Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Maltese Falcon (1931)

A decade before Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade in the classic THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), the Dashiell Hammett novel was filmed with Ricardo Cortez playing the famous gumshoe.

This pre-Code version of THE MALTESE FALCON is really quite good. Cortez plays Sam Spade as more of a ladies' man, charming his partner's wife (the ill-fated Thelma Todd), his secretary Effie (a charming Una Merkel), and the mysterious, seductive client Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels).

The familiar characters are all there, including Caspar Gutman (Dudley Digges), Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson), and Wilmer, the hired gun (Dwight Frye). Robert Elliott and J. Farrell MacDonald play the police officers trying to solve a growing number of murders.

This being a pre-Code, some of the scenes are a bit surprising: The movie opens with Sam obviously having had a fling on his office sofa with an unseen woman; Sam and Miss Wonderly spend a night together; Miss Wonderly enjoys a bath (rather like Joan Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY) and is later strip-searched by Spade looking for missing money; and Spade refers to Wilmer as Gutman's "boyfriend." As classic film fans are aware, once Hollywood began serious enforcement of the Production Code in mid-1934, the industry pulled back from allowing slightly racy moments such as these.

The film's pace slows down a tad as Sam repeatedly negotiates with Gutman and Cairo, and the ending lacks the poetry of the Bogart version, but otherwise this is a crackling, sophisticated version of the famous story which is quite entertaining. I liked Cortez as the unrepentant ladies' man who's always looking out for No. 1, and Daniels was terrific as a woman of many stories, perhaps none of them true. Merkel was also sweet as the loyal Effie; I would have enjoyed it if she'd had more screen time.

This was the third film seen this week which was directed by Roy Del Ruth. He also directed LADY KILLER (1933), viewed earlier today, and BLONDE CRAZY (1931), seen last week. All three films have been fast-paced and entertaining. THE MALTESE FALCON runs 79 minutes.

THE MALTESE FALCON is available on DVD in a three-disc MALTESE FALCON set or as part of the Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection Volume 3, which includes the same MALTESE FALCON discs. Along with the 1931 and 1941 versions of the film, the MALTESE FALCON set also includes a 1936 version, SATAN MET A LADY, starring Warren William and Bette Davis. There are a few issues with the print, particularly some speckles and threads in the last reel, but for the most part it looks quite good.

The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.

This version of THE MALTESE FALCON had a VHS release under an alternate title, DANGEROUS FEMALE. DANGEROUS FEMALE was also used as a title when it was shown on television, I assume to distinguish it from the better-known 1941 version.

The movie can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. A clip from the film is on the TCM website.


Blogger barrylane said...

Your assessment of the material is spot on. Una Merkel and Bebe Lyons are most appealing. But, the Bogart-Huston picture trumps the 1931 version by miles.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

I haven't seen this version but did see the version with Bette Davis (SATAN MET A LADY) and thought it was poor.
I can't see beyond the Bogart classic.
But I would like to see the early one.I'd like to see more of Bebe Daniels.

9:43 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

1021 racmmiltertene 13808130 toornpokVienna,

Right. This version is of interest. Though Cortez is not Bogart.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I don't think any of us disagree that the Bogart version is in a class by itself! :) Everything "clicked" on that one to make movie magic.

That said, this version is good viewing taken on its own terms. I'd like to know what you think when you see it, Vienna. My dad and I have been discussing Bebe Daniels Lyon recently as he has been watching a lot of Harold Lloyd films in recent months. I'd like to see more of her work too. I enjoyed her in REGISTERED NURSE and COUNSELLOR AT LAW as well as 42ND STREET.

I'm curious about SATAN MET A LADY -- have read it's not as good, but the lead actors are intriguing.

Best wishes,

10:05 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

FYI -- Looks like some strange characters got into Barrylane's last comment but I think it's still readable --

Best wishes,

10:07 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Sure did, Laura. Have no idea what that was all about. But, had Bogart and Huston been able to collaborate in 1931 we might have gone through the roof.

11:03 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Satan Met A Lady is unfocused. The story is similar but not the characterizations.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Yvette said...

I saw this last year, Laura. I'm a BIG fan of Ricardo Cortez (LOVED him in Charlie Chan and Murder Over New York) I enjoyed watching him as Sam Spade very much.

Thanks for reminding me that maybe I want to see this film again.

I miss Ricardo. :)

10:19 AM  

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