05 April 2009

The Maltese Falcon: Take 1 (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Starring Bebe Daniels, Ricardo Cortez, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson, Dwight Frye.

When Warner Brothers green-lit the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon, they were placing their bets on a first-time director (John Huston) and an unproven leading man (Humphrey Bogart). Yeah, we can laugh about it now. But what the studio did feel certain about at the time was the material, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel—because they had already filmed it twice.

The John Huston/Humphrey Bogart incarnation of The Maltese Falcon is so iconic a movie, as “classic” as Classic Movies with Capital Letters get, that it has almost wiped away the existence of the earlier two movies; only film enthusiasts and Hammett fans know about them. In the case of Satan Met a Lady, a 1936 comedy re-working starring Bette Davis, that’s no loss. It has minimal connection to Hammett’s novel, and feels more as if it were trying to act like another of his works, The Thin Man. But the straight adaptation in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade is worth visiting for anyone who loves the 1941 version, or who wants to see the change in the American crime film over the decade between them. It’s a middling picture on its own, however, and almost impossible to talk about without comparing it to the 1941 movie.

Watching Falcon ‘31 is often a weird experience. It stays quite faithful to the novel, although not as close the Falcon ‘41, one of the most literal adaptations of any novel for the screen (you can almost read along with it if you have the book open). Because the two movies stick so close to the material, many scenes are beat-for-beat, line-for-line identical. But who are these people speaking lines that belong to Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet? It feels like opening a favorite book to discover the plot is still there, but another author re-wrote the whole thing in a different style. It’s… well, weird.

I made it even stranger by having the John Huston Falcon queued up in another DVD slot on my player while I watched the earlier one. After I finished watching a scene in Falcon ‘31, I would swap over and watch the same scene unfurl ten years later. It was an instructive, fascinating experience.

Even though they have the same plots and most of the same lines, the two movies are fundamentally different. Some of this comes down to stylistic changes from the early sound era to the more mature 1940s. Much of Falcon ‘31 looks flat and stagy, with no atmospheric lighting and minimal music. But the true reason that the films feel so different is that when John Huston made his movie, the crime film genre was finally on the verge catching up to the trends that had re-shaped crime literature since the early 1920s. Hollywood was ready to embrace noir as a cinematic style. The term film noir wouldn’t emerge until post-war French critics starting surveying the movies they had missed during World War II, but today most film historians mark the 1941 Maltese Falcon as the first genuine film noir to deserve that name.

(A good case, however, can be made for a small 1940 B-movie called Stranger on the Third Floor, which is now available on Manufacture-on-Demand DVD from Warner Archive.)

It comes down to the 1931 Maltese Falcon not fully understanding the importance of its source material. Warner Brothers simply snatched up a bestselling “urban detective” novel and put it on the screen. The moral ambiguity and the cold edge of Hammett’s masterpiece eluded them. The early ‘30s was the time of gangster picture, not the twisty world of the emerging roman noir in books like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Postman Always Rings Twice… and The Maltese Falcon.

Taken on it’s own merits—and believe me, it is hard for me to get any objective distance from it—Falcon ‘31 is a decent movie. Cortez isn’t Bogart, but he has handsome charm as Sam Spade, and he must have seemed ideal at the time. Bebe Daniels, who gets billing above Cortez, is actually a sexier Ruth Wonderly (a name she keeps the whole film, instead of later revealing herself as Brigid O’Shaughnessy) than Mary Astor. Because the early 1930s went easier on censorship, Daniels actually strips down nude twice and appears in a bathtub. The film can also make it clear that Spade and Wonderly have slept together in the same bed, something the Code would slam down on in the mid-‘30s. The scene where Spade forces Wonderly to undress to see if she’s stolen money from him is the only case of a section from the novel appearing in ‘31 and not ‘41. Daniels ultimately can’t beat Astor for in the pure acting department, however. The layers that Astor puts into the character—you’re never quite sure if she’s helpless or deadly—don’t appear in Daniels’s performance.

The performer who comes across best in this earlier cast is Dutch actor Otto Matieson as slimy Joel Cairo. He feels close to Hammett’s character, and his attire and demeanor are spot-on. This is a case where the performer only loses out in comparison to the man who would later play him, Peter Lorre. You can’t best Peter Lorre is the creepy-guy department, sorry. Matieson appeared in many silent pictures, but died the year after The Maltese Falcon was released.

Dwight Frye, best known as Renfield from the Todd Browning Dracula made that same year, is another case of spot-on casting. Elisha Cook Jr. would play Wilmer the Gunsel in the ‘41 version, and the two actors look freakishly identical. Wilmer’s part is much more subdued in the earlier movie however, with most of his scenes shadowing Spade cut out.

I won’t go easy on Dudley Digges as Caspar Gutman, however. The actor misses the menace of the character completely, and seems like he’s auditioning for a part in Oliver Twist or some other Dickens adaptation. No one is able to call Gutman “The Fat Man” either, because Digges doesn’t have the girth. All the sinister, unclean villainy of Greenstreet’s Gutman is absent.

Finally, Una Merkel is devilishly cute as Spade’s secretary, Effie. She plays the character as a feisty ingĂ©nue much different from the more matronly and wise way that Lee Patrick plays her a decade later.

Falcon ‘31 feels leisurely and laid-back in its pacing. Comparing it scene-for-scene with Falcon ‘41 shows how John Huston invests each of his scenes with intense energy. His 1931 counterpart, Roy Del Ruth, directs with far more anonymity less urgency. When Cortez’s Spade makes Daniels’s Ruth Wonderly take “the fall” in the conclusion, I simply don’t believe that he means it. The script unfortunately cuts out Spade’s speech about why a private detective has to do something about his partner’s death, which weakens the whole sequence. Bogart and Astor absolutely nail this moment—it is one cinema’s great confrontations—and the ‘31 version seems like the same scene on an overdose of cold medication.

And if you’re going to cut any line from the novel, don’t make it this one: “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.” Not that Cortez could deliver it with any of the complexity that Humphrey Bogart does. Cortez would just end up sounding… nice.

Yeah, “nice.” Now that I come down to it, the problem with the 1931 The Maltese Falcon is that it plays too nice. Even if the 1941 version were never made, this film would seem too pedestrian an adaptation of its source. Gangster films were burning up the screen with machine gun bullets in the early 1930s, most of them from Warner Brothers, but the studio can only muster a casual shrug and smile from Hammett’s novel. Cortez is too jaunty, not tough enough. Daniels doesn’t have many layers (clothing or character). Digges is twitchy and miscast. Frye gets it down, but he’s underused. The movie also includes a tidy new scene at the conclusion where Spade visits Wonderly in a squeaky clean prison and promises that he’ll look after her. It’s a rare place where the movie adds something into Hammett’s novel—and it’s just too damn “nice.”

I’m sure that, at the time, Hammett didn’t care what they did with his novel. He got money to buy booze and cigarettes so he wouldn’t have to bum them off Lillian Hellman. Warner Brothers made a profit, but couldn’t re-release the film a few years later because of its pre-Code sexuality, so they instead re-made it as a Bette Davis comedy. The movie would occasionally pop up on TV in the 1960s as Dangerous Female to avoid confusion with 1941 version.

If you love John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, it’s hypnotic to watch this earlier version. People less enamored of Huston’s film (i.e. people who haven’t seen it) won’t get much out of the older one; I can’t imagine why they would even bother to dig the movie up in the first place. It’s not bad, it’s simply not that interesting on its own merits.

(If for some reason you haven’t seen the 1941 Maltese Falcon… go rent it right now. Or buy it; the three-disc special edition contains the two other adaptations as bonuses. And read the book if you haven’t; it routinely makes the top of the list of American mystery novels for very good reason. It’s a rare case of a novel written entirely in objective third person—quite a feat.)