Thrice Told Stories #2: The Maltese Falcon


The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Satan Met a Lady (1936)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

On rare occasions in cinema, the third time’s the charm. That’s the case with The Maltese Falcon

Last month, I wrote about a great Japanese filmmaker who adapted a Dashiell Hammett novel (we’re not sure which story) into a film masterpiece and how two other excellent filmmakers took the same story and put it in other settings for worthy films of their own.

That’s not the case with The Maltese Falcon. In this case, we have a Dashiell Hammett novel that was incompetently brought to the screen twice before it was brought to the screen with more than a touch of genius. 

Let’s be honest; most of us weren’t even aware there were versions of the story before John Huston and Humphrey Bogart came along. But there they are, available on the internet, as examples of how tough it is to bring even the best material to the screen.

It should be said that the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon is excellent. It was first a serialized story in the pulp magazine Black Mask in 1929/30. Since it was released as a novel, it has never been out of print, and when polls are taken of the best mystery novels, it consistently places in the top ten. Hammett wrote many excellent things, but this was his best.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood soon bought and adapted it. It was first brought to the screen by director Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth was a competent enough workman who continued to work for three more decades (any fans of 1959’s The Alligator People?). As a product of 1931, this version of The Maltese Falcon was not made under the Hays Production Code. This meant that the sex and violence of the novel could more explicitly be carried over to the screen. For instance, there is no doubt what took place the night before when Bridget O’Shannesey is in bed and Sam Spade searches her apartment.

The film sticks reasonably close to the novel. There are changes here and there, such as the ending where (SPOILERS) Sam Spade bribes the prison matron to treat Bridget well during her coming long stay. 

I think fidelity to the story made the film a financial success at the time. (Though I’m sure back in the day, there were plenty of readers who came out of the theater saying, “The book was so much better.”) 

But then the Hays Code, Hollywood’s self-imposed restrictions on screen content implemented to prevent government restrictions, came along. And this film was no longer deemed fit for public consumption; the original, uncut, version of the film would be put in the vault for decades.

And how does this film hold up? Not well, in my opinion. There are nitpicks one can make about the screenplay and direction. None of the changes from the novel are improvements. But the biggest problem is the casting, though I’ll admit one piece of casting that rivals the 1941 classic. Dwight Frye (Renfield from the 1931 version of Dracula), is as good, perhaps better, than the very fine Elisha Cook Jr. as the gunsel, Wilmer. But some of the other choices…

Bebe Daniels as “Ruth Wonderly” is rather bland and doesn’t compare to later actresses who took the role. And bland is not a bad description of Dudley Diggs, who plays Casper Gutman, the Fatman. But the film’s major problem is the casting of Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade.

Hammett wrote his novel in the third person, never giving people’s thoughts, but only dictating their words and describing their actions. Therefore, we are never sure whether Spade is crooked or straight until everything plays out. Cortez in this role is smarm incarnate. He’s clearly an oily individual who would probably steal all the money and women he could if not for the constraints of the law. I don’t see how anyone could root for this guy, which ruins the whole film, even while some of Hammett’s good work is preserved.

With their original version of the film no longer available for release, and still in possession of the copyright, Warner Brothers decided to make a 1936 version, titled Satan Met a Lady. (This title is never explained in the film. But in the novel, Sam Spade is described as a “blond Satan.”But Warren William who plays Sam… sorry, Ted Shane… isn’t blond, so…)

The film’s opening credits are accompanied by music that sounds like it could have come from any of Warner’s 1930s musicals, which gives a hint of how the film will play. It plays like a broad screwball comedy. 

The basic plot is intact, but the names and characters are all changed, as well as a significant prop. Instead of searching for the Maltese Falcon, a gift of the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain, we have the Horn of Roland, a ram’s horn rumored to be filled with jewels. This is a less interesting McGuffin and certainly not the stuff of which dreams are made.

Instead of the Fatman, we have Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth), a Moriarity-like mistress of the criminal world, and the Tall Englishman (Arthur Treacher). All the supporting cast is quite cartoonish and not at all threatening.

The femme fatale, here called Valerie Purvis, is played by Bette Davis. One would think that the addition of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, a Golden Age Icon, would work to the film’s benefit. This is not the case.

Davis’ calculating crook always seems to be smarter and a step ahead of the supposed hero detective. Warren William comes across as a dim version of Nick Charles, more interested in women and drinking than in the case itself. (Interesting film trivia: William was the first actor to portray Perry Mason.)

The only performance I enjoyed was Marie Wilson as Sam’s – sorry, Ted’s– secretary Miss Mergatroyd, a delightful, ditsy blonde who seems to be from a much more amusing film. The film utterly misses Hammett’s dark world.

Finally, for some reason, John Huston came along in 1941 and decided he would make this twice-told tale into his directorial debut. His screenplay stuck very close to the novel. He cast a dark-haired actor, Bogart. Legend has it that Warner star George Raft turned down the role, allowing Bogart his big break in a lead role. 

Every role is perfectly cast. This was our introduction to one of film’s great duos, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, as Joel Cairo and Kasper Gutman, respectively. In the less flashy roles, Lee Patrick as secretary Effie and Ward Bond as Detective Polhaus are very good. Cook is a fine gunsel. (Though made under the Hays Code, the censors let slide the use of the word “gunsel.” Though it has come to mean “gunman,” it also was used to describe the submissive partner in a homosexual relationship, which may describe Wilber’s relationship with Gutman.)

Mary Astor’s Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy/Whoknowsreally is an Oscar-worthy performance. She greatly outshines the other performances in the role (including Bette Davis’s).

She piles one lie on top of another, and you think she’s keeping track, but you’re never quite sure. Something about her attracts men to protect her, not realizing they need to be protected from her. Only Sam Spade seems to have the necessary sense of self-protection.

About Spade… Bogart gives one of the greatest star performances. For a long time, we’re never quite sure whether he is a good guy or a rotter. He was cheating on his partner with Archer’s wife (one senses to his everlasting regret). And when he learns of his partner’s death, he quite coldly asks for the name on his door to be changed. (Even Ebenezer Scrooge left his dead partner’s name on the door. Though that was probably to save the expense on paint.)

But in the end, we see that Bogart’s Spade is a man of integrity. He will do the right thing because he won’t violate the code he has bound himself to. He might really love Brigid, but that won’t keep him doing what a man’s got to do. 

The novel ends with police telling Sam that Gutman was shot by Wilber, but this version ends with one of the greatest shots: the elevator grate closes on Mary Astor’s Brigid, accompanied by the police, as she descends to prison – or execution.  

Some people make the blanket assertion that remakes show a lack of creativity and are always money grabs. I’m glad Warner Brothers kept at it until they got it just right.

(Barely related side note: We have friends who live in an apartment building in San Francisco. They were puzzled by tour buses regularly stopping outside their home. When, eventually, they asked someone, they learned that their building is where Dashiell Hammet finished writing The Maltese Falcon.)

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There are 13 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member

    Remakes are funny things. Sometimes they are better, sometimes not.  The Lady Eve did not need to be remade into The Birds and the Bees.

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey

    My Favorite Wife was going to be remade as Something’s Got to Give in 1962, and about a third of the film was shot before Marilyn Monroe died of a pill overdose. After a cooling off period and a title change it was finally made as Move Over, Darling. In footage available online of all three films, you can see the same courtroom scene played for laughs by Cary Grant, Dean Martin, and James Garner.

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey

    BTW, a very fine film history article, ECS! 

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher

    Eustace C. Scrubb: (Though made under the Hays code, the censors let slide the use of the word “gunsel.” Though it has come to mean “gunman,” it also was used to describe the submissive partner in a homosexual relationship, which may describe Wilber’s relationship with Gutman.)

    (The word was in the original novel. Hammett was pulling a fast one on his editor. Hammett’s editor had been trying to rein in Hammett’s risque language and Hammett rightly figured that his editor wouldn’t be familiar with the term. The Hays Office saw that the word was in the original novel. Huston counted on them making the same mistake that Hammett’s editor had.)

    • #4
  5. David Carroll Thatcher
    David Carroll

    As much as I enjoy the posts about politics, it is the interesting non-political posts like this that make Ricochet so great.  I last read The Maltese Falcon over 50 years ago.  This makes me want to go back and read it again.  And watch the 1941 movie.

    • #5
  6. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue

    Thanks. I had known of the existence of the 31 version of The Maltese Falcon, but not of Satan Met a Lady.

    As for that unqualified masterpiece from 41…well…the stuff dreams are made of, after all.

    • #6
  7. Illiniguy Member

    One of my all-time favorite movies, The Dawn Patrol, came from a British short story “Flight Commander” and came out in 1930 and 1938. The 1930 version was directed by Howard Hawks and featured Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Douglas Scott, but the 1938 version had a lot more star power, with Errol Flynn, David Niven, Basil Rathbone and Donald Crisp as the main characters. Many of the flying scenes in the 1938 film were lifted directly from the 1930 version, which was subsequently re-titled as “Flight Commander” after the 1938 version was released.

    • #7
  8. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell

    Ricochet is still a great place to learn obscure facts of history, especially entertainment history. Thanks, guys! (and gals!)

    • #8
  9. Skyler Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Remakes are funny things. Sometimes they are better, sometimes not. The Lady Eve did not need to be remade into The Birds and the Bees.

    Maybe someone will make a remake of “The Hobbit” that will be good enough to not make me barf.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Remakes are funny things. Sometimes they are better, sometimes not. The Lady Eve did not need to be remade into The Birds and the Bees.

    Maybe someone will make a remake of “The Hobbit” that will be good enough to not make me barf.

    Yeah. . .okay. About that, please don’t try holding your breath.

    • #10
  11. EJHill Podcaster

    Sequels, prequels and remakes are either good and stand on their own or they’re absolutely cringe. It is rare for Hollywood to tell the same story twice (or more) and both are excellent films. I’ll watch The Philadelphia Story and High Society and be equally entertained.

    • #11
  12. OccupantCDN Coolidge

    The Maltese Falcon also went on to being a very influential film, setting the template many for film-noir films that followed – even, when you think about it – Tarantino’s 1993 film Pulp Fiction. 

    • #12
  13. Charlotte Member

    One of the best lines ever:


    • #13
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