus feature on the The Big Sleep DVD.

And it is universally accepted that the 1946 version is superior. It makes less sense, but who cares with such marvelous chemistry and atmosphere, and of course my sister and I totally agreed with the universe, nodding our heads wisely and saying “yes, so true,” as if we really knew what we were talking about.

Only to discover that we had no idea what we were talking about. Somehow, all these years, we had been watching the 1945 version, the inferior version, and emphatically agreeing with everyone that the chemistry was sizzling, the plot convoluted and obscure and the previous movie must have been more straightforward, but also with less sexual tension.

My first clue that something was wrong  was when I heard there even were two versions. There was mention of a famous scene added in 1946, that takes places in a nightclub and where they talk about race horses in a conversation bursting with innuendo. I thought there must have been something wrong with my ability to detect innuendo, because I didn’t recall any such scene and asked my sister if she recalled any such scene. She said she didn’t. That should have tipped me off, and I was suspicious, but the DVD cover assured me that the copy we had was the standard 1946 version. It seemed mysterious, but I was not sufficiently curious to pursue the matter.

It was not until I got the DVD from the library that supposedly contained the bonus 1945 movie that everything became clear. We watched practically the whole bonus ’45 movie before we admitted that we had not seen anything new. There is also a documentary on the DVD that discusses the differences, so we watched that and realized that somebody had made a mistake. Somehow, all along, we had owned the 1945 version and had never seen the one everyone celebrated so much.

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall

The DVD we owned is TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries, which contains The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Dial M For Murder (1954), The Big Sleep (1946….supposedly), and The Maltese Falcon (1941). What my sister and I want to know is if there are other people happily watching their The Big Sleep and not realizing that they have the wrong one, too.

So now that we’d deceived ourselves into liking the inferior one, we had to watch the newer one and my expectations were high. If I liked the ’45 version so much, surely the ’46 version, with it’s added scenes between Bogart and Bacall, must be amazing.

But I was doomed to disappointment. My mind had the rhythms of the old version too well ingrained in my head. The added scenes were nice, but seemed tossed in randomly for romantic effect, and I missed the other scenes that provided explanation. The new version felt herky-jerky because I knew what scenes were missing and so it had a cut and paste feel, which is not a feeling I would have had if I’d simply watched it first. Also, I felt that the added scenes changed the dynamic of the relationship between Bacall and Bogart.

Lauren Bacall’s character is much more mysterious in the older version, her motivations more ambiguous. It may be less overtly sexy, but heightens the game the two of them are playing, trying to outwit each other instead of the newer one where the point seems to be more about seeing how much witty repartee and sexual innuendo they can toss back and forth.

There is a scene when they are in the car together, which in the original one is a great romantic moment, when they first kiss and she reveals a vulnerability that was not there before. But the scene in the car is thrown away in the newer one because of the two added romantic scenes that come before. Suddenly the scene in the car feels like it was just another scene instead of the culmination of something.

I suppose if I’d seen the newer version first, I wouldn’t care for the older version. It’s all about expectations. When we are used to something and like it, we are disappointed when our expectations are not met. I have a theory that if we’d all been watching the original version of The Big Sleep we would be disappointed if we watched the newer one, despite the critic Roger Ebert’s opinion that Howard Hawks took out one bad scene and added one good scene and made a good picture a great picture. I’m going to disagree with him. He was probably used to the new one and was always disappointed when his favorite scene with the race horse conversation was absent.

Bogart and Bacall

Bogart and Bacall

The reason the movie was changed was at the instigation of Lauren Bacall’s agent. According to the documentary on the DVD about the differences between the two versions, the movie – after being shown to troops overseas – was shelved while the studios rushed to finish other war related movies that wouldn’t wear well when the war was over. While the movie sat, Lauren Bacall’s agent got to work. She had made two movies, so far: her spectacular debut in To Have and Have Not and a bomb with Charles Boyer called Confidential Agent. Her agent was concerned that another flop would finish her before she had even gotten started and he felt that if The Big Sleep was released as it was, it would ruin her career.

So he called the producer and they got the director and cast back together and shot some new scenes, favorable to Bacall. She got better lighting, better camera angles, more dialogue, more scenes and they diminished the role played by Martha Vickers as Bacall’s sister, which I think hurts the film. The movie certainly did its job; it was a great hit for Bacall and, according to the documentary, probably saved her career.

But if I had to chose which version to watch again, it would probably still be the older one. There was nothing glaringly wrong with Bacall’s role in that film as it is. There’s still the great chemistry and it’s a far more well balanced film for all the characters, without the two random romantic scenes that didn’t really do anything for me. It’s a better story, the stakes are higher, the ambiguity of character more intriguing.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Film Noir

 

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