By Ed Garea
The Maltese Falcon (aka Dangerous Female WB, 1931) – Director: Roy Del Ruth, Writers: Maude Fulton, Brown Homes (s/p), Lucien Hubbard (uncredited), Dashiell Hammett (novel). Stars: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson, Walter Long, Dwight Frye, J. Farrell MacDonald & Agostino Borgato. B&W, 80 minutes.
Those new to classic film are usually surprised to learn that not only was there an earlier version of this iconic film, but also how much it’s like the 1941 remake, which is considered by critics and film historians to be the definitive version. Those of us who have spent years watching classic films know that Warner Bros, frequently recycled its films. In fact, the 1941 version was the second remake of the 1931 original. In 1936 the studio remade the 1931 version as Satan Met a Lady, with Warren William, Bette Davis and Alison Skipworth in the Kasper Gutman role. (This version is so different and so wretched it deserves its own review.)
Having read the novel and seen the movie as a teenager, I was a big fan of Hammett and his writings. I saw the 1931 version in college and marveled at its faithfulness to the text. Over the years the love of both these movies and the author never left me. And I spent many an hour reading obscure articles on the author, the book and the movies.
The main difference between the 1931 and 1941 versions is the transcendent issue of care. In 1941 great care was taken to ensure a good movie. The screenplay and the cast were chosen after careful deliberation and the director, though a novice, went to great lengths to ensure the movie’s quality.
For anyone who has not seen the ’41 version or read the book, the plot goes as follows: Sam Spade (Cortez) and Miles Archer (Long) are private eyes hired by the attractive Ruth Wonderly (Daniels) to tail a nefarious character named Thursby, suspected in her sister’s disappearance. Archer opts to follow Thursby but is shot and killed in doing so. The police are suspicious of Spade. Complicating things is the fact that Spade was engaged in an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva (Todd). The police then discover Thursby’s body, also shot to death.
Spade needs to clear himself. Wonderly hires him to protect her but is evasive on the details. Spade discovers that she and three other criminals named Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are after a jewel-encrusted falcon, yet no one admits to having it. What does the bird have to do with deaths of Archer and Thursby? Will Spade find the real murderer before the police pin rap on him? And is he falling for a client he knows he can’t trust?
Both ’31 and ’41 versions adhere to this basic plot. The difference is that Spade is shown to be much more of a womanizer than he is in the ’41 version. We first meet him as a woman is leaving his office. We don’t see her face, but we do see her adjusting her stockings, which spells out what was going on behind the closed doors. Right after she leaves, Spade is kissing his secretary, Effie (Merkel) on the neck and giving an admiring glance to her posterior before cleaning up his office, which suggests it was in use as an adult playpen.
The relation between Spade and partner Miles Archer (Long) is much the same as in the 1941 version. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, and we’re pretty sure Archer is aware of it, but doesn’t care.
After Spade is notified of Archer’s murder, he goes down to the scene of the crime. Things follow as in the ‘41 version except for the fact that, while leaving, Spade stops to chat in Chinese with a local merchant. (this scene is not in the book, either.)
In then ’31 version Ruth spends the night at Sam’s apartment and while she sleeps he sneaks over to her flat and searches it, looking for the falcon, convinced that she knows where it is. However, he finds nothing.
The introduction of Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer happen for the most part as they do in the ’41 version, though in Huston’s version there is more emphasis on Gutman, thanks to a wonderful performance by Sydney Greenstreet. Gutman is accompanied by his right hand man, Wilmer (Frye), who plays the role much like Elisha Cook does in the later version.
The ’31 version now plays out like the later version, with Gutman drugging Spade after Cairo tells him the falcon is due in on a boat from China; the bird being dropped off at Spade’s office by Captain Jacoby (Borgato) before he dies from gunshot wounds; and Spade returning home after hiding the falcon to find Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer, and later Ruth (who was hiding) waiting for him.
Sam insists that he will deliver the statue as soon as they agree on a fall guy in order to clear him with the police and Gutman reluctantly agrees to hand Wilmer over. When Effie delivers the statue to Sam at his apartment, they discover it is valueless. Wilmer uses the opportunity to escape through the kitchen window, while Gutman and Cairo stick up Spade and demand all of the money they’ve given him returned.
Wilmer later kills Gutman and Cairo while Sam accuses Ruth of killing Miles. Though he has fallen in love with her, he turns her over to the police. In a departure from the book, we see Ruth at her trial, where she is identified by an eyewitness from Chinatown – the same one who was talking with Spade on the night Miles was murdered. Ruth is convicted and sent to prison, with Sam receiving a political appointment as a reward.
The differences between the ’31 and ’41 versions have everything to do with the economic climate of the times. In 1931, Hollywood was holding on by a thread, weathering the effects of a depression that seems to be getting deeper rather than tapering off as other depressions and panics had in the past.
The philosophy of Warner Bros. in 1931 was to make movies, make them fast, and then get on to the next one. The novel, about a crew of low-life characters in pursuit of a legendary jewel-encrusted bird, seemed perfectly suited to be filmed.
As in the book, Sam Spade has well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man, seducing female clients and even having an affair with his partner's wife. As in the book, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are homosexuals. Gutman, refers to Wilmer, as his "gunsel," which is prison slang for both a hired gun and a passive homosexual.
Director Roy Del Ruth staged the film to emphasize its sexual mystique. Ruth Wonderly spends the night in his apartment, Spade tells her he’ll sleep on the couch, but when she awakes the next morning, there’s an obvious indentation in the pillow she's not using to suggest where he really slept. (It seems as if the writers added the line about Sam sleeping on the couch to put off the censors.) There was also a scene added during the confrontation at Spade’s apartment. Sam, suspecting Ruth of stealing $1000, confronts her in the kitchen and makes her strip to prove she didn’t steal the money. Although she undresses out of camera range, Spade has a few articles of her clothing thrown in his face. When the censors later objected to the scene, studio production chief Darryl Zanuck tried to assuage them by saying that because she didn’t throw her underwear at Spade, the audience knew she wasn't naked.
Although the film's gay element is somewhat subdued, it was far more apparent than in the ’41 version. For instance, at Spade’s apartment, Gutman fondles Wilmer's cheek while setting him up to be the fall guy.
As in the ’41 version, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer meet their demise off screen, del Ruth leaving it too the imagination of the audience. Huston merely has Spade telling then police about Cairo and Gutman about too leave town and warns them about Wilmer.
The final confrontation between Spade and Ruth occurs as in the ’41 version, the main difference being that Bogart’s Sam Spade is not as indifferent as Cortez is in the Pre-Code version. For instance, Ruth cries, “Then you’ve been pretending. You don’t care. You don’t love me!” To which Spade can only reply, “Oh, I think I do. But what of it?” Bogart’s Spade doesn’t pussyfoot around, telling her that he can’t be sure of her loyalty, that someday, when it suits her, she’ll kill him. (“All we’ve got is that maybe you love men and maybe I love you.”) He also brings in a detective’s code about having to take action when one’s partner is killed; it doesn’t matter what you may have thought of him. And the final denouement is the epitome of the noir relationship: “I won’t because all of me wants to.”
The fatal flaw in the 1931 version is its complete lack of tension. We really don’t get the feeling that Cairo and Gutman are going to pose much of a threat to Sam Spade. This, I think, has much to do with the quality of the acting. Cortez, as Spade, grins and mugs his way through the film, and Dudley Digges and Otto Matieson are nowhere near the menace level of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who almost steals the ’41 version from Bogart. The only performance with noting in the 1931 version is Bebe Daniels, who is excellent as Ruth Wonderly, although she has nowhere near the acting chops of Mary Astor. Thelma Todd and Una Merkel aren’t around that much to make a proper impression; more’s the pity.
In the final analysis, the Pre-Code version is a wonder when first viewed, but repeated viewings bring out its weaknesses in comparison to the 1941 classic. However, it’s far more worth the time than the 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, which was so wretched that its star, Bette Davis, fled to England to get out from under her contract to Warner Bros.