Saturday, November 18, 2017
Giving them the Bird
This is my second entry in the It Takes a Thief Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini
Way back in 2016, I covered the Humphrey Bogart classic version of The Maltese Falcon. I mentioned in passing that that version was actually the third time to film the classic Dashiell Hammett story. At the time I didn't have access to the first two versions. True story, however. Just a day or two after I posted that review, I was browsing through a stack of previously viewed DVDs in a discount bin and found what was labeled as "Disc 2" which had the first two movies on one disc. (Obviously it was part of a two disc set, and I would have snagged the other one had it been available, since my only access to the original was and still is my local library's copy.)
The original version was made in 1931, before the Production Code era, and thus was not limited to only suggestive implications and covert hints when dealing with the characters. Thus the scene in which Spade forces Miss Wonderley to strip to prove she is not hiding some stolen money -part of the original Hammett novel- could be put into the movie (although no nudity was allowed), as well as a titillating scene of Miss Wonderley in a bubble bath scene, and an affair between Spade and Archer's wife, that could only be hinted at in the 1941 version.
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
The character of Sam Spade in this outing is a far cry from the rough and cynical portrayal you most remember from Humphrey Bogart's portrayal. For one thing, Ricardo Cortez plays Spade as a womanizer, flitting from one lady client to another, as well as having his partner's wife Iva (Thelma Todd) on the side. He probably hasn't been entirely pure with his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel), either. I will inject one thing, he grates on me, as he is nothing like what I expect from Sam Spade, based on both the aforementioned Bogart personification, but also based on how Spade is portrayed in the novel (which is much more like the Bogart version.)
This was the first version of the classic Hammett novel, and was done in the "pre-Code" era. The movie opens with Spade kissing yet another client goodbye, and you are left with the impression that more than kissing had been going on behind doors. (This Spade has genuinely different ideas about the client/detective relationship than your average film noir detective, that's for sure). He is quietly relaxing in his office when Effie escorts in Miss Wonderley (Bebe Daniels). (BTW, this part is still true to the novel as that was the initial name used by the femme fatale, but in this movie she is apparently using her real name from the beginning, as opposed to being exposed by another name in the novel and the Bogart movie later.)
The basic plot, in case you are not familiar with either the Hammett novel or the Bogart movie is that Wonderley and an unseen Floyd Thursby are in cahoots to retrieve a valuable statuette from an owner in Instanbul (read: steal it). There are others interested in it's retreival, too, including the man who hired the pair, the "Fat Man", also known as Caspar Gutman (Dudley Digges) and his associate, Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson). You might recognize Wilmer, if you are a fan of old Universal horror movies. That's Dwight Frye, who appeared as the dimwitted helper of Dr. Frankenstein, as well as the insane dupe of Dracula, two Universal horror classics that came out about the same time as this movie.
The twists and turns of the classic story are here. There is the familiar backbiting and double crossing that is familiar to fans of the remake/novel. But the quality of the production over all is rather disappointing. Maybe because I am so familiar with the classic that I have a higher expectation for he others, but then no one can say I wasn't warned. Everybody who already knew claimed that the 1941 version was superior to the previous two. I will say I wasn't disappointed that Gutman and Cairo met the fate that the novel tells us happened after they left Spade's apartment. Both characters were really annoying, and a lot had to do with the way the actors portrayed them.
Matieson, as Cairo, in particular was a bust, in my opinion. It didn't surprise me that he got his start in silents, and I think that's probably where he should have stayed. Of course, he didn't really get to have a career in "talkies" since he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after this movie was completed. Digges had a more prolific career, but the only thing on his resume that I have seen is an appearance as a police chief in The Invisible Man.
Still, all in all, it isn't really a bad movie, per se. It certainly is better than the first remake, Satan Met A Lady, which I review below.
Satan Met a Lady (1936)
What could be worse than a poorly acted version of a great detective story? How about turning it into a comedy? And one that only had the bare pieces of the story to hold it together at that. This one was a true comedy, as opposed to the first one which was just funny in unintentional ways. And it was a sub-par comedy at that. Bette Davis did just about everything she could to get out of being involved with the movie, but since she was still a contract player at the time, she was forced to give in to the studio's demands.
As stated above, there is only a slim connection with the actual story in the original novel. For one thing, Warren William (who plays "Ted Shane") is not established as a going concern in the detective business, but arrives on a train after being run out of town from his previous residence. Shane is somebody who is a cad and a bounder and an entirely disreputable business man who finagles his way into his friend's detective agency when he arrives to his new digs. Milton Ames (Porter Hall) is reluctant to take Shane on. But since Ames' business is struggling, and within a few minutes in the office, Shane manages to bring in two new clients, Ames really has no choice.
One of the new clients is Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) who hires the detective agency to shadow a man (and here is one of the most consistent parallels with the novel). Ames takes the job and is, of course killed, just like in the novel. There is a punk kid named Kenneth (Maynard Holmes), who, if this wasn't intended to be a comedy, would be absolutely the least threatening gunsel ever portrayed on film (and that includes any character from the kid cast gangster spoof, Bugsy Malone).
Sidney Greenstreet's marvelous fat man here is portrayed by a woman, Madame Barrabas (Alison Skipworth). She too doesn't really inspire much to make the movie a winner (or even a not last-place loser, for that matter). Arthur Treacher shines somewhat in the role that is supposed to parallel the Joel Cairo character, although if you've seen some of Treacher's other roles, I imagine you won't find him too impressive here.
The only real highlight is a squeaky, flighty secretary to the Ames-Shane agency, Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson). She almost literally carries this movie on her back. You may find yourself wishing she would come back on screen and improve it one hundred fold. I enjoyed every scene she was in, and it is she that keeps this "comedy" from being a true clunker in my vocabulary.
There is no "MacGuffin" called a Maltese Falcon in the movie, even though the picture claims the novel as the basis for it. Instead there is a horn of Roland, filled with fabulous jewels. Of course, as with the other two versions of the movie, the characters are doomed to disappointment when the "horn" actually shows up. (At least they got that part right.) The movie was critically panned by many of the critics of the day, including Bosley Crowther, who called it a "cynical farce of elaborate and sustained cheapness".
Unless you are a completist and just want to see all three versions of the film (or want to watch every movie that Davis or one of the other actors made), I highly suggest you avoid this one. It's hardly worth the time, even for a comedy.