The first time was not the charm
By Edward Copeland
Though one shouldn't assume, I'm guessing the third time did indeed prove to be the charm as far as screen adaptations of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon go, even though time prevented me from sampling 1936's Satan Met a Lady starring Bette Davis. Reports on that incarnation of Hammett's story claim it turned the tale into farce, changed all names to protect the fictional and rechristened the much-sought-after Maltese Falcon as the fabled Horn of Roland. Unfortunately, I did have time to see the first crack movies took at Hammett's detective classic, director Roy Del Ruth's 1931 film The Maltese Falcon. I can see now — with Warner Bros., screwing up the story credited with creating the hard-boiled detective genre twice within seven years of its publication — how it became a matter of pride and urgency to try again as soon as 1941 to right the cinematic wrongs. This time, the studio hired a talented writer (John Huston) and gave him his first shot at directing in the hopes he'd make the definitive film version of The Maltese Falcon, which he did, even though his casting of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade looked unorthodox at the time. However, Bogart's Spade ended up being as definitive a take on the private eye as the film itself became on the work of fiction. Now, I realize people exist who enjoy slowing down to gaze upon traffic accidents and part of these misguided souls wants to see how bad the 1931 version really could be. Trying to spare these folks an hour and 20 minutes of their lives prompts me to write about that 1931 Maltese Falcon today.
More than merely a decade separates the two films titled The Maltese Falcon and — with the exception of more sexual innuendo because the camera rolled on the 1931 version in pre-Code era Hollywood — little of what's different plays in the first film's favor. In fact, Huston's Maltese Falcon proved so beloved that when televisions began to spring up in U.S. households and old movies were rerun, the first Maltese Falcon got a new title: Dangerous Female. It's somewhat ironic that the 1931 movie would end up traveling under an alias because one of the most mystifying changes the 1931 film made from Hammett's story was making that "dangerous female" be named Ruth Wonderly from beginning to end. She still lies and kills, but she doesn't use any fake names at all. Brigid O'Shaughnessy doesn't exist here. In Hammett's version, she also used other aliases but even Huston edited it down to two. Bebe Daniels plays Miss Wonderly in the 1931 version and she's representative of that film's biggest problem. Even some of the cast who were good in other roles in other films, weren't here. Perhaps it's just seeing them in contrast to the brilliant 1941 ensemble, but with the exception of Una Merkel, who plays Sam Spade's secretary Effie in 1931, nearly the entire cast stinks. Granted, part of the problem stemmed from the time period and the cast was populated with many performers who made their names in silents and didn't make the transition well. The only truly decent sound role that Daniels ever got was as the fading star Dorothy Brock in the 1933 musical 42nd Street. However, when I mentioned it as a pre-Code picture, that was not an exaggeration. The opening scene shows a pair of female legs adjusting her dress and walking out of Sam Spade's office followed by Spade (Ricardo Cortez) adjusting the pillows on the couch with the definite implication that hanky panky had been taking place. His relationship with Miss Wonderly seems to be sexual for sure and there's no question about his affair with partner Miles Archer's wife Iva. As Wonderly, hiding from Iva and trying to make her jealous at the same time, Bebe Daniels takes a bath in a scene that nearly shows her nude.
What ultimately ruins this version of The Maltese Falcon and, I suspect, would be the key to any attempt to tell this story belongs to whoever gets cast to play Sam Spade. In the 1931 case, Ricardo Cortez simply sinks the character and takes the movie down with him. Cortez, like Daniels, came from silents. Looking at his resume, he later did appear in one good film, his final film actually — John Ford's The Last Hurrah in 1958 — not that I recall him in it. Cortez portrays Spade as a grinning ghoul. He never stops smiling, laughing or giggling. Because he only seems to have one emotional note, every piece of dialogue gets the same spin, ruining some great lines. When he's meeting with Caspar Gutman (Dudley Digges) — for some reason Gutman's first name starts with a C here but a K in 1941 — and Gutman explains the falcon's origin dating back to the Crusades, Sam says, "Holy wars? I'll bet that was a great racket!" In a talented actor's hands, that could get a laugh. Coming out of Cortez's mouth, it drops like a lead balloon, but it's how he delivers every line whether he's making a threat, toying with cops or trying to seduce a woman. I don't think it's director Roy Del Ruth who is to blame, not that he ever made an exceptional piece of work, but Cortez in the 1931 Maltese Falcon gives us another example of how a bad lead can ruin an entire film. For a modern example, think Danny Huston in John Sayles' Silver City. Other things that make this film's Sam Spade ridiculous don't have anything to do with Cortez. When he gets the call about Miles' murder, his bedroom looks suitably seedy just as Sam's apartment does in 1941. However, when you see his plush living room, egad. The first thing it reminded me of was those ridiculously large Manhattan apartments the characters in the sitcom Friends somehow afforded. How does Sam Spade afford this nice a place in San Francisco even that long ago when Miss Wonderly's $200 payment was way more than they expected?
One thing I searched in vain to find on the Web was how old Miles Archer is supposed to be in Hammett's original story. In the 1941 version, there doesn't seem to be that much of an age discrepancy between Jerome Cowan and Bogart (In real life, Cowan was born in 1897, Bogart in 1899). However, Roy Del Ruth's version shows Miles (Walter Long) looking as if he has quite a few years on Sam (Long was born in 1879, Cortez in 1900). I was curious how Hammett wrote them, but could never find an answer. The closest I found was a character description on something that claimed to be the final version of John Huston's screenplay for the 1941 film where he writes that Miles is "about as many years past 40 as Spade is past 30." Iva's role increases in the 1931 version and in it, Miles knows that she and Sam had an affair, He returns early from a trip while Iva has called to whisper sweet nothings to Sam on the phone. When Effie steps away from her desk, Miles picks up her extension and overhears his wife and Sam's conversation. He never really gets a chance to confront them about it because when he goes into Sam's office, that's when Miss Wonderly has begun telling her story and she'll kill Miles soon enough. One thing doesn't change — both Sam Spades anxiously want the affair with Iva to be over. An interesting note about how Spade and Archer work in 1931: They shared an office in 1941 and were called private investigators. In 1931, each man has his own office and the sign on the outer office door refers to them as "Samuel Spade & Miles Archer: Private Operatives."
In most respects, the broad outlines of the story follows the tale most people know through the 1941 film. Many of the same lines are used, so they probably originated with Hammett, but they just don't get the same spin or aren't rewritten the way Huston did. Mostly, things get left out to make things go more quickly. We don't see Archer shot and killed and he doesn't tumble the way he does in 1941. Spade still receives the news in the dark of his bedroom, though it isn't filmed nearly as well as it was by Huston, and we don't see him call and ask Effie to inform Iva. We only learn that she did that deed from the cops who confront Sam with that tidbit. Effie gets to score with some information of her own as well, telling Sam that Iva wasn't there when she got there, even if that is a red herring. For instance, the character of Wilmer doesn't appear until very late in the movie and doesn't get but a handful of lines, though he does kill Gutman offscreen as he does in the story which doesn't happen in the 1941 film. What's shocking about that is what a waste it is of the actor who plays Wilmer here — Dwight Frye, who in 1931 proves so memorable as Fritz in James Whale's Frankenstein and Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula. Iva's increased role as a troublemaking sexpot went to an actress whose own life ended up as a bigger mystery than the one in The Maltese Falcon — Thelma Todd. In just 10 years, she appeared in an astounding 119 features and shorts, probably best known for her work with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. In 1935, she was found dead in her car, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning but it was long rumored that she'd been murdered, especially by gangsters eager to force her and her boyfriend, director Roland West, out of ownership of their club.
As if most of the movie hadn't played as if it were the work of amateurs already, despite the changes here and there, it had mostly followed Hammett's story — until the ending drops it down another level of awfulness. Early in the film, when Spade visits the scene of Miles' murder, they toss in a scene where Spade stops briefly and speaks with a Chinese man and the conversation isn't mentioned again until the end when Sam reveals that the Chinese man witnessed Miles' murder and ID'd Miss Wonderly as the killer. First, it's downright remarkable to believe that Sam knows how to speak Chinese. Second, that means that almost from the beginning he knows that she killed his partner, yet he still plays along with her the whole time and, as he tells her, falls for her, though he does turn her in to the police. Then, as a final epilogue, Sam visits Ruth in prison and brings her a pack of cigarettes and tells her that thanks to breaking the case, he's been named the chief investigator for the District Attorney's office. As he leaves, he tells a prison matron, "I want you to be very nice to that girl in No. 10. Give her anything she wants. Good food, cigarettes and candy. You know what I mean. Send the bill to the District Attorney's office. I'll OK it." Thank goodness they let John Huston and Humphrey Bogart do Hammett's story right.