The Maltese Falcon (Three Versions, 1931-1941)

The Maltese Falcon

The following article is a review of three film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon: the pre-Code Maltese Falcon (1931), the bizarre comedic Satan Met a Lady (1936), and the superb film noir version (1941).

Synopsis: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Sam Spade is a private detective working in San Francisco. A woman identifying herself as Miss Wonderly appears in his office one day and asks for his help: she claims her sister is visiting the city in the company of a disagreeable man, and Wonderly wants the two separated. Spade’s partner Miles Archer takes over the case and agrees to shadow the man, Thursby, but that evening both Miles and Thursby are shot dead.

The next day, Spade meets up with Wonderly, who explains that she and Thursby were involved in a plot to capture an illusory, legendary, jewel-studded falcon statuette that has been smuggled around the world by treasure hunters through the ages. Spade begins a romance with her. Through Wonderly, whose real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Spade meets Joel Cairo, a cosmopolitan dandy; Caspar Gutman, the orchestrator of this most recent plot to steal the falcon; and Gutman’s lackey Wilmer. They are all in on the conspiracy to obtain the statuette, are not afraid to destroy anyone who stands in their path, and promise Spade a great deal of money if he will help them to locate it. In the end, Spade comes into possession of the falcon, but when he reveals it to the group, they chip away at its protective black exterior and learn it is a fake. Cairo and Gutman leave in pursuit of the real falcon, Gutman is subsequently killed, and Spade turns O’Shaughnessy into the police for the murder of Archer.

The Maltese Falcon (1931). 80 minutes. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Starring Bebe Daniels (as Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (as Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (as Caspar Gutman), Una Merkel (as Effie Perine), Thelma Todd (as Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (as Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (as Miles Archer), and Dwight Frye (as Wilmer Cook).

The 1931 Maltese Falcon is the first film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. It has many pre-Code elements: Sam Spade refers snidely to the police investigating Archer’s death as “sweetheart” and suggests that they are homosexual. (Still, it should be noted that the movie does not go so far as to imply that Joel Cairo and Wilmer are lovers, as the novel does.) In addition to jokes about sexual orientation, the movie takes pains to suggest that its protagonist has a prolific sex life with women. The first person we see in the movie is a woman from the legs down, adjusting her stockings. She has just been to see Sam in private, and he has a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door. It does not take much to imagine what they have been up to. In addition, we learn that Sam’s new acquaintance Miss Wonderly spends the night in his bed wearing the borrowed peignoir of another of his romantic regulars, his partner Miles Archer’s wife. And the detective uses his secretary Effie—with whom he is, shall we say, rather friendly—to assess the sexual features of prospective female clients.

Sam is, as you may have gathered by now, a lothario, well played by actor Ricardo Cortez who infuses the character with a fair amount of mirth and a sense of bemusement. Cortez lacks the hard edge of the 1941 movie’s Humphrey Bogart, and the other characters also seem lighter. Caspar Gutman, for example, is literally less fleshed out; the actor Dudley Digges who portrays him is significantly slimmer than Sydney Greenstreet. Miss Wonderly is captivating here but also less mysterious. When Wonderly talks about lies, lying, and not knowing what is a lie and what is the truth, actress Bebe Daniels does not deliver the lines with the intrigue of Mary Astor in the 1941 movie. We never get the sense that Daniels’s Wonderly is a puzzle—we never even learn about her true name, Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Surely one reason that the characterizations feel somewhat lighter and a bit more tepid is that the dialogue, while similar to that of the book and the 1941 version, lacks the intensity and the quick delivery of the 1941 incarnation. But the movie also feels lighter because it does more than either the novel or the 1941 version to tie up loose ends. For example, Archer is shot in Chinatown, and when Spade arrives on the scene, he speaks with a man in Chinese. We learn later on in the movie that this man was identifying Miss Wonderly as Archer’s killer (none of this is in the novel). Additionally, at the movie’s conclusion, Spade is promoted to the DA’s office and visits Wonderly in prison, commanding the prison matron to lavish Wonderly with treats at his expense while she serves out her sentence (this is also not in the novel). And in this version, both Cairo and Gutman are gunned down at the end in a kind of punishment (only Gutman dies in the novel). When we think of pre-Code movies, we may think of suggestive sexual content, which this movie has in abundance; but the 1931 Maltese Falcon also demonstrates that some pre-Code movies, although risqué, had a more conservative side. Pre-Code films could be subject to conventional happy endings and laden with neat resolutions just as Code-era movies were.

Still, the 1931 Maltese Falcon is enjoyable. If we did not have the superior 1941 version, we might think of the 1931 version even more fondly. If you have ever wondered what a more easy-going, less dark version of the 1941 story might look like, this is your opportunity. It actually works well as a more sex-charged tale about a detective who enjoys himself a fair amount. The movie leaves us thinking that things could be much worse.

Satan Met a Lady (1936). 74 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Starring Bette Davis (as Valerie Purvis), Warren William (as Ted Shane), Alison Skipworth (as Madam Barabbas), Arthur Treacher (as Anthony Travers), Winifred Shaw (as Astrid Ames), Marie Wilson (as Miss Murgatroyd), Porter Hall (as Ames), Olin Howland (as Detective Dunhill), and Charles C. Wilson (as Detective Pollock).

Indeed, Satan Met a Lady demonstrates how much worse they could be. Bette Davis famously did not want to make this movie, and it is not hard to see why. It is one of the worst movies of the 1930s that I have yet seen. Part of this has to be because we know how rich the written material that it draws from is, part of it is because we know how good the version that succeeds it is, and part of it is because Satan Met a Lady is so objectively awful. Screenwriter Brown Holmes changed the names of all of the original characters for this version, perhaps to protect the innocent. The result is a movie that feels like a pathetic echo of something great.

All of the characters are loathsome, from Bette Davis’s Miss Purvis (a.k.a. Miss Wonderly) to Alison Skipworth’s Madame Barabbas (this movie’s version of the Gutman character). Even Warren William, who can be charming in other films, is fairly repulsive here. His character Ted Shane (the Sam Spade character) refers to himself in the company of women as “Papa Shane,” suggesting that he is some kind of creepy sexually benevolent father. It is not clear why women are attracted to him here.

Satan Met a Lady is unbelievable and over the top from start to finish. For example, Mrs. Ames (Mr. Ames is this movie’s Miles Archer) greets Shane in front of her husband with a lengthy and inappropriate kiss on the lips; we cut away to her husband, who looks depressed and forlorn, and then cut back to her, still kissing Shane full on. It is an absurd scene. The absurdity continues as the characters search for treasure. In their pursuit, Shane and Travers (Travers is Joel Cairo) ransack multiple residences, slitting cushions with knives, sending stuffing everywhere, breaking furniture, smashing light bulbs, and so on. I feel I hardly need mention to prospective treasure hunters that smashing light bulbs will likely not help to reveal the location of sought-after valuables.

No matter: none of the characters exhibit much reason or sense, and all of them are hell-bent on developing into increasingly ludicrous caricatures. When Travers destroys Shane’s apartment, he brings his own sherry and stores it in Shane’s kitchen, then offers some to the detective when he returns home. Shane shrugs off the destruction of all of his worldly belongings and gladly accepts the drink, thus demonstrating that he has no attachment to private physical belongings and no emotional interior. It is as if in a weird way the movie is trying to outdo the novel, one of the most important examples of hardboiled detective fiction, by making its characters so tough as to be senseless, laughable. For example, Shane cannot wait to reveal himself to Purvis, Madame Barabbas, and Travers from his hiding place on the docks towards the end of the movie, but he does not even stop to check if another character who has collapsed next to him in a hail of gunfire has been shot dead or is still alive. I am not saying that at that point even I cared very much, but I objected to his negligence on principle. Why should we find anyone so comically detached amusing? I could go on and on. Watching Satan Met a Lady is like watching a cartoon of human behavior.

You might think that at least there would be some pay off as far as the treasure is concerned, but there is no mystery in this story and the treasure is an embarrassment. The object that the characters obsessively pursue, not a Maltese falcon but the ridiculous-sounding and insipid-looking medieval horn of Roland, is decidedly underwhelming. When Shane acquires the horn late in the movie and holds it wrapped in paper on the docks, it looks like a leg of lamb. Unwrapped it looks like a cheap toy. According to legend, it is stuffed with rare jewels—but if you were going to stash a fortune in precious gems somewhere where they would be safe for the ages, would you really choose a ram’s horn? To compound the matter, I noticed that the scene where the horn is unwrapped and prodded is not only staged ineffectively (it takes place on a wet dock at night crowded with bulky cargo crates), but it is also not scored, with the result that the movie does not feel as though it has a distinct climax.

The screenwriter took his title from a description of Sam Spade in Hammett’s novel, where in a hyperbolic moment the author writes that Spade is a kind of blond Satan. It is not a coincidence that Satan Met a Lady takes one of the most exaggerated moments from the novel and uses that as its name. This approach is fully in keeping with the premium that the movie places on the over the top and unbelievable. If this were another movie, I might spend time exploring how Satan Met a Lady stresses the demonic side of Shane/Spade and what that means for the narrative, but here I am afraid my critical energies would be wasted. The whole thing is a goofy ineffective joke.

The Maltese Falcon (1941). 101 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Sam Spade), Mary Astor (as Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Gladys George (as Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (as Joel Cairo), Lee Patrick (as Effie Perine), Sydney Greenstreet (as Kasper Gutman), Jerome Cowan (as Miles Archer), Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Wilmer Cook), Barton MacLane (as Lieutenant Dundy), and Ward Bond (as Detective Tom Polhaus).

One way that we can appreciate the superior nature of the 1941 Maltese Falcon is simply by observing its treasure. Unlike the novel and the 1931 version, the 1941 characters do not see the unwrapped falcon until the final scene, when they attempt to chip away at its black veneer. When we finally see it, it seems like much more than a statue, glowering with a menacing intensity and strange psychic energy in a close-up reserved especially for it. The falcon resembles treasure from some fascist regime, and yet at the same time when we look at it, it is easy to believe for a moment that it is the falcon of legend, a relic from another time. The scene where it is chipped at is thrilling, devastating. The music swells, and Gutman’s panic is palpable when he comes to realize that the statue is not genuine. As a result of the movie’s careful presentation of the treasure and the characters’ passionate investment in its recovery, the story is infused with suspense, mystery, and a sense of the other-worldly.

The film revolves around a single object, but it is what the characters have to say in their pursuit of that object that captivates us for most of the running time. Nearly all of the dialogue is iconic and closely related to the speeches of the novel. I think of O’Shaughnessy’s speech about the statuette: it is “a bird, a hawk, a falcon, smooth and shiny”—the lines emerge from her in a forceful staccato. There is also her wonderful speech about “lying and making up lies, not knowing what is a lie and what is the truth,” in which it becomes clear that she is lying even about that (“Well, don’t brag about it,” Spade chuckles in response.) Or there is Gutman, who states effusively as he gets to know Spade over drinks that he “like[s] a man who likes to talk” and “detest[s] a close-lipped man.” Or there is Joel Cairo who explains with characteristic elegance after a night at Spade’s apartment in which he was attacked by O’Shaughnessy, “Our previous encounters have not been such that I am eager to continue them—forgive me, but I speak the truth.” And of course, there is one of Spade’s last speech, where he tells the police who have come to arrest O’Shaughnessy that the fake falcon is “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

The actors are all at their best. Gutman needs Sydney Greenstreet to fill him out (in more ways than one). Joel Cairo should be as fussy, creepy, and pusillanimous as Peter Lorre. Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy is an enigma—it is not clear if we ever encounter the real her. Every character is a unique, forceful, and independent creation, stylish and intriguing. The 1941 Maltese Falcon takes it as a given that people are capable of presenting themselves thoughtfully with sophistication and wit, even when they are stealing, lying, and killing people (and each other). In this universe, people (both good and bad) are fascinating microcosms, infused with intrigue, duplicity, greed, and the unknowable. How many other stories like this one are lodged within Joel Cairo’s hotel, we might wonder? How many other schemers are on the ship that the conspirators burn in the harbor? The potential for humans to lie, covet, and plot is great, the film says, but the potential for humans to be complex and fascinating is also great. Of all of the adaptations, the 1941 Maltese Falcon understands this the most.

The 1941 movie is also in many ways one of the first recognizable film noirs. It has the dark city landscape, the many scenes at night, the hero who himself is significantly tainted by the murkiness of the urban environment, the femme fatale, the feeling that we are learning a disturbing truth about humanity and its propensity for crime, and the devastating ending. And yet it does this mostly through the use of only a few sets: primarily an office, an apartment, and a few hotel rooms. The 1941 Maltese Falcon does not have the look of a very expensive movie, and the environment seems somewhat scrubbed clean, just as it does in Hammett’s novel. Yet we would never think of it as cheap, nor would we think its sets inadequate. It is just that there is so much to focus on with the characters that we hardly notice what is not there.

The 1941 Maltese Falcon elevates its source material to sublime heights but achieves its own creative independence. If you have read the novel, the movie will undoubtedly impress you. If you have not read the novel, however, the movie will stand on its own for you with is gripping pace and its stylishness. Through its expert use of suspense and rich characterizations, it remains one of the most seductive and sophisticated mysteries ever filmed and rightfully establishes the standard by which classic films are measured.