Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Film Pairings — The Maltese Falcon And The Maltese Falcon Plus One More

The Maltese Falcon film most of us know and love is unquestionably the best.  But there was more than one American version.   There were three.

The Maltese Falcon (1931) – After seeing the 1941 version (several times), it is difficult to imagine other actors, or other approaches. However, for old film buffs (or is that simply buffs for old films?), this is an enjoyable movie, but falls well short of its now obvious potential.  This earliest version had Sam Spade as a shallow, well-dressed, smooth-talking, money-grubbing ladies’ man.  The pre-code era film played up the sex angle in this production, and the homosexual attraction between two of the crooks was not repressed as it was in the later version. The film starred an obnoxiously leering sexual predator — as we see it now — Ricardo Cortez as Spade and Bebe Daniels as the sexy, double-crossing vamp.

Satan Met A Lady (1936)  — This little curiosity was filmed in between the original film and the classic. It starred Bette Davis, who was reportedly having a tough time in her career and Warren William in the Bogart part.  It’s pure speculation on my part, but after the incredible film success of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man in 1934, the studio wanted to remake the original Falcon in the fashion of the successful light-hearted Thin Man comedy mystery.  It didn't’ work on so many levels it’s hard to count. They added nightclub scenes so that a dapper Sam Spade could be seen as a worldly Nick Charles. The writers traded wise guy barbs for an attempt at witty banter and had a smarmy Warren William struggle with William Powell’s copyrighted combination of smart and silly, resulting in a difficult to take dandified version of Sam Spade. Warren William is no Powell and legendary as she is, Bette Davis is no Myrna Loy. The best fun here is seeing the delightful Marie Wilson and a young Arthur Treacher in supporting roles. Though entertaining in retrospect, Satan bombed and didn't help Davis resuscitate her career.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) — and while the first Falcon is entertaining, the second attempt a failure, the third won the championship. I cannot possibly know what was in Hammett’s head, but I always thought he succeeded in creating two classic but different literary characters in Sam Spade and Nick Charles.  I also suspect they are created from the extremes of his own personality.  Spade was a reflection of Hammett’s early career as a detective for Pinkerton and Charles a reflection of his high-living, carefree aspiration. The Maltese mystery as it was recreated in 1941 was the tale of a  tough, steet-wise character who, despite temptation, was true to his convictions. Yet the end was tragic — the noir formula missing from the other two versions. Another lesson that comes with looking at these films side by side is how important supporting roles can be. The 1941 film is solid all the way through. We not only appreciate Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in this one, we are enamored of the secondary characters as well, the subtly menacing crooks played by Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook. Ward Bond also appeared as did Walter Huston who directed.

Drinks for the evening? These aren’t gritty crime films for the most part.  Drink something civilized for heaven’s sake, martinis, sherry, even champagne.  For the non-drinker, a spritzer without the alcohol.

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