Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Three Faces of The Maltese Falcon, Part One: The Maltese Falcon, 1931

Hey, I didn’t see this at the Book of the Month Club!
One of my favorite Christmas presents I received from Vinnie is a gift that we both enjoy to this day:  the three-Disc Special Edition DVD set of The Maltese Falcon (TMF for short) I received from him last Christmas!  What a treasure trove!   It contains a stellar print of writer/director John Huston’s classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel about cynical private detective Sam Spade’s adventures with the alluring bur treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, alias  Miss Wonderly, alias Miss Leblanc, and a bevy of greedy no-goodniks vying for the titular falcon statue.  But wait, there’s more: this set also includes the first two TMF adaptations, including the first two movie adaptations: an entertaining and informative documentary The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird; and oodles of fun extras, including Humphrey Bogart’s movie trailers, a “Night at the Movies” compilation, including newsreels, cartoons, trailers, the whole shebang; Warner Bros. movie blooper reels; and even an audio-only TMF radio adaptation starring  two of Team Bartilucci’s favorite actors: Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade, and Laird Cregar as Casper Gutman!

One Magnificent Bird is chock-full of info about both Hammett and the films—including the fact that the name “Dashiell” is apparently pronounced “Da-SHEEL, at least according to TCM’s beloved Robert Osborne.  I swear, ever since I became a Hammett fan back in my teens, I’d never heard the “Da-SHEEL” pronunciation   before.   Of course, I usually just read Hammett’s name, as opposed to hearing it said out loud, but the few times I did hear the name “Dashiell” pronounced, it was always as “DASH-ell.”  Go figure!  Nit-picks aside, all kind of fascinating folks with lore about Hammett’s life and the creation of his fiction are interviewed in One Magnificent Bird, including, among many others, Hammett‘s granddaughter Julie Rivett; writer/directors Larry Cohen and Peter Bogdanovich; Frank Miller; Henry Rollins; actors James Cromwell and Michael Madsen, presumably interviewed for the documentary because they’ve starred in such hard-boiled crime films as L.A. Confidential and Reservoir Dogs; Eric Lax, Humphrey Bogart’s biographer, who also provides an excellent commentary track for the superb 1941 TMF DVD; and Joe Gores, author of the mystery novel Hammett, filmed in 1982 by Wim Wenders, starring Frederic Forrest (The Conversation) in the title role; and Elisha Cook Jr—Wilmer Cook  in his final role as a cabbie!

Dr. Cairo is no match for our man Sam!
Think he makes house calls? 
In real life, the dark cloud of Hammett’s ill health ironically had the silver lining of turning Hammett into a renowned author.  A resident of San Francisco, Hammett had chronic pulmonary problems, forcing him to retire from his career as a Pinkerton detective, as well as forcing him to live apart from his daughters and his then-wife.  To fill his spare time, Hammett began writing stories and novels inspired by his Pinkerton experiences, including Red Harvest.  This was the uncredited inspiration for the Akira Kurosaka film Yojimbo, as well as being influenced over time by Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing and The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, who even has a character in the film who looks like Hammett!.  And of course, don’t forget Hammett’s great novels The Thin Man and The Glass Key, among many others, eventually being adapted for the movies!  In any event, when Hammett’s first novel was published, it was a best-seller, with Hammett being favorably compared to Ernest Hemingway’s work!

The first film version of The Maltese Falcon came out in 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth (Ziegfeld Follies; Born to Dance).  It was known variously as both The Maltese Falcon and Dangerous Female, but for convenience’s sake, let’s call this version Maltese 1.  This 1931 version was reviled by reviewers, but it was a big hit with moviegoers during those Pre-Code days!   Our private eye protagonist Sam Spade was played by Ricardo Cortez.  Born Jacob Kranz in Austria, Cortez came to Hollywood during Rudolph Valentino’s heyday, so the publicity machine turned him into a Latin lover type, albeit without the cliché Latin Lover accent.  Cortez’s films and TV appearances included films  I Am a Thief; Behind Office Doors; The House on 56th Street, among others).  Fun Fact:  Cortez’s brother Stanley Cortez was twice nominated for Oscars as Director of Photography, for The Magnificent Ambersons (1943) and Since You Went Away (1945), as well as an American Society of Cinematographers, USA Lifetime Achievement Award! Screenwriters don’t always agree with the original authors, and Hammett was no exception.  Still, like many writers, they were paid by the word, so they were quite at peace with padding the word-count when necessary.  Hey, writers have to eat, too!  So here’s Hammett’s description of Sam Spade, straight from Chapter 1 of The Maltese Falcon:

Sam sure knows how to reassure
a client, especially pretty ones! 
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin jutting a v under the more flexible v of his mouth.  His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead.  He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

Sam doesn’t look much like Humphrey Bogart, does he?  For that matter, neither did Warren William’s character in the second film version, Satan Met A Lady (1936), but we’ll discuss him and that delightful underrated comedy (yes, a comedy!) in our next installment!   In any case, unlike Cortez or William, both of whom concentrate on the Lothario aspect of Spade’s personality, Bogart had Spade’s cynical, wily-yet-basically honorable attitude down perfectly—more about that when I discuss the 1941 version in depth in our upcoming big finale; but I digress!  In Maltese 1, Cortez is all smooth moves and toothy smiles, which he flashes even while he’s trying to speak!  By any chance, did Cortez have a contract with a big toothpaste company?

"Iva" idea Hot Toddy's too clingy for Sam’s liking!  
Anyway, Cortez’s Sam Spade may or may not always get his man, but he sure does get his women!   We first see Spade as a silhouette kissing and fondling a female silhouette behind his glass office door.  When Spade isn’t ravishing his female clients, he’s slyly making time on the side with his secretary, Effie Perine (a playful Una Merkel ); talk about perks in the office!  As if that wasn't enough office drama, Sam's partner's wife Iva (Thelma Todd—“Hot Toddy” herself, in happier times) is still crazy about Sam, but he's tired of the needy Iva getting all clingy on him all the time.  Clearly Sam isn't interested in wedding bells despite Iva's wishes, but no doubt Iva won’t let Sam go without a fight!  Ah, but there's nothing like a murdered partner to change things, and when your partner's bumped off, you're supposed to do something about it, so the sleuthing begins!  No doubt it's also partly because the Hays Office hadn’t completely succeeded in spoiling moviegoers’ naughty film fun!  When Spade isn’t ravishing his female clients, or Iva, or the mysterious Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels from 42nd Street),  he’s kissing office secretary Effie and who knows who else.  It’s a miracle Sam gets any work done at all, but it sure looks like fun.  Lucky for Sam, that little tease Effie likes it and the story’s set in 1931, or Spade would find himself slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit!

I’m always intrigued at the elaborate wording of the credits of films of this era, like “Screen Play and Dialogue by Maude Fulton & Brown Holmes.”  Don’t screenplays automatically have dialogue?  Holmes is also credited with the script for Satan Met a Lady (1936) which I also think of as Maltese 2, and which you'll see sometime next week.  Good thing the writers left the writing to John Huston for the classic 1941 version! Like many early talkies I’ve watched, I found Maltese 1 had a slow pace.  It’s only 78 minutes long, and yet to me, the time seems to crawl by for my 21st century attention span.  Having said that, I found the 100-minute Maltese 3 1941 version seemed to fly by because I was so caught up in the crackling intrigue and the dazzling performances.  Still, I’m impressed with how closely the 1941 version held, having me spellbound with suspense and snappy dialogue. 

Just how squeaky clean is Miss Wonderly? 
Sometimes it adhered a little bit too closely.  For instance, in the 1931 version of the film, Ruth Wonderly, as Brigid is named in this version, sleeps with Sam.  But while she sleeps, Sam stealthily ransacks the apartment for the Falcon, taking the joint apart in his search.  Yes, it’s true to the novel, but the plodding pace and static camerawork drains the scene of any suspense that this scene might have had; even Cortez seems bored.  By the way, all three versions leave out the scene from the novel with Gutman’s daughter waylaying Spade, as well as my own favorite bit, Sam’s Flitcraft story, but even I realize they’re not truly essential.  Besides, as I've said, I’ve always suspected that Hammett included the Flitcraft story simply to increase his paycheck, since he was being paid by the word.  Hey, Hammett had to eat, too! TCM’s Frank Miller says, “The Maltese Falcon earned solid reviews and did well at the box office, but its shelf life was limited.  Four years after its release, threats of national boycotts of ‘bad movies’ inspired the studios to accept strict Production Code enforcement  under the decidedly tough Joe Breen.”  And what a fascinating cast:  Dwight Frye as “gunsel” Wilmer Cook; Dudley Digges as a more slender, almost more comical Kasper Gutman.  Much of the dialogue in  Maltese 1, is devoted to plot exposition, as opposed to the classic 1941 version’s storytelling style: sleek, economical, more showing, less telling.  While John Huston was a master of dialogue, he also reminded us viewers that film is a visual medium.

Hold onto your hat, Wilmer, they’re selling you out!
Even the establishing shots of San Francisco somehow manage to be slow-paced; the legend “San Francisco”  lingers onscreen so long, I found myself thinking, “All right already, we know it’s San Francisco!”  It didn’t help that the music by the Vitaphone  Orchestra, conducted by the usually capable Leo G. Forbstein, sounded to me like an Italian concerto for hurdy-gurdy and violin; I half-expected a street musician  with a monkey to stroll onscreen.  But then, keep in mind that if I’d been alive in 1931, I’d think this was cutting-edge music, so feel free to take my comments with a hefty helping of salt!
As portrayed by Bebe Daniels (42nd Street), Ruth Wonderly came across to me as more like a miffed flapper than a beguiling, mercurial femme fatale.  Cortez utters the famous line to Daniels about “the throb you get in your voice…” when she begs for Sam’s help, but her so-called throb is barely perceptible.   Indeed, Sam cheerfully mocks Ruth like a he's teasing a bratty little sister; certainly no match for the palpable throb in our beloved Mary Astor’s voice in the 1941 masterpiece!

Joel Cairo gets upgraded to the Eurotrash Dr. Cairo, as played by Otto Matieson (Surrender!; Beau Ideal).  He’s not as memorably colorful as Peter Lorre in the 1941 version, but he’s still just as overdressed and exotic. Dr. Cairo also tends to inexplicably turn up out of nowhere in Sam’s  apartment when Lt. Dundy and Det. Sgt. Polhaus (played here by Robert Elliott and J. Farrell MacDonald) show up, which doesn’t work as well as the 1941 version with Sam, Dr. Cairo, and Ruth; somehow I simply didn’t feel any sense of urgency or suspense.  

Then there’s Dudley Digges as Caspar Gutman, the formidable “Fat Man.”  Digges tries hard, but he comes off as more of a slimmer, sweatier Falstaff than Sydney Greenstreet.  On the positive side, Dwight Frye, Dracula’s Renfield, adds another great supporting role to his repertoire as Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s gunsel in every sense of the term! 

Next time: The 3 Faces of The Maltese Falcon: Satan Met a Lady (1936)


  1. Dor, what a great idea for a series. I've heard about this 1931 version, but have never had the chance to see it. It sounds rather juicy!

    What a wonderful gift – to have all three movies plus the book. Ah, that's how you know it's true love. :)

    This is a wonderful review. I'm looking forward to the rest of the installments!

    1. Ruth, you're a sugar bowl with 2 handles -- high praise here at Team Bartilucci HQ, you know! :-D Beaucoup thanks for your enthusiastic post. By golly, when I love a movie, I want to know everything about it that I can. I hope you'll enjoy the upcoming SATAN MET A LADY and of course, the classic MALTESE FALCON, too! Thanks for being a great friend as well as a gal with swell taste in movies! :-) Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday to you and yours from all of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ!

  2. It sounds like each Maltese Falcon movie is as unique as the actors who portrayed the characters. Nice reviews.

    1. Eve, we of Team Bartilucci HQ are happy to have you join our "3 Faces of The Maltese Falcon" conversation! You make an excellent point about how each version of ...FALCON and their stars are indeed as unique as the actors portraying them. We hope you'll enjoy the upcoming posts, too!

      Thanks for being a pal, Eve, and have a Merry Christmas and, Happy New Year, and enjoy everything you and yours will celebrate during this holiday season, and beyond! :-D

  3. I enjoyed this version much more than I expected to, being devoted to 1941s take. One thing that stands out for me is the sets. Oh my gosh, how I would love to have all of that space and all of that furniture. I think eliminating the coda with Sam visiting Brigid in the clink would have been a good idea, but they didn't ask me. We will not confuse things with the fact that I wasn't around.

    I have gotten to the point where I don't even mention Mr. Hammett's first name any more. All my life I pronounced it as you did, and then Osbourne burst my bubble. I find that happens a lot when I watch TCM. Sigh.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours. Let's raise a toast in honour of Dwight Frye.

    1. Caftan Woman, I loved your witty comments about the 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON, especially: " We will not confuse things with the fact that I wasn't around." I'm also glad you and I aren't the only ones who got farshemmelt (another Team B phrase) about our man Robert Osbourne and the way to say "Dashiell"! :-)

      A toast to you and yours and Dwight Frye as well, C.W. Thanks for being a friend and a terrific blogger, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year indeed to you and Dwight Frye! :-D

  4. The first version is a bit slow at times but I like it and its so damn sexy thanks to Bebe Daniels! The Bogie/Huston version is the best, and one of my all time favorites, but this is a nice alternate version. Had no idea about how Mr. Hammett's name has been mispronounced by so many over the years, including myself. I have this three disc set and agree it's great.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Vinnie and Siobhan

    1. John, despite my describing Bebe Daniels as a "miffed flapper" in the 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON, I nevertheless agree that she was also a hot little dish indeed! :-) I'm glad you're enjoying the 1931 version as well.

      Vinnie and Siobhan and I truly wish you and Dorothy a very Merry Christmas, and we hope you'll have a Happy New Year with more movie fun and frolic in 2014! :-D

  5. Hiya Dori-Tenore! I'm back again and very happy about it! I've missed you and your fun posts! I have the Ricardo Cortez version and the Bogart one. It was so fun to see the earlier version. What I DON'T have is the radio show with Edward G. Robinson and Laird Cregar! I love both of them, and would LOVE to hear this. I'm a big Ricardo Cortez fan, and was really excited to see Dwight Frye as poor Wilmer the "gunsel". I did a piece on Frye a long while back. I loved this article with all the history of the story. Good stuff as always, Dor!

    1. Becky, you've made this New Year's Eve all the more delightful because you've dropped by for fun and frolic here at Team Bartilucci HQ! "Dori-Tenore" had me smiling! The radio broadcast with our pals Eddie and Laird was part of the 3-pack with Cortez and Warren William, the latter of which I'll post over the weekend. If you have your Dwight Frye post, I'd love to read that one, too! We've really missed you, Big Sis, and we hope you continue to be happy and well, and looking forward to reading more of your wonderful writing with 2014 mere hours away! Happy New Year, dear Big Sis!

  6. Dorian, I did the Dwight Frye post for Rick's Cafe a while back. Here's the link:

    1. Thanks for sending me the Dwight Frye post, Becks! You did a wonderful job, my friend, as always! :-D

  7. hi
    i might go on people's nerves saying how I just "love" so many things, but I truly do when it comes to movies, and am a huge fan of Ricardo Cortez. This would not be in my greatest hits of his, but still I enjoy it a lot for him and all the glam you and commenters have mentioned. Ricardo was best as the slimy lothario, getting murdered by jilted ladies BUT having said that he was also wonderful in Symphony of Six Million as a decent misguided doctor, if you haven't seen it.
    This IS a great idea for posts, look forward to the thrilling conclusion :)

    1. Kristina, you never get on our nerves -- you're too full of smarts, charm, and enthusiasm with your terrific blog posts and comments! I got a kick out of your comment "Ricardo was best as the slimy lothario, getting murdered by jilted ladies," but it's nice to see he also had range in SYMPHONY OF SIX MILLION! Many thanks for your enthusiastic comment, my friend! I hope you'll enjoy my post about SATAN MET A LADY, too, and the the upcoming finale, the 1941 version of THE MALTESE FALCON! Thanks for your kind kudos, as always, and warmest wishes to you and your fam!